Toyota's newest models bring hybrids into the mainstream
If you have any lingering doubts as to the permanence of hybrid automobiles, consider these words from Toyota Canada managing director Stephen Beatty: “In 2012, Toyota will be bringing hybrids mainstream.” In view of the fact that Toyota is far and away the leader when it comes to hybrid sales, this is bound to resonate throughout the industry. And when you consider that the main target for hybrid manufacturers is Generation Y, which accounts for some 90 million potential buyers in North America, you know the hybrid car is not just a passing fad. Hybrids are here to stay.
In fact, Toyota is in the midst of a flurry of new-model introductions. According to the company, it will be introducing 18 new vehicles over the next year and a half, with three down and 15 to go. They won’t all be hybrids, of course, but many of them will. And they’ll come in every size, shape, and category.
For example, the new 2013 Lexus GS, recently introduced in California and priced in the $52,000 to $65,000 neighbourhood, will have a V-6 hybrid-engine option: the GS 450h. The significance of this is that, up until now, cars of this ilk have always been offered with a V-8 choice, but with 338 horsepower on tap, the 450h will satisfy most performance enthusiasts while delivering competitive fuel economy into the bargain.
Here’s the big difference: with a V-8, the kind of fuel economy you get depends on how heavy your right foot is. With a hybrid, there are electronic settings you can select to determine your car’s performance level. In the case of the 450h, there are five: normal, sport, sport-plus, eco, and EV. The last setting is strictly electrical—for cruising around parking lots and such—but if you’re feeling frisky, you can choose the sport-plus and get acceleration on par with that of a V-8 engine. Toyota claims this arrangement is comparable to a 4.5-litre V-8, but it will return a combined fuel economy of 6.4 litres per 100 kilometres, which no V-8 can touch.
You could argue that, in this market, no one really cares about the price of gas because it doesn’t matter when you’re rich. But everyone cares about the environment these days, and if they don’t, they will. The time of thirsty, pavement-scorching V-8 engines as we know them could be over, and it’s upscale models like the 450h that’ll be leading the way. And anyway, if you don’t want a hybrid, the new GS will still have a base V-6 engine that delivers 306 horsepower—more than enough for most buyers.
At the other end of the spectrum is the new Prius C, the latest iteration of the one that started it all. The C will bring the number of Priuses on the market to four, and the whole idea behind it is to make hybrid technology affordable. Up until now, if you wanted to be green, you had to pay for it. Even the base Prius is in the high $20,000s to low $30,000s, and lots of people simply can’t afford one.
With a base MSRP of just under $21,000, the new C should put hybrid technology within more people’s reach, and Toyota says it will be the lowest-priced hybrid car on the market. Again, Toyota’s plan is to have a Prius available for the everyman.
But more than that, the C will deliver spectacular fuel economy: 3.5 litres per 100 kilometres in town and four litres per 100 kilometres on the highway, making it one of the most fuel-efficient cars sold in Canada.
Toyota’s patented synergy drive makes this possible, and in the C, this setup is the lightest version Toyota has ever put forward. The internal-combustion engine displaces 1.5 litres and is of the Atkinson-cycle variety, which basically means it’s been detuned to favour efficiency over performance. This engine has been used elsewhere in the Prius lineup, albeit in a slightly different form.
Together, the gas engine, nickel/metal-hydride batteries, and electric motor combine to develop a purported 99 horsepower, and behind the wheel you can choose from two driving modes: eco and EV. The first is calibrated to maximize fuel efficiency, while the latter is electric only up until around 40 kilometres per hour or one kilometre, depending on how the vehicle is being driven and the state of the battery charge. There is also a “combination meter” on the dashboard that lets you keep track of fuel economy, how much battery power you’re using, and your driving behaviour, and even provides a “performance summary” that reviews the day’s driving history when you turn the car off. Tech heads will love this feature.
Perhaps the most dramatic validation of Toyota’s hybrid technology is found in Vancouver’s taxi fleet. Get in line at a taxi stand at the airport or downtown and you can’t help but notice that at least three-quarters of the cars are Prius models. And here’s the kicker: many of these were purchased used by the taxi companies.