IMI Magazine

IMI Magazine

Talking Points

Hybrid vehicle development, September 2003

Toyota’s bid to put some oomph into hybrids

Philosopher Arnold Glasgow once noted: “The trouble with the future is that it usually arrives before we are ready for it.”

It’s an observation which could have been tailor-made for Toyota and Honda with their respective Prius and Insight hybrids. The motoring public looked at these environmentally worthy vehicles, yawned and decided it was better to stick with convention.

But Toyota, for one, continues to believe that hybrids are the future and is doggedly pursuing ways to make them more appealing. The company recently and unobtrusively announced the launch of two new models, the Alphard and the Estima. Neither will be marketed in Europe but in their own way both, I suspect, will be instrumental in changing the way all of us drive in the near future.

Alphard and Estima are both fitted with what Toyota calls Hybrid System-CVT. This features a high output hybrid battery and an electric 4WD system that involves an electric motor driving the rear wheels, plus a 2.4-litre petrol engine driving the front wheels via a CVT transmission.

The promise is that these new hybrids will simultaneously achieve high fuel efficiency, low emissions and, critically, outstanding driving response. Prius and Insight achieved impressive economy but at the expense of performance and range.

Though the Alphard and Estima are not destined for the UK, the technology they employ most certainly is – and soon. It will feature in the new Toyota Prius, due for launch in this country in early 2004, followed by the Lexus RX300 HSD later in the year.

It’s the RX300 that is, in my opinion and that of Lexus GB director Karl Schlicht, the most significant of the lot.  When I spoke to him recently, he was understandably elated at the early sales success of the RX300, which outsold all its direct rivals in its first month on sale.

But there’s more to come, he said, explaining: “We will shortly be selling a hybrid version that will offer the performance of a V8 combined with the economy of a small diesel car, and all in an SUV package that offers comfort, practicality, space and flexibility.”

He didn’t go so far as to claim that the Hybrid RX300 would be a leading contender for the Perfect Car Award, but had he done so, it wouldn’t have been a totally outlandish suggestion.

It looks as if Lexus may have found a motoring Holy Grail – in developing an environmentally-friendly technology that also results in a healthy dose of the all-important driving pleasure.

And that is important, because although the current Prius was very frugal and impressively clean in terms of emissions, the car simply failed to set the world on fire. The point was conceded at the launch of the new Prius by Masao Inoue of Toyota’s product planning division, who commented: “Whilst the Prius achieved all of its environmental goals and appealed mainly to those customers with a heightened sense of environmental responsibility and social conscience, it failed to draw in customers from a wider audience.” The reasons, suggested Inoue, were relatively high price for its size and a lack of ‘fun to drive’ dynamic image. Hence the promise with the new Prius to deliver more performance, more style, more driving pleasure and, needless to say, even more fuel economy. It also will offer a first in that the driver can choose to drive in wholly electric mode, and thus avoid congestion charging in London, or be used in other urban areas where normal cars are prohibited.

It is claimed that the new generation 1.5-litre Hybrid Prius will offer the drive performance of a 2.5-litre conventional vehicle and the fuel efficiency of a 1.0-litre vehicle.

“Our goal,” said Inoue, “was to eliminate any reasons why the Prius should be rejected as an alternative to, for instance, diesel or high-efficiency petrol-engined cars on the grounds of cost or not being fun to drive.”

Talking of costs, Karl Schlicht promises those of the Hybrid RX300 will be reasonable when it arrives in the UK late next year: “Look at the way Toyota has dealt with the costs of hybrids in the past. At the outset, it subsidised the cost of batteries and the new technology to a very high degree. But as time has gone on, and more hybrids have been manufactured and sold, so the subsidies have been reduced,” he said. “Of course the RX300 Hybrid will be subsidised to an extent but Toyota is not a charity. It is a company that takes a very long view and in time it will get its due rewards from leading the introduction of these new technologies to a wider driving public.”

Those rewards may be coming sooner rather than later because Toyota has already sold a cumulative total of 130,000 hybrid vehicles around the world and its aim is to boost annual production to 300,000 vehicles by as early as 2005.

The argument for hybrids is getting clearer by the minute. Even leaving aside the environmental case, there’s also an imperative for UK fleets to take a closer look, if only because of the whole life cost implications.

The Prius is eligible for a Government-funded rebate of £1,000 on the purchase price. The car is also placed in the lowest band for vehicle excise duty; it is subject to a lower company car tax grading than a similarly-sized diesel car; it is exempt from the London congestion charge; and it qualifies for free resident parking permits in some boroughs of the capital. Presumably, much the same will apply to the Lexus RX300 in due course ... I wonder if Lexus dealers are already taking deposits?