Shooting for goals that have gone…

Posted on April 17th, 2008 in diesel,Driving Emotion,Economy,Hybrid Power,Opinion by Julian Edgar

Regular readers will know of my admiration for the Toyota Prius.

That’s not just because I own a first series NHW10 model (currently off the road with a worn-out high voltage battery) but primarily because of the commercial success the Prius has had.

Simply put, in terms of actual impact on the market, the Prius stands head and shoulders above any ‘alternative’ car that has been sold in perhaps the last 75 years.

prius1.bmpIt therefore behoves anyone enthusing an alternative automotive technology – whether that’s biodiesel, LPG, pure electric cars or anything else – to know the Prius inside-out. To know its equipment level, its warranty, its real-world fuel economy, its emissions performance, its new and used prices, and its technology.

Like it or not, the Prius sets the current benchmark.

Nope, not necessarily in any one specific area – emissions, fuel economy, driveline technology, control electronics or even high voltage battery technology – but in a total package that has been successfully sold to the public for a decade.

And, because of that timescale, it is a car that is now available very cheaply second-hand.

That might all seem obvious – but it is certainly not to some.

I recently had long phone discussions with a man very enthusiastic about DIY biodiesel. He runs seminars on the topic, played an instrumental part in developing a home biodiesel plant, and is highly educated. But his knowledge of the Prius (and other hybrids) is poor indeed.

With regard to hybrids, his website contains errors of fact and makes some statements that could only be described as wild scaremongering.

Statements like he believes that there’s intrinsic danger in having a high voltage battery pack near the petrol tank. After I saw that, I asked him if he’d ever even seen a Prius battery back, let alone pulled one apart and studied its construction. He hadn’t, and seemed amazed I would suggest that he should have done so before making such comments.

He also suggested that for city fuel consumption, a hybrid is only a little better than a diesel. When I pointed out that this is rubbish – and my statement is based on actual testing we have done of diesels and hybrids in city conditions – he was surprised. It turned out he hadn’t ever driven a hybrid car – let alone driven one in dense city traffic.

If the Prius was some obscure and expensive car difficult to find, perhaps that would be understandable. But secondhand (grey market Japanese import) Prius can be bought from AUD$10,000, and the far superior NHW20 (current model) costs about AUD$20,000 secondhand. And of course, pretty well every Toyota dealer has new ones on their showroom floor.

And it’s not just the Prius. Honda has the hybrid Civic and Lexus its hybrid cars.

Again, if you’re a regular reader of AutoSpeed, you might say: so what? But when I pointed out to the biodiesel man that, in heavy traffic, a hybrid spends most of its time with the combustion engine switched off – and how the hell could an always-running diesel engine compete with that? – there was a long silence.

This is not to say that I think diesels – and especially biodiesels – are anything less than a very important and significant development in the chase for lower fuel consumption and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. But the credibility of those pushing diesels (and biodiesel fuel) suffers rather a lot when as part of the information they disseminate, major errors of fact are promulgated.

Things in the automotive industry are changing fast. Automotive workshop personnel who see a stream of late model cars constantly re-evaluate their benchmarks and their technological understanding.

The people buying new cars follow car technology closely – especially those tossing up the relative merits of buying an economical petrol engine car, a turbo diesel or a hybrid.

So those pushing a particular ‘green’ car approach need to be very careful that they don’t start shooting for goals that have already been left behind…

7 Responses to 'Shooting for goals that have gone…'

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  1. turbin said,

    on April 23rd, 2008 at 8:54 am

    Hi Julian,

    I’m always looking for ‘that next car’. The Prius hasn’t really been on my radar, but it is now. It is true though that there are alot of assertions made by people about battery life, resources used to manufacture them and toxicity at time of disposal. What is harder to find is media coverage in terms of reviews, what it’s like to drive and live with for a while.

    Another well-known auto site has reviews for about 20 models of Toyota but none for the current Prius. Makes it a bit hard to get a taste for where the Prius in the market. You even have to dig deep for your test back in 2004.

    With this relative lack of ‘third party’ (ie. not Toyota) information, no wonder the naysayers have a field day.

    Of course there is no substitute for actually test driving a car oneself, but in this age we let our mice do the walking long before deciding which dealers to step into and get a drive from.

    Having said all that, the owner reviews I have managed to find have been gushing. This leads me to think that either it is a brilliant car, or that they are previous dyed-in-the-wool Toyota Corolla/Camry owners for which the Prius is like their cup runneth over.

  2. doctorpat said,

    on April 23rd, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    The people buying new cars follow car technology closely

    I’m sorry but I can’t agree with that as a general statement. And I’m basing this on going car shopping with a rather technically minded (but not car minded) guy on the weekend.

    We were testing the Lexus RX400h (among others) and he needed correction on:
    1. This hybrid wouldn’t save much petrol because all the driving will be done in city traffic. (Actually, hybrids are at their best in city traffic)
    2. Hey it stalled! (No, it turns off at standstill.)
    3. This is brand new technology (The prius had the same tech for about 10 years now.)

    On the other hand he was quite right about the extra $10 000 in price (over the equivalent RX350) taking 200 000 km to pay back if the claimed savings of 3l/100 km is correct. Assuming no interest on the $10 000.

    He was also right about how the hybrid was silent at low speeds compared to the petrol, and much, much better than the turbo diesel BMW and Mercedes rivals. Silence is a big factor in the Lexus/BMW/Mercedes buying customer’s decision.

  3. Julian Edgar said,

    on April 23rd, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    doctorpat – but at least he looked at / drove a hybrid. Many people pontificating on their benefits versus diesels, ethanol, etc haven’t even done that!

  4. Speedzzter said,

    on April 24th, 2008 at 7:44 am

    The vast majority of Prius owners are “appliance motorists” or “greeniac anti-motorists” who sanctimoniously view their odd-ball NHW20s as some sort of “statement” against the “traditional” automobile. Thus, “Prius love” is more about affection for a dubious social movement than it is objective consideration of that particular vehicle upon its merits.

    While certainly hybrid-electric technology is interesting and even mildly useful at augmenting some of the more pedestrian tasks of motoring (e.g. waiting in queues, creeping along in urban gridlock, repeatedly stopping and starting), virtually no manufacturer as of yet has produced a worth-while grand touring automobile of the hybrid sort.

    Given our myopic, global fixation on anthropogenic climate change, the expensive hybrid madness will undoubtedly grow. And perhaps even a few decent high-performance vehicles will survive the onslaught through the adoption of electric assist (theoretically a proper “twincharged” DOHC V8 combined with an auxillary electric motor of more than 50kw could be the basis for a legendary, yet remarkably frugal GT).

    However, notwithstanding all of the greener-than-thou preening of Prius owners and the sycophantic press generated by Toyota’s PR juggernaut, driving a Prius is an uninspiring chore. Life is simply too short to waste it driving a boring, low-performance “slug” such as a Prius!

    Of course, Speedzzter can harken back to the days of a 2.0 Mazda diesel (non-turbo) in a 1984 Ford — a boring lump that could produce nearly the same “real world” fuel economy as a Prius with far less techological complexity or projected sanctimony (albeit with even less performance than the sizzling miracle of mobile electric techology that is the Toyota Prius). When it all sorts out, simple, modern turbo-diesels will likely take a huge chunk of the world auto market (as they have in the excessive petrol tax “nirvana” of the E.U.)

    Finally, one suspects that the resale value of a NHW10 with a dead high-voltage battery is virtually nil (even one “kitted-up” with a home-brewed turbo . . . .) At least a diesel’s value doesn’t turn on thouands of dollars of batteries.

  5. doctorpat said,

    on April 24th, 2008 at 10:16 am


    Thanks, that was a brilliant parody of exactly what Julian was talking about.

    Some of it was a little over the top though. virtually no manufacturer as of yet has produced a worth-while grand touring automobile of the hybrid sort is a bit silly when I was just talking about Lexus, who have the GS450H, a 260 kW grand touring hybrid sedan.

  6. Speedzzter said,

    on April 26th, 2008 at 9:08 am

    I wrote the comment “virtually no manufacturer as of yet has produced a worth-while grand touring automobile of the hybrid sort” with full appreciation of the Lexus hybrids.

    Lexus vehicles (at least in the U.S.A.) are oriented, tuned and marketed toward the ossified “golf-&-country-club” set and are NOT (repeat NOT) proper GT machines. Bloated and gewgaw festooned Toyota sedans — regardless of the pretentous nameplate glued on — simply do not have the well-rounded performance, feel, “soul,” or popular image of a “worth-while grand touring automobile.” They are mass-market luxury cars to be sure, but they lack elements of sportiness and driver involvement essential to a proper GT sedan.

    Don’t be fooled by the trendy GS styling: Lexus sedans are inoffensively bland “isolation chambers” built in the boring idiom of non-GT luxury.

    Feann Torr aptly put it this way: “None of what it Lexus says is complete cow dung . . . But at present it’s not enough to make the public and other automakers drop everything to read all about it.

    The U.S.A.’s Car and Driver magazine was even more brutal on the GS450h: “The total absence of feel in the electric power steering reminded one tester of an early-’80s Lincoln Town Car [Which was NOT REMOTELY a GT]. In active driving, the continuously variable transmission never stopped hunting, and in league with the waxing and waning of the power system, it created a sonorous racket described by another chronicler as ‘somewhere between a gas turbine and a vacuum cleaner.'”

    Edmunds commented as follows on the LS600h: “If the Lexus LS has been criticized for anything it’s a lack of passion in its driving experience, and the same can be said for the LS 600h . . . [T]his is not a sport sedan by any stretch of the imagination.”

    A proper BMW M-series or Mercedes AMG sedan, among others, (in the hands of a capable driver) would give any of the Lexus hybrids morning sickness. Even a prosaic pushrod Hemi Chrysler 300 SRT-8 would wax any of the Lexus hybrids in objective performance measures, save fuel economy.

    Buying any Lexus publically screams to knowledgeable automobile enthusiasts that one simply isn’t skilled enough as a motorist to appreciate the Lexus’ abysmal lack of GT capability, or that one simply doesn’t care. In short, Lexus = “premium appliance motoring.”

  7. Julian Edgar said,

    on April 26th, 2008 at 7:11 pm

    It won’t be long: