In tuning, what are standard conditions?

Posted on August 16th, 2016 in Driving Emotion,Economy,Engine Management,Honda,testing by Julian Edgar

It’s been cold hereabouts, and I have been doing some more on-road tuning of my MoTeC-equipped, turbo Honda Insight.

(But before I get to the subject of this column, a point on the DIY tuning of programmable engine management. In short, it’s the best fun-for-$ expenditure you can ever make on a car.

Why? Because after you’ve bought and fitted a system, you’ve just gained a pastime you can do for literally ever. There is always – always! – a tuning change you can make that will cause the car drive fractionally better in a given situation, or to develop slightly more power, or to use a little less fuel.

In short, buy programmable management and you’ll never need another hobby or leisure activity!)

So anyway, this time I had the car on 98RON and there was an ambient temp of 5 – 10 degrees C.

Over the last two years I’d have tuned the ignition timing maps on this car for literally hundreds of hours. That might seem to indicate that I’m rather slow at it, but in fact more accurately reflects the statements above about gains always being able to be made – and also the fact that the little Honda is very sensitive to ignition timing variations.

As an example of the latter, it’s one of the very few cars that I know of that requires some negative timing figures if it is to avoid detonation. That’s especially the case at low revs and when only one intake valve per cylinder is working (ie VTEC is off), so giving very high combustion chamber swirl.

I do the on-road tuning of the ignition timing using a microphone temporarily mounted in the engine bay (clipping it to the throttle cable works well). This microphone feeds a small amplifier and I listen on headphones. With this system I can not only clearly hear detonation, but I can also hear the harsher edge the engine develops just before detonation.

In addition to the headphones – and the laptop on the passenger seat – I also have another trick up my sleeve. A dashboard-mounted knob allows instant variation in ignition timing of plus/minus 10 degrees.

So I drive along (lots and lots of empty country roads around here), listening to the engine through the amplified headphones. I might be at 2000 rpm, full throttle in 4th gear, the engine just coming onto boost and lugging hard up a hill. VTEC is switched on. (So that the engine will readily accept boost pressure, I have the engine switch to two-valves-per-cylinder operation from 1750 rpm upwards at full throttle. The engine doesn’t like it so much if only one-valve operation is occurring as it comes onto boost – in this non-VTEC mode, I have heard turbo compressor surge.)

Anyway, in these conditions, where change is occurring relatively slowly, I manually advance the timing with the dash knob and listen carefully. If the car clearly goes harder (almost always) and there’s no sign of detonation (or its precursor sounds), I pull over and add some timing at that spot overall ignition timing map. Then repeat the process….

Now you know why it takes me so long!

Anyway, finally to the point of this column.

As with all programmable management systems, the M400 has a base timing map (it uses RPM and MAP axes) and then a series of correction maps. These corrections include coolant temperature and intake air temp. Because, as I’ve said, the Honda is very sensitive to timing variations, I use all these correction maps.

Let’s take a look at intake air temp – and how I influence it.

I regulate intake air temp by using a water/air intercooler and variable pump speed. If the intake air temp is below 35 degrees C, the pump stays off. Depending also on throttle position, as the intake air temp rises above that figure, pump speed increases. Together with the effect of the thermal mass of water within the heat exchanger, the upshot is that in nearly all conditions of ambient temperature and boost, the intake air temp stays within the range of 20 – 50 degrees C.

Initially, I’d intended to aim at an intake air temp of around 45 degrees C (the higher temp better for fuel atomisation and so fuel economy), but I found that to avoid detonation, timing had to be retarded at this intake air temp. I then reconfigured the water/air intercooler pump map (ie I turned the pump on earlier) to aim at an intake air temp of around 35 degrees C.

So, all well and good. On this basis, the main ignition timing map would be configured optimally for 35 degrees C, and the intake air temp correction map would knock off timing as the temp rose above this.

Hmm, but what about when it is very cold, like it has been over the last few days? I’ve seen intake air temps lower than I’d ever planned – around 25 degrees. The intercooler water pump is off, but the air entering the turbo is so cold that even with spurts of boost, the water within the intercooler heat exchanger is staying at less than 35 degrees.

And in these conditions I’ve been hearing precursor sounds of detonation through my headphones.

Is it because the density of air (and so cylinder filling charge) is greater, resulting in higher combustion pressures? That is, the greater mass of air (more likelihood of detonation) is more than offsetting the colder air (less likelihood of detonation)? And so do I pull back timing at lower intake air temps (ie less than 35 degrees C) as well as at higher intake air temps (above 35 degrees C)?

And do I therefore accept that, in the real world, the engine will probably never be running the timing as specified in the main chart – after all, while intake air temp might occasionally be at 35 degrees C, stopped at traffic lights in might be 40 degrees, and down a long country road hill it might be 30 degrees – and so on…

And how do I correctly tune this intake air temp correction map? After all, to do it accurately I’d need road test ambient temps that range from -10 degrees C to plus 50 degrees C.

And, thinking about that, I have in fact tuned at the high intake air temps. Early in the tuning process, in the middle of summer and with an ambient of about 35 degrees C, I can remember doing repeated 0 – 160 km/h runs, flat out and working the little car as hard as I dared. I was tuning the high temp ignition timing correction chart (and also revising how much boost gets pulled out in these conditions – another variable!).

Looking out the window as I type this early on a Sunday morning, it’s frosty and foggy, about 0 degrees C. I should, I think, get away from this desk and hit the road for some tuning…

It’s a process that will literally never be finished.


Manufacturing decline not always as analysed

Posted on June 18th, 2016 in Economy,Ford,Holden,Mitsubishi,Opinion,Toyota by Julian Edgar

I have just finished reading a book on the manufacturing decline that has occurred over the last 60-odd years in the UK. It’s called The Slow Death of British Industry and is subtitled A Sixty Year Suicide 1952 – 2012. It covers, decade by decade and industry by industry, the decay in making things in what was once a great manufacturing country.

The industries it covers include car manufacture, ship building, aircraft design and construction – and also more obscure industries like pharmaceuticals. It describes the companies that fell by the wayside, were absorbed by others, or ended up being split into so many entities that their whole reason for existence simply disappeared…

Companies like Dorman Long (builder of the Sydney Harbour Bridge), Parsons (the inventers of the steam turbine) – and car brands like Wolseley, Triumph and Jowett.

The book catalogues in excruciating detail the union bloody-mindedness, the inept management, the worthless interventions of government, the confusion in direction and execution.

And visiting Britain’s wonderful technological museums (as I have done) where you can see Concorde; the SR.N4 hovercraft; the remains of one of the crashed Comets; the beautiful Jaguar E-type; the fastest steam locomotive in the world (the Mallard); the world’s first code-breaking electronic computers; the Sinclair electronic calculator – it makes this whole story of UK manufacturing success and decline come alive.

But there are some things missing in the analysis. They’re the same things missing in many analyses that occur here in Australia of our similar (but smaller scale) decline in domestic manufacturing.

Firstly, quoting massive reductions in the share of employment that manufacturing comprises in the economy is to miss the point that such changes have occurred in all first world countries. For example, that’s the even the case in countries like Germany and France that are often cited as manufacturing powerhouses we should be emulating.

In much the same way as primary industry (farming and mining) once dominated employment, these days, tertiary (service-based) industries now create most employment. That decline in the share of employment held in manufacturing jobs is exactly what you’d expect with greater mechanisation, use of robotics and so on. We wouldn’t want to be hand-building all our cars, one at a time, as was once done. Productivity would be terrible and cars would be unaffordable. So, of course machines will replace people, manufacturing productivity will improve and employment in the sector will decrease as a proportion of total employment.

Secondly, ignored is that the decline in local manufacturing is based entirely on a reduction in demand for those goods. If the pubic, the buyers, choose not to buy locally made goods – and instead buy imports – then of course (unless they are competitive in exports), local manufacture will decline.

In other words, to be brutal about it, uncompetitive domestic companies go broke. They may be uncompetitive in technology, in branding, in price, in innovation – in all cases, consumers vote with their wallets.

So we hold a major collective responsibility for manufacturing in our country declining. The person who blames the Federal Government of Australia for the loss of car manufacturing in this country – that is, the loss of Toyota, Ford and Holden – often has a Nissan Patrol in their driveway, or a Honda, or a BMW. The person who complains that the last Australian-built washing machine recently came off the production line is the same person who has never bought an Australian-made washing machine.

Thirdly, and as an extension of this idea, globalisation, free trade agreements and geographical shrinking of the world through information technology has increased the flexibility with which consumers can make choices. I source electronic modules on eBay from China; they’re bought from either the manufacturer or wholesaler of these products. I can remember when some such modules, able to be sourced only from local retailers, cost me over ten times as much and would take a month to be delivered.

I can very much empathise on a technological history level with the loss of once great companies, once great manufacturing enterprises.

But that’s a completely different perspective from saying that we should all have paid more for inferior goods– and so on a societal level have had a lower standard of living – to prop up manufacturing companies that had become uncompetitive.

I think that in the future, commentaries on the decline of manufacturing will appear to be as relevant as those that bemoan the fact that most people no longer till farms for a living.



My year

Posted on December 7th, 2014 in Aerodynamics,AutoSpeed,Driving Emotion,Economy,electric,Honda,Hybrid Power,Intercooling,Opinion by Julian Edgar

Well, it’s nearly the end of the year, and I have been reflecting on my busy car modification 12 months.

All the modifications I have done have been to my little Honda Insight.

Fitting a turbo, water/air intercooler and making and fitting a new airbox. Installing a MoTeC M400 ECU, and then doing all the engine mapping on the road. Fitting a MoTeC CDL3 dash, and then upgrading to an ADL3 dash.

It’s been a huge amount of fun turning the all-alloy, two-seater Honda hybrid into a fuel-efficient turbo with about 70 per cent more power than standard from its 1 litre, 3-cylinder engine.

None of these mods was cheap, but all gave the results I’d been hoping for.

And in the last few weeks I have been playing with the suspension. And, so far, this has been cheap! I calculated the required specs for new springs front and back, sourced them at near zero cost, then installed them. That step was very successful, so then I fitted a new rear antiroll bar – this time, for a cost of less than fifty bucks.

The car is absolutely transformed in both ride and handling – and I am yet to fit the new dampers, which at the time of writing, are on their way from the US.

Sitting in the corner is the next Insight modification – a Tritium Wavesculptor200 high voltage electric motor controller. It will be used to run the Honda’s standard 10kW electric motor, although not always at only 10kW. Given the nature of electric motors, I should be able to over-rate it for short periods, gaining perhaps 20kW for huge short-term torque.

I plan on controlling the Wavescluptor200 using outputs from the MoTeC ADL3 dash. The dash – really, a digital control system that happens to have a display – has a full range of programmable maths functions and can use 3D look-up tables.

The new high voltage battery pack and battery monitoring system? I am yet to decide on these things.

I don’t know if I will achieve my final aim of 0-100 km/h in the Sixes and fuel economy in the high Twos (litres/100km), but the challenge is enormously exciting and rewarding.

In the meantime, we’re off to the United States for five weeks. We’ll be concentrating on the eastern side of the country, and have on our itinerary a long list of technical and automotive sights – and sites. We hope to next year bring you a series in AutoSpeed that describes some of what we see.

Finally, I also published another three books this year – if you are interested, search on Amazon under my name.

Have a safe and happy Christmas and New Year, and remember: for fun and challenge, nothing beats modifying your car!

Picking gauges

Posted on April 2nd, 2014 in Economy,Honda,Hybrid Power,testing by Julian Edgar

It’s not often that you get a clean slate in terms of designing an instrument panel.

With my Honda Insight project, where the standard instrument panel is being ditched and replaced with (primarily) a MoTeC CDL3 digital dash, to some extent the type of display becomes obvious – it’ll be dominated by the MoTeC unit.

But what about the factory-fitted warning lights – things like ABS, EPS (electric power steering) and airbag malfunction indicators? And how will high beam, low beam and the action of the indicators be shown? And will there be data that I will want to be able to see but the MoTeC dash won’t easily show?

Despite the dash not likely to be installed for many months, I’ve been mulling over these ideas.

At this stage – and things may well change – this is what I am thinking I’ll need:

Warning lights for:

 – high beam

 – low beam

 – left indicator

 – right indicator

 – EPS

 – ABS

 – airbag

 – handbrake / braking system fail


Small backlit numerical LCDs for:

 – high voltage battery voltage

 – electric motor current flow


MoTeC dash display of:

 – engine rpm

 – coolant temp

 – fuel level

 – road speed

 – manifold pressure

 – intake air temp

 – gear

 – oil pressure

 – oil temperature

 – turbo exhaust back-pressure

 – water/air intercooler pump drive voltage

 – 12V battery voltage

Some of these MoTeC-displayed parameters (eg intake air temp and rpm) will be communicated via the CAN bus from the M400 ECU.

One parameter (selected gear) will be internally calculated in the dash, while other parameters (like oil temp and pressure) will require dedicated sensors.

Note that the MoTec dash allows different data to be displayed depending on the mode selected – so not all of these things will be available all at once!

On the list above there are a couple of unusual ones.

I want to be able to see turbo exhaust back-pressure because, in order to provide low rpm torque, the turbo that is being used is small. However, if as a result of its small size, the exhaust back-pressure is overly high, then fuel economy will suffer. It’ll be good to be able to see this figure.

So why show the water/air intercooler pump drive voltage? The pump will be varied in speed by the ECU. This is needed because I want to control the intake air temp, rather than just keep it as low as possible. For much of the time, I would expect that the pump will be operating at less than full speed. Displaying pump drive voltage will allow me to see at what speed the pump is being driven. Not only will this be interesting in itself, it will also allow me to assess how effective the control strategies are that are being used to operate the pump.

As I said, all still a long way off, but I need to start sourcing bits and installing sensors right now.

Hybrid taxis

Posted on March 30th, 2014 in Hybrid Power,testing,Toyota by Julian Edgar

I recently spent some days in Darwin teaching people in government how to write clearly. It’s a long time since I’ve been in Darwin, and the growth and increasing affluence of the city was plain to see.

But the thing that fascinated me more than anything else in Darwin was the proliferation of Toyota hybrid taxis. The Prius, Prius V and Camry hybrid just dominate the taxi fleet.

Watching the few non-hybrid taxis sit there in ranks, waiting for customers with the car engines running to keep the air-conditioned cabins cool, it struck me how Toyota hybrids have a clear fuel economy advantage in these conditions.

And what’s that? Well, they can have the air con compressors and cabin fans operating with the engine switched off – until the HV battery gets low in charge, anyway.

One Prius taxi I went in had a dash displayed fuel economy of 7.5 litres/100km (horrendous for a Prius) but with the car being driven abysmally, and with all that time stopped with the air on, that was probably a pretty good figure compared with a conventional drivetrain.

(Yes the HV juice that runs the air con still needs to come from the petrol, but an engine is less efficient at idle than when driving the car, so overall, the fuel economy would benefit with the hybrid approach. Not to mention the battery juice achieved through braking regen.)

When I was in Germany a few months ago, there were many Prius taxis in the ranks – oftentimes, as many of the hybrid Toyotas as there were Mercedes and Volkswagens. I don’t think that fuel economy in those cool German cities would be a stellar advantage to the hybrids over diesels, so that brings up another taxi advantage. The Prius driveline is basically bulletproof – the engine, power split converter and electronics give extraordinarily little trouble. (That’s not just lucky – Toyota went to enormous pains to ensure that hybrids wouldn’t get a bad reputation through poor reliability.)

Taxi operators are among the hardest economic heads operating vehicles – they will use a car only if there is an overall economic benefit. So compared with other manufacturers, the taxi purchase / maintenance cost equation must be highly competitive for the Prius.

Wouldn’t it be funny if one of the greatest advances in car technology in the last 80 years – hybrids – ended up entering the mainstream through the back door of taxi use?

Old but fun

Posted on December 2nd, 2013 in AutoSpeed,Opinion,Toyota by Julian Edgar

So the other day I was in Adelaide for three days. Usually, I would hire a car, but this time a friend offered me something to drive.

The car was a 1998 Toyota Starlet, 2-door base model.

How base? No clock, no tacho, wind-up windows, manual (not power) steering. But equipped with a 4E-FE 1.3 litre DOHC EFI engine and 5 speed manual trans. I reckon the car’s worth about $1500.

Within moments of picking it up, I loved it!

What did I love about it?

Firstly, it was – to use an old term – so nippy! It was super responsive to the throttle, and I’d guess most of its city nippiness came from what seemed to be very low gearing. (No tacho, so I couldn’t tell for sure.) So, you see a hole in traffic to lane-change into – and pow!, you could be filling it.

And the car was small! You get so used to the apparently inexorable growth in dimensions of cars that you actually forget what a small car is like. The Starlet was small enough that a Toyota Echo alongside in traffic seemed huge. The Starlet wasn’t a joy to park (the manual steering being quite heavy at low speeds) but in traffic, and for that matter on winding roads, the small size made it a delight.

And the vision! I’ve written before about the stupidly small window area being used in current cars, and the Starlet was simply nothing like that – it showed how it could be done. Big rear glass, large side glass, thinner pillars….good vision everywhere.

I even got the opportunity to punch it along a tight country road – and again I thought it a lot of fun. On its tiny 165/70 tyres it did well, and the steering weight in that situation was perfect.

OK, OK – it sure as hell is a car I wouldn’t want to have crashed in. And its NVH was bloody awful – it was quite wearing to drive long distances.

Would I want to drive an old Starlet all day, every day? Not on your life!

But jumping into an old, basic car startlingly showed strengths that are being lost in current cars: throttle response, size, vision….and maybe just even just the element of fun.



The Falcon to die

Posted on May 28th, 2013 in Automotive News,Driving Emotion,Ford,Opinion by Julian Edgar

If you follow cars in Australia, I am sure that you have heard the news. Ford has decided to stop building cars here, and unless there is a radical change of mind, production of the Falcon will stop within a few years.

This has occurred primarily because of dwindling sales of the Falcon – a car that went from selling around 75,000 units per year in 2002 to about 12,000 in 2012.

That is a tragedy: a tragedy for the workers directly employed by Ford, and also for the workers of supply companies that will now likely go broke. It is also sad for the country as a whole: having the capability to design and manufacture as complex an item as a complete car is not to be sneezed at.

But it is also the outcome of a bunch of utterly stupid management and product planning decisions made by Ford itself. For all the talk of high wages, the value of the Australian dollar and the like, no one should refrain from looking hard at what Ford in Australia chose to spend their money on.

The FG Falcon, released in April 2008, was a car characterised by utterly misplaced priorities, to an extent that was staggering then and remains staggering in retrospect. In 2008, the downwards trend in Falcon sales had been in place for four years. People were moving from the Falcon to smaller cars – or, conversely, to large and multi-purpose four-wheel drives.  Social and engineering change in the world of cars was profound: the Prius had been on sale for nearly a decade; fuel prices were only going to keep on rising; and people were looking for flexibility in their cars – the ability to carry five people one day, and then carry big items home from the hardware store the next. All of this was obvious… but not to Ford.

The day after the FG Falcon was released, I wrote in this publication:

It’s very hard to believe that the Falcon will not go the way of the Mitsubishi 380 – and for much the same reasons. High quality engineering directed in completely the wrong direction, aiming at a target that started to move a decade ago and has now gone…

After driving the car we published these notes:

Feels very much like Mitsubishi 380 in that the FG is a car that with exception of some minor electronics, could have been released a decade ago – nothing special in performance/economy, interior space utilisation, interior design, styling (inside and out). Highly competent car but at the things (eg handling, long distance cruising, NVH) that are not a priority for most people.

A ‘nothing’ car in terms of progress. Feels like design priorities were set for what would work in mid Nineties – RWD handling, long distance Australian road travel, inoffensive (and unexciting) conventional styling inside and out. Needs – far better fuel economy option (eg diesel, LPG on downsized engine), much better interior design (literally zero progress made here!), better centre dash ergonomics.

My summary in a full road test of the car was:

With the exception of crash safety and the electronic stability control system, the FG Falcon reflects the design priorities of a different era. In short, Ford apparently believes balls-to-the-wall handling to be more important than fuel economy, and in-cabin styling to be more important than practicality. Simply, the money could have been much better spent.

New engine options – including possibly a diesel – are apparently coming, but as the car stands right now, it’s the epitome of a botched opportunity.

Of course, the diesel never came. Instead, we had that Ford choosing to sell the car with an engine range that included two high performance, thirsty engines – a V8 and turbo six.

One hi-po engine – sure. But two? What did they think this was, the 1980s?

And the issue with wasting internal resources like this is that those dollars could have been put into something else – like fitting a four cylinder. It took until 2012 to do that…

In a column written in December 2009, under the heading of ‘Making very bad product planning decisions’ I said:

The car that this year amazed me the most was the Ford FG Falcon.

The model that I would think sells the best – the XR6 – was incredibly off the pace in the things that matter to most purchasers. All I can say is: what on earth was Ford thinking when they set the priorities?

But to be honest, I could not – and still cannot – believe how bad the FG Falcon is…. and ‘bad’ in the context of what the car is supposed to achieve.

Why on earth did the company spend lots of money on a new front suspension design and steering when out on the road, pushing the car to anywhere near its very high limits is illegal? To put this another way, in virtually all road use, what was wrong with the previous model’s suspension?

That (rumoured) $100 million spent on the new front suspension could have been used to make the air conditioning actually work and improve interior packaging – both would have had far more positive impact on potential purchasers than getting better turn-in at 150 km/h…

And the fuel consumption!

Forget the official government test figures: at a measured 12.5 – 13.5 litres/100km in the city, there appears to be no real-world improvement in a decade. That is simply unforgiveable.

The Falcon angers and frustrates me. The decisions that Ford’s myopic product planners took, in the face of overwhelming worldwide evidence, has cost this country – and Ford – a lot of jobs and money.

At the time these words were being published, our comments section (which unfortunately is not currently visible) was full of people saying how wrong I was.

The automotive journalists in Australia – every darn one of them – said how great the car was. Other than AutoSpeed, not a single publication suggested that the car was utterly wrong for the time and would be a flop – probably sending Ford under in terms of manufacturing in this country. “FG Falcon stuns” read one media test headline. Stuns for what – its inept direction? No, the test didn’t actually say that…

In fact, I was so amazed by the lack of criticism of Ford’s approach with the FG that I wrote a bitterly ironic column with the sole focus being how stupid the decisions underpinning the FG were. I called the Falcon The Ideal Car for the Times.

So why did Ford chose to make the decisions it did?

We will probably never know…. those who set the direction are hardly likely to confess – let alone, try to justify what they did. And sure, Ford was working within tight limitations regarding money and resources – but that just made it even more important that those product planning and engineering decisions showed an understanding of a changing car buying market – not to mention societal change on a broader scale.

But I honestly feel more depressed about it all than triumphant. I am sad to see part of Australia’s engineering and industrial heritage disappear…and once it has gone, you can be certain it will never come back.

Heavy cars

Posted on August 22nd, 2012 in Driving Emotion,Honda,Materials by Julian Edgar

My Honda Legend is the heaviest car I have ever owned. As a fan of light cars, the Honda’s mass is not something that fills me with joy – but as described elsewhere, it was my best choice based on a variety of factors.

So does it feel unwieldy – even lumpy? No it doesn’t. Particularly because of the yawing ability of its all-wheel drive system, it turns-in readily and feels poised and amenable to directional change.

Driving the car, especially over bumpy roads, you can feel its favourably high mass / unsprung mass ratio: the body tends to float over the bumps rather than drop into them, and there’s never the feeling of the car being ‘shaken by the wheels’ that occurs in vehicles with a low sprung / unsprung mass relationship.

So is it all sweetness and light – the 1855-odd kg doesn’t matter?


The Legend, despite its big brakes, is a car that requires clear effort to slow. Part of that effort can be seen in how quickly it blackens its front rims – even in gentle driving.

It also cannot get away from the disadvantages of its mass in fuel consumption. Particularly noticeable in open-road undulating terrain, the fuel burn when hauling its lard-arse up hills is high.

However, with lots of kg, a low Cd and relatively small frontal area, the Legend is a car that will roll a long way. Time and time again in the first month of ownership I have found myself committing that cardinal driver sin of going straight from the accelerator to the brake, rather than getting off the power sufficiently early that there can be a roll-down time in between.

I think it’s a good car… but I think it would be a better one at (say) 200kg lighter. That would have required all-alloy construction, something that another Honda I own (a first gen Insight) already has. (The – much smaller – Insight has a mass of just 827kg!) An all-alloy Legend I would guess at around 1600kg – still no light-weight, but more appropriate for its size and equipment level. I wonder why Honda didn’t do this? In the Australian market (at least) the car was underpriced compared to its Euro and Japanese opposition, so you’d have thought they could have worn the extra cost.

But whichever way you analyse it, the disadvantages of high car mass well outweigh(!) the advantages.

The Prius C is indicative of Toyota having lost its hybrid way

Posted on May 26th, 2012 in diesel,Economy,Global Warming,Hybrid Power,Opinion,Toyota by Julian Edgar

I think the new Prius C is indicative of Toyota having lost its hybrid way.

I write that with a rather heavy heart: anyone who has read my stuff over a long period will know that I previously embraced and relished hybrid technology.

The first hybrid I ever experienced, around the year 2000, was an NHW10 grey-market Japanese import Prius – it blew me away with its refinement, quality and fuel economy.

Back in 2003 I new-car-tested a hybrid Honda Insight – we did 3,500 kilometres in four days. The fuel economy? Just 3.6 litres/100km. The original Insight is the most fuel-efficient car ever sold in Australia.

In 2004 I tested an NHW20 Prius over 5,400 kilometres in seven days; I then called it one of the most fascinating cars you can buy.

As a magazine tester of new cars (a role I no longer play) I also drove two models of the Honda Civic Hybrid, and the hybrid Lexus GS450H, Lexus RX400h and Lexus 600hL.

I own a first gen Honda Insight, and for years I owned an NHW10 Prius that I first supercharged, and then turbocharged.

But I’m not wedded to hybrid technology.

My current main car is a mildly-modified 2008 Skoda Roomster 1.9 turbo diesel. It gets fuel economy in my use that varies from the high-fours (in litres/100km) to about 6 litres/100km. And that from a relatively old and low-tech diesel design.

I haven’t driven the current model Prius, but I’ve experienced a Camry Hybrid- and wasn’t much impressed. The fuel economy wasn’t outstanding, and the car drove with an uninspiring feel.

But with the release of the Prius C, I thought that things might be very different.

The lightest (1120kg) and cheapest (AUD$23,990) hybrid Toyota sold in Australia, the Prius C has an official fuel economy rating of 3.9 litres/100km. That’s the same as its big brother Prius – but surely that must be a quirk of the testing system… with the C’s smaller size and mass, and lower total power, surely there’d be a benefit to real-world fuel economy?

And boasting a host of advanced technologies – including a new inverter, motor and battery – you’d expect that this to be as good in fuel economy as a hybrid Toyota gets.

Well that might be the case – but unfortunately, these days, it just isn’t good enough.

Today I visited a Toyota dealership. It wasn’t with just prurient intent: if the car did what it was supposed to, I was quite prepared to buy one.

The presented i-Tech model (a higher trim level that costs $26,990) was OK inside, although definitely nothing outstanding. The interior room was alright (a tall adult could sit [j-u-s-t] behind a tall driver); the digital instruments were clear; the seats comfortable; the load area pretty small (and the rear seats fold to give a pronounced step in the floor); and the double-DIN upgrade nav looks like it should cost only about $400 through eBay.

But hey, it’s a small car that isn’t priced at luxury levels.

On the road, with three adults and a seven-year-old in the car, the transmission refinement was good, the steering welcomingly much heavier in feel than previous Toyota (and Lexus) hybrids, and the power was – well, a bit disappointing. The last Prius I drove, now an old-model NHW20, could on green lights wheelspin its way across intersections – the current Prius C had not remotely enough low-down torque to do that. But, again, it was OK – but definitely not scintillating.

But the fuel economy? Oh dear.

In a gentle drive, about a third through urban conditions and the rest on 80 and 100 km/h freeways, the car massively disappointed. It started off at about 6 – 7 litres/100 (not a problem; it was a cold start) and then gradually dropped to about the mid-Fives. With the ultra-economy mode then engaged, it continued to drop – reaching a low of 4.6 litres/100 and then rising finally for a trip average of 4.7 litres/100 for the 20-odd kilometres.

Well, isn’t 4.7 litres/100 really good?

Only if you have no better comparisons…

My 1999 (read that again – 1999, that’s 13-year-old technology!) Honda Insight in similar conditions would, I’d guess, be in the mid-Threes – but that’s in a car that is much smaller (only two seats) and is also much lighter. So in many respects it’s not a fair comparison.

But what about my Skoda Roomster? It weighs about 200kg more than the Prius C, has much better performance, vastly more interior space – and like the Prius C, has 5-star crash test safety.

Since we’d taken the Roomster to the dealer, I immediately drove exactly the same road loop just undertaken in the Prius C. We didn’t have the salesman aboard, but apart from that, the conditions were as identical as it was possible to make them – same speeds, same roads, same traffic.

And the fuel economy of the Roomster? It came in at 4.9 litres/100km.

Seeing those figures: 4.7 for the cutting edge, small, 2012-model hybrid Prius C, and 4.9 for the much larger, old fashioned 2008-model diesel Roomster, suggests to me that in the real world, plenty of current small diesels will match the fuel economy of the Prius C.

For me, the Prius C could not be justified in any way as a replacement for my existing car – the Roomster.

And so then you wonder – for whom would the Prius C be justifiable over other fuel-efficient cars? After all, why buy a car that is demonstrably far more complex, and has a battery pack that will one day fail, when the raison d’etre of the hybrid – fuel economy – is no longer stunningly better than the others?

The above statement really indicates that Toyota has lost its way: that the hugely innovative and technologically incredibly brave step that occurred with the release of the NHW10 Prius at the end of 1997, the move that saw car makers the world-over stare in disbelief and then turn towards hybrids – well, that technology is now more about selling cars on a gimmick rather than through demonstrable real-world advantage.

What a bloody shame.

Clock ticking for Falcon

Posted on February 26th, 2009 in Ford,Opinion by Julian Edgar

Hastened by the current world financial crisis and its effects on (particularly) US car makers, there is growing discussion in this country about the demise of the Ford Falcon model.

What to many people was unthinkable even only a year or two ago is now becoming an ‘it’ll probably happen’ scenario that while not palatable, is at least open for discussion.