Toyota Prius 2011

Hybrids. Green.

Many many years ago the Diesel engine spent quite a bit of time working its way into every-day motoring. Diesel engines had a terrible perception of being oil burning smoke puffing slow engines. NO wait, they were old burning smoke puffing slow engines.

Today, as a carmaker, if you don’t have a small diesel engine in the European market, your car will fail. Diesel vehicles back then had massive “DIESEL” lettering emblazoned on the cars, making sure everyone knew you were in fact driving a diesel car. (Not like the smoke pouring out the rear wasn’t dead giveaway) The engine has come a long way, and now finds its way into most manufacturers as torquey, efficient and sometimes even performance oriented models.

What has changed radically is that diesel engines are now discreetly integrated into vehicles. Emissions are more controlled so there’s no puff of smoke. The diesel nomenclature has now even changed to sexy itself up – with fun badges like TDI and D4-D. No more massive “DIESEL” lettering or cars that are bogged down and seem to have the diesel disability.

The hybrid suffers nearly the same story, just on different scale. The Hybrid has been positioned as the “Green” car to drive, and the Toyota Prius has been marching front and centre for that cause for quite some time. A genius move by Toyota, being first to market has done more for the brand image for innovation than any other car. The problem now however, is that nearly 10 years on, the need for a hybrid to look like a hybrid isn’t really as “cool” as it once was. Being seen in a Prius stood for so much in California and in the rest of the world, and to some degree still does. However if Hybrid engines are really going to succeed they don’t need to be in a quirky sleek unique package, but rather in the cars people already like and buy.

Lexus has been doing this for quite some time to huge success. Lexus Hybrid models outsell any other vehicle in class in the USA, and to be quite frank, this is the future of the Hybrid. It no longer needs its own car, but rather needs to find a home being sexy in the vehicle line up manufacturers already have. Sadly this is the conclusion I have about the Prius. It’s an amazing vehicle, and has come along leaps and bounds, but I think the overall hybrid package is going to see a longer life if mated to a current model (exactly that is happening soon).

House. Optional

The model I had on test was the 1.8 ECVT Advanced. The Prius comes in 2 specification levels, Advanced being the entry level at R332 700 and the Exclusive which ads some niceties at R378 100. The Advanced has pretty much everything you’d expect at the price so you’re not doing without any niceties…except the seats, which are covered in what I think is suede which just didn’t “sit” right with me. This is of course where the Prius pulls the rabbit out of the hat as most of the interior is made from recycled materials. The interior is an easy place to get comfortable, but is distinctively Hybrid. The facia runs a long slope up to the window with the electronic gauges that sit prominently in the middle. These are easy to read and give quite a bit of information (Drivetrain, different consumption read-outs and 3D holographic style indicators when you push on the steering wheel controls to tell you what button you’ve pressed)

The interior gives off the familiar Toyota quality with some international flair to it. Nothing is exactly “plasticy” because that shit isn’t easy to recycle, so there’s obviously very little of it on the interior. Great!

There is loads of room for passengers in the rear with the boot being a bit more restrictive as it’s a flat load space due to the batteries living in the rear. The only big gripe is the view out the rear with the split rear window, which is rather limited, and the “gear” lever with tacky blue Star-Trek plastic on it, even stood out in the Prius interior.

HSD Dash indicator

So the interior’s distinctively different, and takes some getting used to, but the ergonomics are simple and nothing takes too much brain power to operate. Speaking of power I was pleasantly surprised at the engine. This 3rd generation Prius now features the most powerful engine yet. Toyota increased the engine to improve acceleration and out-of-traffic cruisability as well as improvements to the Hybrid-Synergy-Drive set up. The system switches seamlessly between petrol engine and battery, and offers 3 driving modes that change at the push of a button. ECO-Mode for the more economical driving, subduing inputs to the pedal and is the best of all worlds mix. There’s also POWER mode which gives more shove but obviously sacrifices economy and EV mode which dials out the petrol engine totally. (can only be used at certain speeds, loads and conditions).

Sipping on fuel

I was genuinely surprised at how much shove becomes available when selecting Power mode! It’s no slow poke at all when in Power mode, but this is going to eat on your economy so is kind of counter productive.

The steering and braking take some getting used to. The steering being a little lighter and over-assisted and the braking, as always with a Hybrid, due to the brake regenerative technology, has a lot of grab in a short amount of travel, but these are things you quickly get used to.

Let’s talk efficiencies, which is really what the Prius is about. I returned 5.3l/100km over the 7day test period with my lowest being 3.2l/100km and highest over 10l/100km. That’s genuinely super impressive and I didn’t drive with a feather-foot touch either. I can honestly say that it’s the first time I haven’t actively tried really hard to get a low fuel consumption, but rather found driving in a relaxed manner brought about excellent fuel consumption figures.

Wave Bye Bye

Unfortunately this all said, I think the “Prius” as a car is seeing its final days. It did for Hybrid technology and electrical car innovation what the Chrysler Voyager did for family transport, but its market will only shrink with cars such as the Auris HSD and Lexus CT200h. To me the “coolness” of Hybrids will be in integrating them into existing shapes and model lines rather than creating “Hybrid” models unto themselves. Diesel became cool by fitting them into existing models as the engine developed and progressed.

Would I buy one? Probably not, but it doesn’t compliment my driving style or what I want out of a car. If relaxed driving and fuel economy is on your check-list for car buying, I can recommend the Prius. I don’t think there’s a car on the market, conventional competitors included, that compares on fuel consumption, emissions and interior size.

Lexus CT200h

Mustard anyone?

I recently returned from the launch of the Lexus CT200h in Cape Town (no puns around CT and Cape Town please). The CT200h not only opens up the Lexus brand into a new market segment, but opens up the market segment to the first small luxury hybrid hatchback.

Lexus has South Africa’s widest hybrid model line up on offer, with hybrid derivatives of the GS, Rx, luxury LS, and now the CT200h. Toyota (motherbrand) was recently voted the Greenest brand by the Interbrand Survey 2011 and Lexus boasts over 150 hybrid units sold in SA per year, which is the highest of any brand in SA. This all said, Lexus owners are also the most satisfied, as voted by the owners themselves (JD Power 2011) and scored a Goldmedal from Synovate (SA) for after sales service. Premium owner experience and customer satisfaction is key, and this translates from the owners of the cars themselves. A good start for a new model indeed.

The CT200h is a small luxury hybrid hatchback that seats 5 passengers, with a modest amount of boot space and an extremely high quality premium interior. Immediate competitors that come to mind are the BMW 1 series and Audi A3. None of which have a hybrid model on offer. It’s a first in the South African landscape, and a first I came to thoroughly enjoy on the 160km route in and around the Cape peninsula on launch. Two model variants are on offer, the CT200h S and CT200h F-Sport with the option of a Convenience package for either. (see here for more detail – http://www.lexus.co.za/model/CT200h/product-information)

Let’s start with the Lexus Hybrid drive system. “Combining a 1.8-litre VVT-i Atkinson cycle petrol engine and a powerful electric motor, the CT 200h delivers 100kW of total system output. The sophisticated petrol engine delivers 73kW at 5 200 rpm and 142Nm between 2 800 and 4 400 rpm. But the real performance benefits are arrived at courtesy of the 60kW of electric power on board and additional 207Nm that allow 2,0-litre petrol performance and competitive turbodiesel torque.” On this point, why not a turbodiesel engine? Well, the noxious gasses that get released by a diesel motor are often overlooked, and as stated at the launch, the petrol engine still has a way to go before full economical and efficiency benefits from it are completely realised.

From behind

On the road, the engine is no slouch, but it’s no pocket rocket either. It takes some serious getting used to when accelerating off the mark. As stated at the launch, it’s best to put pedal down, get it up to the speed you’d like, and then let the electric engine take over and “maintain” the speed you need to, maximizing efficiency. Now there’s a couple things to segment here, the fact that there are different driving modes available, as well as different models that significantly alters driving experience.

Starting with the moods, there is a choice of two distinct driving moods – Dynamic, or Relaxing – in conjunction with the full hybrid’s EV, ECO, NORMAL and SPORT, ‘on-demand’ drive modes. Basically this goes from EV (only electric motor, in certain driving conditions) all the way up to full electric and engine thrust for sportier driving. We drove most the way in ECO mode and found that it did just fine in most conditions except when wanting to overtake or pushing through the twisties.

Interior - Superior

The Eco mode does take some getting used to as the CVT gearbox (hate hate hate) does make for an interesting sound that gets emitted. The problem here is that the sound of the revs VS speed at which you are increasing in speed is not natural. We are used the common relationship that lots of noise from the engine means lots of speed, which is not the case. Unfortunately the CVT gearbox makes it sound like the gearbox is slipping (natural) yet you don’t gather speed that rapidly. This is probably the only deterrent from this vehicle for me, as it’s something you’d have to get used to, as it’s fairly unnatural and unnerving at first.

That said the various modes work beautifully, with a turn dial centre on the dash to switch between the different modes for different driving moods. EV (only electric motor – thus very silent) mode is particularly effective when sneaking up behind cyclists on Chapman’s Peak and then scaring them with the horn. Sport mode does give some extra shove as well as stiffen up pedal response and steering feel. A very nice touch is the way the dials light up red when sport is engaged, and also switches the drive train indicator to a revcounter. On that, there is no shortage of places to watch how and what is happening under the skin with regards to the drive train.

Different dials for different modes. Nifty

Dynamically the car is superb. I drove the F-Sport model and it handled exceptionally considering the big lump of battery in the back. There’s near no body lean or roll and the car handled impeccably over the various different driving situations we demanded of it. I read some horror reviews overseas about the handling but can honestly say that they must be comparing it to something like a Ferrari FF.

In true Lexus style, the interior is… to be frank, amazing. The model we drove came with the convenience pack, which added every bell and whistle. In F-Sport guise, it’s differentiated by 17-inch alloy wheels, LED headlamps, and a larger boot spoiler. The luxury specification also gets enhanced by sports seats, the driver’s eight-way electrically adjustable with lumbar support, and cruise control. It also benefits from the addition of front and rear performance dampers.

As an option, the CT 200h F-Sport can be ordered with a Convenience Package that includes an upgraded sound system with four additional speakers and an amplifier, Smart Entry, rain sensing wipers, a full colour monitor with HDD navigation and voice command with Remote Touch, and a reverse camera with back-guide monitor. The interior is a place of class and elegantly hand stitched leather. Novel touches on a hatchback included the padded armrest in the doors, something many manufacturers only offer in their very premium sedans. I have no complaints about the interior as everything including the Remote touch system (which you drive exactly like a stationary computer mouse…something we can do very well) was incredibly easy to use at first glance. Another great touch is how the sound system integrated the music from the iPhone and allowed full discovery of the iPhone music listing on the Remote touch system. Not so cool, the fact that you can’t do anything on there once the car is moving. Bleh. Rear seat passengers can definitely find more room than in the 1Series, and seating for both front and rear passengers are supremely comfortable.

Doors. Wide Open

On the looks front, I’d say that it’s not bad looking at all. The darker colours seemed to do the car more justice in my view. It’s nothing massively out of the box, but it doesn’t happen to insult or stand out as “I’m DRIVING A HYBRID” which is so 2005.

Overall, I was genuinely surprised at how easy to drive the vehicle was, and most importantly, we returned a 5.5litre/100km on our 160km trip. This is seriously and I mean SERIOUSLY impressive considering the inclines, speeding and mountain passes we traversed in our drive. We at no point were puttering around keeping traffic backlogged for hours. There seems to be a huge case for a car that can actual return these real world figures and return below 94grams of emissions (no emissions tax). Emissions is something that I don’t think South African’s truly care about yet, and that’s why it’s be interesting to see how this vehicle fairs.

Fuel Economy - Belieb it

The great bit about the car is that it is the first Lexus into the premium hatch category, and it just happens to be a hybrid. It doesn’t shout about it, it just goes about it, hoping to make the transition as unnoticeable to the way you drive as possible.

The CT200h S model retails for R343,300, with the F-Sport model coming in at R398,500. Add the Convenience package to the F-Sport and you’re up at R434,200.The Lexus CT 200h is backed by a four years/100 000km manufacturer warranty and full four years/100 000km service plan. There is unfortunately nothing one can compare it to, as it’s a first in market segment category. This car will hopefully attract a younger audience, and mark on the success of the 1series and A3 to BMW and Audi respectively, by securing buyers into the nameplate to upsell to them at a later stage.

Black is the new black