Toyota Brings Fun To Its Hybrid Cars

By dancurranjr On May 3rd, 2009

How we laughed at the Japanese. We ridiculed their humourless engineers, with white coats and polyester trousers. We scoffed at their boring little cars with fake-wood dashboards and engines that sounded as if they were made of plastic. Well, we interrupt history – and the recession – to bring you the man who is shaping the future of motoring. He’s Japanese. And he likes a laugh.

“My dream car is a Lamborghini. If I won the lottery, I’d buy one,” said Yutaka Matsumoto. The tall, 50-year-old general manager of strategy at Toyota is driving around his firm’s headquarters in down-town Tokyo in a supercar for the 21st century. It’s not a sporty Italian, but an affordable four-door saloon that offers emission-free – and conscience-free – motoring.

“If I use this car for commuting in Tokyo, I can travel at up to 60mph but there are no emissions whatsoever,” he said.

Matsumoto is behind the wheel of Toyota’s first plug-in hybrid car. It has an electric and a petrol engine but differs from the Prius – the popular hybrid Matsumoto’s team also developed – because its battery can be recharged from a normal socket in less than two hours.

This means the new model travels twice as fast as the Prius and at least 10 times as far on electric power alone.

If the new plug-in hybrid is anything like as big a hit as the Prius – more than 1m have been sold since its launch in 1997 – it will not only boost Toyota’s sales and share price but will set a new green standard for other manufacturers to reach.

The prototype plug-in car that Matsumoto is driving has a meagre seven-mile electric range before the petrol engine kicks in. But by the time the car is released, it will have a 15-mile EV – electric vehicle – range.

toyota-phev-priusFifteen miles might not sound much to American commuters, but in Japanese and European cities most journeys are less than that. With recharging costs of just a few pence, the plug-in hybrid, therefore, creates the prospect of totally green and almost free driving in town, while retaining the option of taking a family of four 1,000 miles or more on a single tank. “You can use it just like your old car,” said Matsumoto.

By 2020, he said every Toyota model will be available as a hybrid, and perhaps a plug-in. This is a remarkable goal when you consider that some firms, notably Jaguar Land Rover, do not have a single hybrid model for sale and have had to ask the government for funds to develop one.

However, making the new plug-in hybrid a global hit will be tough – especially for Toyota. Consumers like the Prius precisely because it is not a plug-in. They fear plug-in cars will run out of juice and say they are about as stylish and fun to drive as a pedalo.

To make matters worse, for the first time the Prius is jostling for space on the road. Honda has just launched its new hybrid, the Insight, in Japan and America, selling 18,000 in Japan in its first three weeks. General Motors will launch its electric Volt early next year, which it claims will travel 40 miles on a single charge, and electric or electric hybrid models from BMW, Mercedes, Renault/Nissan, Mitsubishi and Ford will soon hit the road.

Matsumoto points out that the petrol engine means the plug-in cannot run out of puff. And to help attract more than just granola-crunching greens, the new plug-in will boast many of the frills to be found in the third-generation Prius that goes on sale in Britain this summer, including a bigger engine, automatic braking, cruise control, automated parking and solar-powered climate control and air conditioning.

Customers may even be able to order “engine noise”. One of the complaints about the Prius – from drivers as well as pedestrians and cyclists – is that it is too quiet. “We are working on an artificial noise,” said Matsumuto. A Lamborghini noise? “No,” he laughs. “A Toyota noise.”

Making the plug-in car look, handle and sound like a “normal” car, just one with vastly better fuel consumption, will, he believes, ensure it “appeals to a much broader range of customers . . . If a car is not attractive or fun, people will not buy it, no matter how green it is”.

Critics say that since it still burns fossil fuels, the plug-in is not a long-term answer to cutting carbon-dioxide emissions. Matsumoto concedes that the criticism is valid while the car uses petrol but the new model could soon run on clean biofuels or even hydrogen fuel cells. Toyota is testing a hydrogen fuel cell powered 4×4. “The beauty of the hybrid platform is that it can work with any fuel.”

Detractors also point out that while plug-in electric cars may sound clean, they are not, because most of the electricity used to charge the batteries is generated by coal-fired power stations that spew millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Electric cars, they argue, “run on coal”.

Matsumoto is in talks with Japanese electricity suppliers and European generators, such as France’s EDF which supplies power to millions of homes in Britain, to help develop green electricity generation programmes. EDF is currently testing the plug-in hybrid in Britain and France.

“I talk to so many people about things other than cars that sometimes I wonder whether I am even a car guy any more,” he jokes. But then he remembers the Lamborghini. “When I was a kid I used to read comics. My favourite character was called Wolf. He used to drive supercars on the freeways at midnight. That’s why I wanted a Lamborghini. Maybe I could still have one. I would keep it in the garage and polish it.”

Surely, he would turn the engine on every now and again? He grins, raising a single eyebrow. He may be saving the world one volt at a time but there’s still oil running through the jolly green giant’s veins.

SOURCE: Times Online UK

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