The first Toyota Prius turns ten this year. Wow, eh?

It was back in the Clinton Years - grunge bands, slackers, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." Good times.

And so very long ago.

It's hard to get a grip on the fact that an entire decade has passed since that first-year Prius came out. I remember driving one - dubiously - and wondering who the heck would want one of these things (besides Ed Begley Jr.). At the time, gas was still cheaper than bottle water. The SUV craze was at full burn. Ford was riding high on the success of the massively grandiose Lincoln Navigator - which enabled the brand to out-sell Cadillac for the first time in memory.

We were feeling strong.

Surely, this awkward-looking, clumsy-feeling little drone would end up in the same dustbin of history as GM's EV1 electric car. People snickered.

What a difference $3 per gallon makes.

Today, the Prius is merely one among many hybrids available - though it continues to set annual records for Toyota, both in terms of sheer numbers sold as well as increased market share.

There are waiting lists - and you'll pay full MSRP to get one.

More than a million have been sold since '97, in fact. This year alone, Toyota expects to move more than 120,000 of them - a 75 percent uptick, by the way, since 2006 alone.

No lines for the Navigator today.

Its kind seem headed for extinction with each uptick in the price of a barrel of crude - now tickling $100 and with no end in sight. The lots are full - of last year's "new" models. Zero miles on the clock. But even with discount programs offering as much as six or seven thousand bucks off sticker, it's hard to move them.

As mass market vehicles, these mechanical Megalodons are probably unsustainable in a world of $90-100 fill-ups - which we may see within the next year or two, if prices rise (as expected) to $4 or more. Massive SUVs - today so commonplace - may well become little-seen oddities in just a couple of years, in a kind of reverse homage to the Prius - which was thought by many (including me) to be a guaranteed loser ten years back.

Doubt that?

Don't forget the hard lesson of the '70s. In the span of another, earlier decade - roughly from 1970 to 1980 - America's fleet changed face almost completely, courtesy of the initial uptick (contrived by OPEC and abetted by Uncle Sam's price controls) in gas prices. We went from 4,700 lb. Vista Cruisers with huge V-8s and rear wheel drive to 3,000 lb. K-Cars with four cylinders and front-wheel-drive.

We didn't like it - but we had to learn to live with it.

A respite came in the '80s - and lasted until about 2000 - during which gas prices settled down at a comfortable under-two-bucks-per level. This allowed vehicles like the Navigator to prosper - and set a grim table for machines like the Prius.

But it hung on - much like the small mammals scurrying underfoot 60-something million years ago - waiting for the comet to come.

Now there are a dozen or more hybrids in production - running the gamut from economy-focused commuters (like the Prius) to larger, work (and family) oriented vehicles just trying to eke out a few more MPGs. There are even high-performance (and luxury) hybrids, such as the Lexus LS600h.

Every automaker is scrambling head over heels to develop a hybrid - or expand on the models they currently have available. Toyota alone now has half a dozen, including the Prius.

Current gas prices - and the widespread fear that this time, it's not just a market-contrived (or government-caused) temporary flux but a harbinger of tomorrow's everyday reality - have become a mighty inducement.

The next step is "plug-in" hybrids (such as the GM Volt) that can sup on household current - dramatically increasing their ability to operate on pure electric power for longer periods. Some estimates have it that within another decade a third or more of all the new cars on the road will by hybrids of one kind or another.

Ten years ago, who woulda thunk it?

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