Sport Utility Vehicles – Hybrid vs. Diesel SUVs

By dancurranjr On December 28th, 2009

As more diesel and hybrid vehicles enter the market, drivers increasingly want to know which is better. This is an especially big question for sport-utility fans who feel they could easily justify owning one of the large vehicles if only it could match the fuel economy of a car.

Of the diesel and hybrid SUVs I have driven – there are only a dozen or so available — the Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited and Volkswagen Touareg TDI come closest to combining midsize-car-like fuel economy with the size and cargo capacity that make SUVs appealing. Most other models are either too small to give drivers the high-riding sense of command they seek, or don’t come close to having decent fuel economy.

The Highlander and Touareg are well matched in price, power and practicality, and are about the same size. But the $41,020 Highlander runs on hybrid technology and the $42,800 Toureg on a diesel engine. The Highlander also offers a third-row seat the Touareg lacks, but it is too small for convenient regular use.

Each has a relatively small six-cylinder engine that still manages to power a large vehicle competently. The Touareg’s engine is typical of most diesels — they are generally good at getting a vehicle moving from a stop, and have more power at low speeds than gasoline engines of similar size. Diesels don’t have as much high-speed horsepower, but their low-speed muscle, or torque, is a better fit for the way most people drive.

The Highlander’s hybrid drive system uses an electric motor to provide similar torque that assists the gasoline engine under hard acceleration. The result is that neither gives its driver that frustrating, underpowered feeling.

On paper the Highlander seems like the easy winner because its estimated fuel economy is 27 miles per gallon in city driving and 25 mpg on the highway, compared with the Touareg’s 17 mpg in city driving and 25 mpg on the highway. But in typical everyday driving I found the two to be much closer in performance and fuel consumption. During long highway trips, both clawed their way to 27 miles per gallon, which is remarkable for big, heavy SUVs.

But I found that the hybrid’s urban fuel economy usually fell short of its estimate unless I drove in a slow, plodding way that makes the most of the hybrid’s electric motor. The problem is this driving style annoys other motorists, especially those caught behind you.

The Touareg diesel usually performed a bit better in the city than its estimate suggested, though it never came close to matching the hybrid in pure stop-and-go city driving. The Highlander’s ability to run on its electric motor alone at lower speeds lets it excel in the slow, choppy driving conditions at which gasoline and diesel engines are least efficient.

In everyday driving, I avoided unnecessarily fast starts and tried to drive smoothly, but did not truly strive for top fuel economy. The result: About 24 miles per gallon overall in both the Highlander and Touareg. However, when I tried a little harder to squeeze extra miles out of each vehicle by obeying speed limits, planning suburban routes to avoid stop-and-go driving and coasting whenever possible, the Highlander began to edge ahead. Both SUVs have trip computers that keep track of average fuel economy, and the Highlander’s seemed to respond more readily to small changes in driving style. If you work hard to hone your driving technique to maximize fuel economy, the Highlander seems to work with you and is therefore more rewarding to drive.

The biggest difference between these vehicles lies in their mechanical feel on the road. Other than using diesel fuel, the Touareg feels conventional. Its engine rumbles steadily and its six-speed automatic transmission shifts with a rhythm that most drivers will find familiar.

The Highlander, however, has a continuously variable transmission that smoothly varies its drive ratios in a way that lets the vehicle’s speed build without the distinct steps of a transmission with conventional gears. The feel is seamless, but less engaging. The engine often sounds like it is laboring, but “CVTs” tend to be more efficient than typical transmissions.

Drivers who are especially fond of SUVs with traditional power plants and familiar mechanical layouts may still prefer the way the Touareg feels on the road and responds more sharply to the throttle, while finding the Highlander a bit off-putting. Still, I got used to the Highlander’s transmission quickly and liked the way it smoothed out its overall ride. I also appreciated that the Highlander weighed several hundred pounds less than the Touareg despite carrying two power systems (electric and gas). Drivers who frequently tow heavy loads will almost surely pick the Volkswagen for its 7,716-pound towing capacity, compared with a rather weak 3,500 for the Toyota.

I would happily drive either vehicle every day. Both run smoothly, handle well and are comfortable for long trips. But the Highlander always felt like Toyota took more time and care in putting the car together. And then there are the numbers — the Environmental Protection Agency’s average fuel cost estimate for the Highlander is $1,542, compared with $2,100 for the Touareg diesel. While such estimates aren’t perfect, they are especially helpful when comparing vehicles. In the end, the Highlander does a better job at mixing the often incompatible elements of SUV size and space with small-car fuel economy.

SOURCE: Wall Street Journal

Toyota Recalls 2008 Highlander and Highlander Hybrid

By dancurranjr On May 5th, 2009

toyota-highlanderToyota on Monday said it is recalling 121,000 2008 Highlander and Highlander Hybrid vehicles in the U.S. because an optional stainless-steel exhaust tip may fall off.

“Due to improper heat treatment, the original clamp used to secure the stainless-steel exhaust tip to the exhaust pipe may develop microscopic cracks,” said Toyota Motor Sales USA in a statement. “If this occurs, the crack may expand, causing the clamp to break, and in the worst case, the exhaust tip may fall off.”

The Japanese automaker said there have been 10 reports of incidences of this condition in the U.S. It estimated that there are about 39,100 accessory kits that may be affected. “Because this accessory is installed at the Toyota vehicle processing centers and dealers, and is available over the counter, all of approximately 121,000 vehicle owners will be notified,” Toyota said.

The recall is expected to begin in early May. Owners can contact Toyota at (800) 331-4331.

SOURCE: Edmunds Inside Line

Toyota US Hybrid Sales Surpass Million Mark

By dancurranjr On March 20th, 2009

2010_toyota_priusToyota’s hybrid sales in the U.S. have surpassed the 1 million mark, the Japanese automaker said Thursday, underlining the rising popularity of the ecological vehicles.

It took seven years for Toyota Motor Corp., the world’s biggest automaker, to sell 500,000 hybrids in the U.S., but has taken just two years to sell the next 500,000, the Japanese company said in a statement.

But Toyota’s U.S. sales have been battered by the ongoing slowdown, tumbling 39.8 percent from a year earlier in February.

Gasoline prices, which surged during the first half of last year, have come down drastically, and it is unclear whether gasoline-electric hybrids will continue to sell as briskly as they have in recent years. U.S. sales of Toyota’s Prius hybrid were down 33.6 percent on year in February.

Toyota is introducing the third-generation Prius later this year, but that’s expected to meet intense competition from the Insight hybrid from Japanese rival Honda Motor Co. The Insight starts at $19,800 in the U.S., where it will go on sale March 24, as the cheapest hybrid on the commercial market.

Since going on sale about a month ago in Japan for 1.89 million yen ($19,000), Honda has racked up 18,000 orders for the Insight, more than triple the 5,000 that Honda targeted. Toyota has not disclosed prices for the upcoming Prius.

Toyota, who also makes the Camry and Corolla sedans, introduced gasoline-electric hybrids to Japan in 1997, and the U.S. in July 2000, with its Prius. The Prius is still the world’s top-selling hybrid.

“One million hybrids in less than nine years indicates how quickly American consumers have accepted this important technology,” Jim Lentz, Toyota’s top U.S. executive, said in a statement.

Toyota controlled nearly 75 percent of the U.S. hybrid market over the past decade, and cumulative worldwide sales of the company’s Prius and luxury Lexus hybrids topped 1.7 million vehicles through January.

Toyota has sold 600,000 Prius cars in the U.S., more than half the 1.2 million sold worldwide.


Toyota Captures 75% of US Hybrid Share

By dancurranjr On March 19th, 2009

Toyota ManufacturingToyota Motor Corp. said on Wednesday that Toyota hybrid and Lexus brands in the US top 1.7 million sales globally through January of this year.

It also said, it has a nearly 75% share of the U.S. hybrid market, indicating American consumers have accepted the world’s first mass-produced gas-electric vehicles.

Jim Lentz, TMS president, said the company is aiming to reach one million sales per year of gas-electric hybrids world-wide “sometime early in the next decade,” As it continue to expand, with 10 new hybrid models by 2012.

In 2008, Toyota Motor Corp. sold about 159,000 of its Prius hybrids alone, while Ford sold 19,524 Escape and Mariner hybrids, which plans also to begin selling all-electric battery and plug-in vehicles by 2012.

The company said it expect new RX 450h and HS 250h Lexus’ fourth hybrid and the most fuel-efficient vehicle this summer.

SOURCE: International Business Times

Sales Data: Prius & Hybrids Suffer Cheap Gas & Economy

By dancurranjr On March 7th, 2009

priusxToyota Motor Corp. reported a dismal sales for February.  But the beloved Toyota Prius hybrid that has captured the hearts and minds of the green class posted dismal sales numbers as well.  The economy and cheap gas prices are at least making the Prius a major disappointment.  Toyota might even be hiding just how low the demand for hybrids is because it did not break out hybrid unit sales for its Highlander and Camry hybrids like it did in 2008.

The Prius mid-size gas-electric hybrid posted February sales of 7,232 units, down from 10,895 a year earlier and 14.5% fewer than in 2007.  Even if we take out the one day difference for the calendar sales days, this drop would be more than 30%.

Camry and Camry Hybrid remained Toyota’s volume leader in February, posting combined sales of 20,634 units.   The automaker sold 5,008 units of the Highlander Hybrid posted combined sales of 5,008 units.  As you will see in last year’s reporting, Toyota used to break out the hybrid sales.

  • FEB-2008 SALES DATA: Passenger-car sales were led by Camry, which posted best-ever February sales of 34,914, an increase of 4.3% over the FEB-2007. Camry Hybrid reported sales of 4,121 units in February, up 19% over FEB-2007.  Highlander and Highlander Hybrid posted combined sales of 10,513 in February, up 7.7% over FEB-2007. The Highlander Hybrid gas-electric mid-size SUV reported sales of 1,938 units for the month.

Just yesterday we noted how Honda Motor Co. has become a thorn in the side because of a much cheaper competing model to the Prius.

The difference of one less selling day this February compared with last year is not even a footnote considering the results.  The trends are just bad.  Fewer jobs means fewer car buyers.  Less credit and lower car trade-in prices means fewer cars bought.  Less job security means lower auto buying.  Gas being under $2 per gallon takes out much of the urgency to go green.  And on, and on.

It is becoming obvious that when when consumers have less green in the bank, they are less green all around.

SOURCE: 24/7 Wall Street