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.

My driving life is now changed forever…

Posted on April 3rd, 2009 in AutoSpeed,Driving Emotion,Economy,electric,Electric vehicles,Global Warming,Opinion by Julian Edgar

I feel like one of the first pilots of jet-powered aircraft. They immediately knew that they were flying the future: there could be no going back to pistons and propellers.

Today I drove the car that, for me, spells the end of the piston engine for performance cars.

The car was the all-electric Tesla, and its performance – and the way it achieved that performance – was just so extraordinary that I am almost lost for words. That a start-up car company has created such a vehicle is simply unprecedented in the last century of automotive development.

For the Tesla is not just a sports car with incredible performance (0-100 km/h in the fours) but also a car that redefines driveability. Simply, it has the best throttle control of any car I have ever driven.

Trickle around a carpark at 1000 (electric) revs and the car drives like it has a maximum of just a few kilowatts available. It’s the pussy cat to end all pussy cats: Grandma could drive it with nary a concern in the world. Put your foot down a little and the car seamlessly accelerates: heavy urban traffic, just perfect.

But select an empty stretch of bitumen and mash your foot to the floor and expletives just stream from your mouth as the car launches forward with an unbelievable, seamless and simply immensely strong thrust.

There are no slipping clutches, no flaring torque converters, no revving engines, no gear-changes – just a swishing vacuum-cleaner-on-steroids noise that sweeps you towards the horizon. The acceleration off the line and up to 100 km/h or so is just mind-boggling – especially as it’s accompanied by such undemonstrative effort. The car will do it again and again and again, all with the same phenomenal ease that makes this the winner of any traffic lights grand prix you’re ever likely to meet.

And it’s not just off the line. Want to quickly swap lanes? Just think about it and it’s accomplished. 

In fact drive the car hard and you start assuming that this is the only mode – outright performance. But then enter that carpark, or keep station with other traffic, and you’re back to driving an utterly tractable car – in fact, one for whom the word ‘tractable’ is irrelevant. Combustion engines are tractable or intractable; this car’s electric motor controller just apportions its electron flow as required, in an endlessly seamless and subtle variation from zero to full power.

It’s not just the acceleration that is revolutionary. The braking – achieved primarily through regen – has the same brilliant throttle mapping, an approach that immediately allows even a newcomer to progressively brake to a near-standstill at exactly the chosen point.

A seamless, elastic and fluid power delivery that no conventional car can come remotely close to matching; a symphony on wheels to be played solely with the right foot; an utterly smooth and progressive performance than can be explosive or docile, urgent or somnambulant – literally, a driveline that completely redefines sports cars.

There’s no going back – my driving life is now changed forever.

Footnote: the Tesla drive was courtesy of Simon Hackett of the ISP, Internode.

Changing the way you think about electric vehicles

Posted on March 17th, 2009 in Automotive News,Driving Emotion,Economy,Electric vehicles,Global Warming,Opinion by Julian Edgar

Today’s AutoSpeed article on electric vehicles is, as the box in the article states, based on a seminar given by Dr Andrew Simpson.

Dr Simpson produced the paper that we used as the foundation for the Assessing the Alternatives article we ran about a year ago – it’s amongst the very best of articles you’ll find in deciding which fuels vehicles should be using.

Andrew Simpson has just returned to Australia from four years in the US, where he worked at the US Government National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado, and then was a Senior R&D engineer at Tesla Motors.

I found his seminar quite riveting: it changed my views on a host of subjects relating to electric cars.

Colouring your street directory green…

Posted on February 25th, 2009 in books,Economy,Global Warming,Opinion,pedal power by Julian Edgar

The boom in GPS-based navigation systems must have seen a diminution in sales of book-based street directories. I haven’t seen the figures to support that, but it’s certainly what you’d assume to be taking place.

But the companies that produce street directories (and of course in many cases also supply the software for the nav systems) are fighting back.

Time for a Paradigm Shift in Pedal Power

Posted on February 3rd, 2009 in Global Warming,Opinion,pedal power by Julian Edgar

As I write this, I am on holidays – something that also won’t be the case by the time you actually read this!

In addition to doing four AutoSpeed stories, I’ve been spending the time cudgelling my brains over my upcoming Human Powered Vehicle project – a front-wheel drive, delta (two rear wheels, one front), recumbent, leaning trike.

I’ve looked through the articles I’ve previously done in AutoSpeed on recumbent pedal trikes (including the tadpole trike pictured above), and have been furiously scanning the web.

Recumbent bikes (where the rider sits back in a reclined seat, the pedals in front of him or her) make up only a tiny minority of bikes worldwide.

Recumbent trikes make up a small minority of that tiny minority – and recumbent, delta, leaning trike designs can be counted on the fingers. Of two hands.

Thus web searches have tended to return to the same sources, taking any one of a number of routes to get there.

As a result of the small number of web pages dealing with this topic, I have had a chance to re-read my posts to an online recumbent bikes/trikes forum, one that has a specific area for homebuilders. Before I was banned, I was almost pleading with those who had developed recumbent trikes to do some testing and measurement of their machines’ performance, so that the tiny community of scattered builders around the world could actually compare designs and see which approaches were best.

Seems an obvious request, but it was met with refusal.

For the Greater Good?

Posted on September 11th, 2008 in Driving Emotion,Economy,Electric vehicles,Global Warming,pedal power by Julian Edgar

Here in Queensland the State Government has issued a discussion paper entitled Improving Sustainable Housing in Queensland.

The paper canvases a range of requirements the government is considering implementing for the construction of new houses and units.

I think it astonishing how little government regulation has been applied to the energy efficiency of housing. Especially in the context of the media attention given to fuel-efficient cars, there seems to have been a deathly silence on what is surely the far more important area of housing.

After all, a typical house is going to be consuming energy for something in the order of five to ten times as long as a car, and will be doing so most hours of the day and night.

Family values and technological change

Posted on September 4th, 2008 in Driving Emotion,Electric vehicles,Global Warming,Hybrid Power by Julian Edgar

I’ve always been a little scornful of those parents who proudly proclaim their children’s knowledge and interests, knowledge and interest that are only a reflection of their parents’ particular knowledge and interests.


You know: “Benjamin can name all the players in the Adelaide Football Club”, proudly says the football fan – and stuff like that.


But now in having a child of my own, I can see that it happens rather naturally – the child is interested in what the parents are interested in, and that knowledge is transferred without effort.


So the fact that my four year old, Alexander, when looking over my shoulder at a book on cars that I am reading, can identify the old Citroens, Jaguar E-Types and Porsches, is perhaps not much of a surprise.


But this familial socialisation becomes interesting when you consider change, and the future.

Without radical action, the end could be near

Posted on August 25th, 2008 in Automotive News,Driving Emotion,Global Warming,Hybrid Power by Julian Edgar

I am starting to wonder if the problems that Ford and Holden are facing in this country with their large cars – the Falcon and the Commodore – are going to be possible to remedy.

Holden is now talking a whole range of environmental and fuel-efficiency measures – from E85 compatibility to reducing weight – and Ford, despite having just released a brand new model, has already made public the next engine option, a diesel.

As I have written previously, both companies have only themselves to blame for their current woes – they were happy completely ignoring the changing marketplace and blindly heading down an ever-increasingly irrelevant path. It’s obvious they expected the market to change to suit them, rather than build cars that suited the buying public. That applies especially to Ford, a company that with the FG Falcon, had years more time to prepare for the changing times than Holden had with the VE Commodore.

But what makes me think that they may have lost it big-time is what I am seeing more and more: Holden and Ford are rapidly losing their loyal long-term potential car-buyers.

Now, self-evidently, they have lost some of these already; otherwise Ford wouldn’t be sacking production workers and releasing a market-special FG seemingly only minutes after the new Falcon was released; and Holden Commodores wouldn’t be being outsold (let’s talk private buyers) by a helluva lot more than just a couple of other car models.

Personal Greenhouse Gas Action Plan

Posted on August 21st, 2008 in Driving Emotion,Economy,electric,Global Warming,Hybrid Power,Opinion by Julian Edgar

Perception of any crisis in world affairs has always followed much the same pattern.

Those who say it isn’t happening and never will happen; those cautious but observant who say it might happen; those early adopters who say it is happening well before a majority agree; and those who like to see it unambiguously demonstrated before acknowledging it is actually happening.

Or – and this is really important – not happening.

Trouble is, at the ‘it might happen’ stage it’s difficult to decide on the right course of action. Do nothing and any action might be too late.

Or, conversely, do nothing and in fact the action might later prove to have been correct.

Think CFCs in aerosols and the ozone layer for the first; think Y2000 bug in computer software for the second.

And the eminence of the ‘early adopters’ counts for little: remember the 1970s predictions of a world overpopulation crisis, and how widespread famine would result in a catastrophic reduction in the population by the year 2000? Despite some very highly credentialed experts arguing vehemently – and with apparent logic – that we were doomed, it didn’t happen.

And now to global warming. 

It’s Time for Trains

Posted on July 31st, 2008 in Global Warming,Opinion by Julian Edgar

I think one of the most awe-inspiring automotive sights possible is seeing an Outback road-train pulling into a truck stop at night.

Hot, dark air pushed aside by the behemoth, a vehicle that has been driving for hundreds of kilometres into a tunnel of light lit by the huge spotlights, brushing away – depending on the location – ‘roos, rabbits or even bulls.

It’s enough to raise the hairs on your neck, the glorious romance of pushing a load through the immensity of darkness.

Over the years I have listened to many truck drivers talking on the CB, in the distant past on 27 megs and more recently, on UHF. Over that time I have become a fan; being able to talk to these guys, sometimes from a very small car, has given me confidence and understanding and empathy with these drivers of giants.

I love big trucks and enormously admire those who drive them.

But when you start talking interstate hauls, most of their loads should be on trains.

Yep, trains.

It doesn’t matter if you look from the perspectives of road safety, of road maintenance, of greenhouse gas emissions or of total fuel usage.

For long distance, trains do it better.

This article says it better than I can.

I love trucks, but for long distance freight, it’s time for trains.