Nightmare on Toyota Street: The Death of the Gen 1 Prius (Or How New Cars Get Old Really Quickly)

Here at Transport Evolved, we often spend our time poring over brand-new cars with no miles on the odometer, all the features a new car buyer could want, and the best possible fuel economy imaginable. Sadly however, those cars often come with a price-tag which puts them outside of the affordability zone of many buyers.

Our regular Staff Writer Kate Walton Elliott is one such person. While a brand-new evolved car is out of the question, she’s on the lookout for an evolved form of transport in the form of an early Toyota Prius hybrid. The challenge? Not only do these early hybrids keep their price, but they’re also quickly becoming obsolete as their hybrid battery packs — now often near death after fifteen years of faithful service — become harder to source. 

With that in mind, Kate takes us on the trail of hunting down her next ride: an affordable, reliable example of a first generation Toyota Prius.

Looking for a first-generation Toyota Prius: evolved transport from the turn of the last century.

Looking for a first-generation Toyota Prius: evolved transport from the turn of the last century.

I’ve always been an aficionado of classic cars. Whilst I’ve owned a wide variety of vehicles, from a delightful and entertaining Mark I VW Golf (Rabbit, to US folks); to a recalcitrant DAF 44 and a recidivist Vauxhall Viva, I’ve generally stuck to the ‘classic’ car as being the best bang for my eco-motoring buck. Whilst classics have a number of challenges, many small classics, like the Austin 1300 I’ve been driving recently, can rival modern econoboxes for petrol consumption and have vastly more character.

Although as I tend to fish at the very bottom of the barrel, a character trait my cars have often had is one of ‘liking to spend time with me in the garage’ rather than ‘racing entertainingly around British country lanes’. I have often, therefore, been accused of buying cars with my heart rather than my head.

But recently while visiting family in Washington state, we spent a fair amount of time driving a second-generation Toyota Prius. When we returned to the UK to find our much maligned Austin 1300 was both still at the garage, and still not mobile, certain thoughts meandered through my brain.

Despite my strange predilection for cars that I feel a bit sorry for, I have occasionally managed to make decisions based on common sense.

Buying our first generation, Japanese-spec Mitsubishi iMiEV was a largely economical decision. I sat down with spreadsheets and sums and finally concluded that financially it made sense. Handily, it turned out that it’s also great fun to drive.

Looking for a bargain-priced, reliable example is proving a challenge

Looking for a bargain-priced, reliable example is proving a challenge

The Volvo 340 it replaced was also a research based choice. I liked the DAFs but they couldn’t hack the work they were meant to be doing and no local garages would touch them when I was too busy to work on them. Also, I could never get the benighted objects to run as well as the guy who turned up to buy one of them did in 20 seconds, despite hours of my tinkering and reading the manual (the latter it turns out was my error, it’s more faith than measurement on DAF44s).

And so, as I debate taking my career in a slightly alternative direction that may involve significantly more driving, I ponder that it might be somewhat unfair to a car as rare as the Austin 1300 — rarer still because it has an automatic gearbox from a Metro added to it — to add that many miles a year to it; and also, that it might be a source of significant problems if, as has happened this time, it spends a fair amount of time off the road for weeks on end.

That being the case, I sat down and poked ebay and UK-based classified site autotrader with my patented ‘bottom of the barrel hybrid poking stick’.

The problem is, as someone who runs just above survivalist motoring; whilst there are scads of unloved classics waiting to be pulled from obscurity, hybrids are both generally popular and fairly modern. It’s therefore a bit more challenging to find an unloved hybrid on the (at least relatively) cheap end of the scale.

Although I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the first generation Honda Insight, a car that faintly reminds me of the ill-fated GM EV1 and which looks properly futuristic, it’s also only got two seats and for someone who’s hoping to have a third family member this year; that’s not really wise. Also most of them are manuals, and I would prefer an automatic so my partner and I can share driving on long journeys.

Which really leaves the first generation Toyota Prius – by which I mean the Prius produced up until 2003.

After fifteen years though, many examples need their hybrid battery pack replaced

After fifteen years though, many examples need their hybrid battery pack replaced

Not as shiny, nor as loved as the Gen 2 Prius, and the earliest of the cars were grey-market imports (which’d go nicely with our Pre-UK spec iMiEV I suppose). It seemed like a possibility.

Brief aside; One of the difficulties of researching and writing this incidentally, is that there seems some difference in how people define the nomenclature of the Prius. Gen 1 has been used by some to refer solely to the Japanese specification Prius produced up until 2000. In contrast, others use it for everything up to 2003. I’m going with the latter definition.

I sat down and had a bit of a chat with Nikki, my go-to person on new-car stuff; if you consider fifteen year old cars as ‘new’ (which I do). I scanned her ‘should you buy one?’ article from last year (over at GreenCarReports), both she and I poked some more at various automotive sites and found some possible vehicles. There weren’t massive numbers of Gen 1 Priuses, but enough to give some options.

Then I started talking about maintenance and discovered, as with our iMiEV there’s a cautionary tale lurking. When the Prius first made an appearance in the UK it was before Toyota officially started importing it. The NHW10 / XW10 version of the Prius was designed and produced entirely for the Japanese market; but its marked popularity led to grey market imports into the UK, Australia and New Zealand. The export version of the Prius, the NHW11, appeared later with tweaks to the battery and motor.  But externally they look identical; at least in ebay photos. But pottering around on the UK’s roads are a number of these apparently unsupported grey-market Prii.

Inside, the first-generation Prius is practical but spartan

Inside, the first-generation Prius is practical but spartan

One of the cars I looked at has a ‘faulty hybrid battery’. As is often the case with my bottom-of-the-barrel surfing I then spent some time chatting to various independent repair companies to gauge the price of fixing this. Given that a 2000-on Prius battery ‘repair’ can be found as low as £450, a dead-battery’d Prius might be a good choice. It was then I heard a phrase I’m altogether too used to hearing. The parts are ‘no longer available’ and that these cars are ‘not economical to repair’.

I briefly paused in my railing about the awfulness of modern cars, and the concept that a 15 year old car should be destined for scrap because parts can’t be found, and spoke to my local Toyota dealer. Thankfully, it’s only one of those statements that appears to be true. A chat with my local dealer, who may not have realised that the battery pack differs from the UK spec ones, suggested a price of £2340 (plus VAT) would yield a shiny new pack. Given that’s nearly the price of a Gen 2 Prius, that’s not really worth it. But it does at least mean that the decision is mine.

Which leads us to the important part of this cautionary tale; always do your research when buying a car.

I’ve bought a mighty number of lemons and a few really excellent vehicles; and it’s always come down to research beforehand and not being hurried into a decision. So whilst I lick my wounds over an Austin that’s still in the garage, I’m at least happy that unless someone miraculously comes up with both a battery and a warranty for a Gen 1 pre-UK spec Prius, I’ll be cheerily avoiding that nightmare.

Still, I’ve got my eye on some later, official import, Gen 1 Priuses; so I may not be able to manage a full EV household just yet, but perhaps we can switch to a full hybrid/EV household.


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  • Esl1999 .

    I just saw a 2000 Honda Insight advertised for $2,700 here in LA and a few 2001 and ’02 Prius hybrids for $4,000. Something I just found out was that hybrids are smog exempt. That alone is one headache I’d love to avoid. I know a GEN1 Prius owner who says his battery is still good.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    I read that Dorman, a third party auto parts company, has Prius battery packs on offer at least in the US. Are they not supporting certain Gen1 designs? nnnI’ve also seen several YouTube videos on swapping out dead cells of a Prius battery to refurbish the battery to working status. There are many that are buying up available Prius batteries to use on solar/wind projects which may be raising the price on the used market. nnnIf an original battery has lasted 12-14 years, perhaps u00a32340 for a new one is not a bad deal. A newer battery should be even better (we would hope) and if the rest of the car is in good working order, it could last another decade. Does Toyota offer financing on new batteries? That would help quite a lot.

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