Text: Tito F. Hermoso / Photos: | posted April 02, 2012 18:36
High tech or hype?
But a Lexus is
Take off from the Zen temple of a showroom, Lexus Manila, was1600hrs, Friday. EDSA and C-5 traffic was molasses thick. Then detour to Don Enrique Heights, on Commonwealth Q.C. Trying out the ECO mode, the CT200h quietly powered most of the time in EV or electric mode. Fuel consumption was mostly nil as the 1.8 liter Atkinson cycle engine rarely turned on to recharge the batteries. That or it too was uncannily quiet. Well, its a Lexus.
Navigating through a maze of Avenues – Commonwealth, Central, Visayas, Congressional, Mindanao- shows how raising zonal valuations embolden residents to take over the roads. Thus all junctions on national roads are packed with flea markets, tricycle and Jeepney terminals. All shops facing the street use the main carriageway for free parking. Quezon City urban planning is as messy as Sao Paolo or Kolkata. If this trip was a timed motorsport Rally transport stage, we wouldn't be doing so well. Looking at the big picture, our 170km from Global City to Subic, 68% of our travel time covered only 7.6% of the distance. We had some serious catching up to do from the time the EC-Tag barrier rose at the NLEx-Mindanao Ave. link Toll Plaza. NLEx-SCTEx to Subic's Rizal highway had to be taken in 58 minutes, with or without rain on this moonless night. This meant that the rest of the journey would be run on Atkinson mode with the 650V electric motors providing a turbo like boost from 98 to 134hp.
Gore, be happy
The CT200h, like a Toyota Prius, is a respected badge of sustainable ecology. As a Lexus, there is no sacrifice to luxury that engineering cannot do. Differently proportioned to Toyota's Prius, the CT200h is the smallest Lexus model and the third hybrid introduced here after the Premium SUV 450h and the limousine LS600h two years ago. As an “entry level” product, the engineers were challenged to sophisticate the CT without making it feel inferior to its upper classmates. Cognizant, perhaps, of the above average discernment of the Philippine luxury car market, Lexus decided to launch the Kyushu made CT200h here, one and half months earlier than the all important North American market.
Drool, engineers, drool
It lacks not an iota of engineering exotica that would make a Prof. Dr. techn. h.c. Teutonic CEO drool with envy. In ECO mode, the hybrid epicyclic transmission, which stores energy on the overrun and a heat recovery system allow a highway/city consumption range of 24.4km/l to 26.3km/l. This is a full hybrid system wherein all power suppliers adjust delivery over a wide range to create propulsion at the least harm to the environment. For the puritans, the option to drive in urban environments in full Electric Vehicle mode is a mere press of a button away. We used it to comforting effect through the bloody part of the journey.
With an aerodynamic 0.28 drag coefficient, the CT200h's hybrid battery pack location makes for a handling positive center of gravity but at no sacrifice to trunk space at 375liters or 985 liters with the 2nd row folded. The CT200h uses the Lexus HS250h sedan's fully independent rear suspension, so there's no confusing this suspension to the torsion beam of the Auris and Prius. But we will agree with you that this is not the real world.
Getting to know hybrids
Buying a hybrid? Without an alternative fuel tax break or import subsidy, they're pricier than the equivalent IC [internal combustion] engine powered car. Not only do they have an IC engine, but also a large battery pack, generator and a host of electronic monitors and back ups. Thus not only do hybrids come with a weight penalty vis-a-vis a regular car, the additional stuff take up space away from people and luggage and also limits the installation of more sophisticated long travel suspension, critical for a comfy ride. In practice, most hybrids, when driven on the highway, depend more on the fossil fuel powered engine for propulsion so the highway consumption isn't that much less than a carefully driven gasoline powered car.
There are three general types. There are hybrids that use the IC engine for propulsion at all times while an auxiliary electric motor is used to boost power when needed. This is common to US cars and SUVs where a V-6 model would need the auxiliary electric motor on hand to boost acceleration or towing torque to V-8 like power that Americans expect. Four years ago Chevrolet had a V-6 Impala mild hybrid. When the Saturn brand was still around, they too had the Saturn Vue mild hybrid. I found the Saturn Vue hybrid even entertaining and responsive as the electric motor gave an instant turbo-like boost to acceleration, every time I powered out of a turn. The Chevrolet Tahoe 2-mode Hybrid keeps the standard Vortec V-8, a smart engine that shuts down 4 cylinders when not accelerating hard or towing a yacht. To make up for the loss of power from the shut down 4 cylinders is an electric motor synchronized with the demand for power. Testing a prototype in Bangkok 4 years ago was fun watching the on-board monitor balance the electrical and IC engine energy inputs to accelerate the big luxury SUV out of the turns and even create kinetic energy for storage by regenerative braking on deceleration.
Electric city idler and crawler
Over in China, GM has already been selling the huge Buick LaCrosse hybrid. This is a traditional American sedan with Chinese characteristics, i.e. stretched legroom in the rear over the regular Buick Regal. GM China even offers a Buick Park Avenue, essentially a LaCrosse that has even more extra stretch legroom. Both are powered by a V6 and coupled to the hybrid, but instead of boosting power, the hybrid electric drive takes over in city traffic crawl, saving fuel. During those happier days, GM was focusing on the hydrogen fuel cell Chevrolet Equinox. Being a no-gasoline IC engine and all electric motor powered SUV, relying on hydrogen fuel cell storage for energy, its acceleration was as rapid as the TGV [Train Gran Vitesse]. Technically speaking, its an EV [Electric Vehicle].
EV, the not-so-hybrid
There are hybrids propelled by electric power stored in batteries which in turn is recharged by mains plug overnight – examples are Nissan Leaf, Renault Fluence Z.E. . Strictly speaking the Leaf and Fluence are EV's and not hybrids. But once they have a small IC engine engaged to a generator that only runs when the battery juice descends below optimal charge, and if the IC engine is not used for propulsion, it loosely becomes a hybrid. Chevrolet's Volt is an EV rechargeable by mains plug but it has a built-in IC engine-generator to ease battery range anxiety, but the IC engine never drives that car, which makes it, arguably, a hybrid.
Third gen., the Toyota way
Toyota, capable of making any kind of car accepted universally, has chosen to stick to their 3-way hybrid. The Prius family and other Toyota hybrids can run in EV mode – full electric power from a bank of on-board batteries, full IC mode – internal combustion mode using the gasoline engine running on the Atkinson cycle instead of the more common Otto cycle – and battery regeneration mode – where braking, decelerating with the IC engine engaged to drive the generator to augment the recharge of the batteries. The Prius's electric motors can drive the car in crawling traffic and provide boost to the IC engine on hard acceleration. With more than twelve years producing and selling over 2 million hybrids worldwide, Toyota's three generations of Priii [Priuses] and the current Prius family of the Prius V MPV, Prius liftback and now the Yaris-sized Prius C city hatchback, Toyota's chosen combination is fast becoming the world standard for hybrids.
Green conscience, green dream
In the richer countries, hybrids are bought not only because it saves fuel, but it also serves as a salve to green consciousness. Its important to be seen to be environmentally aware and a Prius reduces fossil fuel burn out, carbon emissions and the usual emissions connected with prolonged operation of IC engines. But would hybrids attract custom here in the Philippines?
Closer to the gut
Though we are as environmentally informed as the next global guy, would we be willing to pay a 25% to 30% premium for a similarly sized car just to salve our green conscience and be seen to be an environment conservationist? That leaves us with a hybrid's fuel economy as the gut issue, the only motive, besides the usual criteria for choosing a car; price point, ride, styling, maintenance and comfort.
Spectacular economy, so so performance
Checking the specs, the Prius liftback weighs some 70kg more than an equivalent compact car. This is about the mass of an adult passenger. Testing on the highway, I did 28.53km/liter on ECO mode, but when cruising at the same speed and more demanding in acceleration, my consumption fell to a still frugal 18.15 km/liter in POWER mode. Internet blogger claims of 35km/liter seem credible. Thats with a drag co-efficient of .25 and a combined 134hp from 1.8-liter VVTi Atkinson cycle engine and 650V electric motor. Acceleration from 0-100 is 10.4 seconds. Performance is about par for a car of such size and engine but its the consumption that, initially, looks spectacular.
Embarrassing test results
But look back at the past eleven years. Local car companies and oil companies have been conducting fuel economy contests to prove that their car and fuel are superior. Of course, the test conditions encountered hardly simulates the traffic hell that we wade through everyday. Since there were prizes and boasting rights for the best figures, every trick in the book was resorted too. Sometimes the results proved embarrassing when the late gentleman-racer Pocholo Ramirez achieved 25kms/liter in a Honda Civic with 2 passengers on board. Honda could not blow their horn on the figures because it shamed the 19kms/liter official figures of the Honda Civic IMA, Honda's hybrid sold in Japan and the USA.
Lightness, the new frontier
Further tests became popular like Pocholo's record non-stop runs on one tank of Petron from Pagudpud to Matnog driving a Honda Jazz. Or a Hyundai challenge to beat this writer's 48km/liter in a 2006 Hyundai Accent crdi. That contest produced consumption claims of over 99km/liter. With the Mazda2 and Ford Fiesta, today's modern lighter-than-class-average sub compacts, one can imagine how astounding fuel consumption would be with their 6th speed low ratio gearing. Which just goes to prove that if the object is economy and damn the deadlines, internal combustion fossil fuel burning engines can beat hybrids. The problem is we do not have ideal driving conditions everyday so we can't expect such thrifty consumption from our daily drive.
Now think electric for a moment. For the past several months now, my “home” to “work” daily commute vehicle is an EV. The trips are short with long stops, the worse possible scenario for an IC engine to be efficient. My EV is rear engine and rear wheel drive, 4-seats, 4-wheels and has a utility box made of industrial grade checkered plate stainless steel, similar to the drop side pick ups one sees mostly in Australia. Under the rear seat are six 8 volt Trojan batteries in series. No, this is no experimental Tesla or Fisker. In fact, it has no power windows, power locks, power steering, air conditioning, spare tire, jack, not even a tire wrench. The only option is a zip up plastic rain guard.
Its branded Yamaha but has parts made in the USA and Canada, cobbled together in Cavite by KartPlaza, better known for racing go-karts. What started as a toy for Mr. Johnny Tan has become a business as big as his Kilton remanufactured Japanese trucks and his three racing circuits : Carmona Karting circuit, Batangas Racing Circuit and Clark Speedway. Yamaha electric buggies are no strangers to golf and resort operators as they are the primary means of clean, quiet and green transportation.
The most enjoyable part of the EV or any electric motor powered vehicle is that the torque is almost instant – perfect for clipping the apex when taking the racing line on my way home - unlike an IC [internal combustion] engine which needs to build up momentum and revs to reach optimum torque. My EV never needs to go to a filling station as the cart is recharged by plugging in to the mains socket overnight. With pure electric juice as fuel, my fuel consumption is zero liters per infinity kilometers. Ah, but we still have not considered the fossil fuel cost of generating electricity to recharge and the cost of replacing batteries. As for a Prius's battery life, the original batteries of the first gen test model Prius brought to the Philippines in 1998 hasn't been changed yet.
Ghosn with the dreams
It is the EV route that Carlos Ghosn's Nissan-Renault Group is pursuing. The Nissan Leaf is a pure plug-in EV. The Renault Fluence is also a plug in EV with the option of changing charged batteries at “filling” stations where you exchange your used battery for a freshly charged one.
Power to weight ratio
Does a hybrid drive differently? They are quiet in EV mode. They hum when accelerating. You only notice the IC engine operating in transition because the EV mode is so free of vibration. With the three models that make up the Prius line up, one can expect a similar driving experience. With short wheel travel, long wheelbase [to keep the battery's weight near the ideal center of gravity], stiff stabilizer bars and electric powered steering mean the chassis is set up for smooth roads of Japan and the USA. With similar power to weight ratios, the 3 Prius models, have near identical consumption and 0-100 acceleration figures. Throw in the typical slipping clutch drone of the CVT along with transmission ratios that are biased for low rpm cruising, you know that none of the Prius trio will encourage drivers to burn rubber on the drag strip nor drift the rear on the curves of a mountain pass. A Prius will not drive anymore fun than an equivalent IC powered car of the same power to weight ratio. For fun, Toyota would rather refer you to an FT86 or a Lexus LF-A.
Fun in a hybrid?
But there are fun to drive hybrids and all have high power to weight ratios. Many of these more expensive hybrids follow the Prius practice of having an IC engine do propulsion and run a generator to recharge the batteries. Lexus sells the LS600h, CT200h and the Rx 450h. You can order a Porsche Cayenne with a V-6 hybrid. Porsche even has a hybrid super car that exploits the instant torque of the electric motors to augment the power of the IC engine. Daimler, either Stuttgart or Singapore, has declared that CEO's of Mercedes distributors should set an example by driving a V-6 S-class hybrid. Lower down the scale, there are hybrid Camry's.
Thrift, the heart of the matter
In such large cars, the space intrusion and weight penalty of the hybrid gear won't matter much so suspensions have more than enough space to articulate and the IC engine has a lot more horsepower to counter the added weight. Take the Lexus Rx 450h. Fuel consumption of 19.19km/liter in pea soup traffic with lots of long stops and short go's. This city consumption shadows the smaller Lexus CT200h as most of the city trip is done on electric power. The Rx 450h does 13.53km/liter on the highway, cruising at 120km/h but not without a few rapid bursts to very very high speeds. 0-100 in 7.8 seconds. At 2110kg, this spacious SUV carries several electric motors, batteries and close to 300hp of net power output. But it costs one mil more than the non-hybrid Rx 350. Still, hybrids need not be boring after all. And they're unbeatable in thrift in heavy traffic.
Where is Honda?
Toyota's competitor, Honda has also been making and selling hybrids for about just as long. It currently sells the sporty CR-Z 2-door coupe, Insight hatchback and Civic IMA sedan, all using the parallel hybrid system like the Prius. But Honda's hybrids has not penetrated as many markets. Even today, as Honda has reverted to sourcing Civics from Japan, it still does not include the IMA variant which now into its 2nd generation.
Does the hybrid market deserve to expand, and if so does it deserve a government subsidy? We opine that the legislative model to follow is China's. China does not give tax preference to the technology per se, but by taxing fuel it makes the price of fuel the incentive to drive economically, engineer better cars, explore alternative energy and other forms of propulsion. If technology can produce cheaper fuel via shale oil or natural gas, the price of fuel to power cars and power plants that produce electricity for hybrids and EV's will be the main determinant, whether it becomes an incentive or disincentive.
The world's largest producer of Lithium Ion and Nickel Hydride batteries, BYD of China, is into making hybrids that closely resemble the previous generation Altis and Previa. And yet there is no shortage of LPG and CNG [Compressed Natural Gas] powered cars on China's roads. Makers of EV's in China look with envy at the transformation of the urban motorcycle market. With strict noise and emissions controls taking effect, the majority of motorcycles in Chinese cities are now electric.
Idle, not gulp
So should one buy a hybrid in the Philippines? Our context: we do have range anxieties with batteries so its good to have the “charger” connected to an on board generator. We like the silence of a hybrid running in electric mode. We love it when a big spacious and comfortable V-8 limo like the LS600s can be sitting in traffic and NOT gulp fuel. We like having the smooth power surge, that instant of full torque, from an assisting electric motor anytime available at the tip of the gas pedal.
In practice, idling in traffic or in a handicap parking bay with the air con on without worrying about the fuel bills drives the anxieties away. This is a must for us as we travel with a 194lb 15 year old autistic son who may or may not alight from the car at destinations; hence the handicap parking and the air con on. Alas, a Prius C and even the Prius liftback, is too small for us as our big boy travels with a retinue of care-givers. Perhaps, the Prius V MPV may afford us more space, when it gets here. But then the ride, the space and power of the Lexus Rx 450h has something for his dad to appreciate.
We may not have presented a strong case why hybrids are special enough to stoke desire. We did say before that the Prius may be too in-your-face intellectual which won't tickle the fancy of the majority. Nevertheless, we still like them.