The behemoth called Toyota

Posted on August 1st, 2004 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

The other day I was reading about DaimlerChrysler’s recent concept car, the F 500 MIND. Amongst a plethora of interesting new technologies – including drive-by-wire steering, an instrument panel that can be configured to shows various displays, infrared night vision and a system that projects sound at individuals within the cabin, were some details on the driveline.

“During the F 500 project, the engineers at DaimlerChrysler developed the first hybrid engine for a research vehicle,” says the press release. “Under the hood, a 4-liter, V8 diesel engine with 184 kW and an electric motor with 50 kW provide a dynamic driving performance. Thanks to the skilful combination of the combustion engine and the electric motor — experts speak of a ‘P2 configuration’ — the individual torques are added together. As a result, drivers can take full advantage of an extremely powerful surge of acceleration when they pass another vehicle.”

Click for larger image

Huh, come again? The first hybrid engine for a research vehicle? Maybe in DaimlerChrysler circles it is, but when Toyota has had the hybrid Prius on the market since 1998, to even think of making a big deal of a hybrid engine driveline in a concept car is rather sad. In fact, when you look at production cars, Toyota is so far ahead of the field in breakthrough drivelines that it’s Toyota first – and daylight second.  And that statement takes into account GM with their previously available pure-electric vehicles and Honda with its versions of hybrid drivelines.

No wonder readers of Automotive Engineering International – the US Society of Automotive Engineers magazine – voted the Prius as the ‘Best Engineered Vehicle for 2004’.

And don’t worry about sneering because the Prius runs a small engine: the same technology lends itself perfectly to upsizing. In fact, in 2005 Toyota’s luxury car arm Lexus is expected to release a car – tipped to be called the GS350GT – with a 220kW V6 mated to a 125kW electric motor. Rumoured to follow is an LS500 GT 300kW V8 working with a 150kW electric motor…. Economy is said to be superb – and with up to 450kW of power available, performance can only be scintillating.

Even Ford recognises how far ahead Toyotais in the field, with the US company buying licenses to the hybrid technology. Nissan has an even bigger deal with Toyota to gain access to the technology. After all, when a company has sold 200,000 hybrid vehicles around the world, the runs are very clearly on the board.

And for competitors, including the German manufacturers that have led the automotive technology world for the last 40-odd years, things are not going to get better. Toyota has a simply mind-boggling amount of money at its disposal. For the year ending in March 2004, the company’s profit was US$10.6 billion. Turnover was US$152 billion… The company’s stock value of US$120 billion is greater than the combined worth of the US‘ big three’ auto manufacturers – GM, Ford and Chrysler.

So Toyota has the money. They have the engineering skills. They have the experience. And they have the motivation to produce technically groundbreaking vehicles. The writing is on the wall…

It’s always interesting to think of car company history: breakthrough cars do not come about fortuitously; nope, they’re often the result of 10 years of background research and 5 years of model-specific application. (In fact, in the case of the first Prius, development started in 1994 and the program was carried out with great urgency. While other companies slept.)

Click for larger image

Previous to the Prius, the most important model Toyota released was the first Lexus LS400. It put the cat amongst the German pigeons: rival manufacturers simply couldn’t believe the engineering, build and design quality of that car. Additionally, no one, except it seems Toyota, thought a prestige make could be successfully established with no heritage – and here in Australia, Mazda failed with Eunos and Nissan failed with Infiniti. But Lexus has been a stunning success – even if the subsequent models have not lived up to the promise inspired by that first car.

I’ve been mulling over these ideas from a Toyota history perspective: my personal car is a ’98 Lexus LS400 and my partner previously owned a first-series LS400. That 1991 LS400 has always puzzled me: where did Toyota get the engineering ability to produce a car with a brilliant V8 engine, cutting-edge aerodynamics, superb suspension control – all in a driver’s car that has excellent feedback? (And horrible seats, it must be said.) What were the models that lead to its genesis? Or was it a car such as the Prius – a lightning bolt onto the market with no apparent Toyota lineage?

Click for larger image

A recent acquisition has helped partly answer that question. I’ve bought a 1988 Toyota Crown, a grey market import. (And don’t think that I am some kind of one-eyed Toyota fan: I’ve also owned three Nissans, two Daihatsus, a Honda, a Rover, a BMW, a Subaru, a Holden, a Volvo, an Alfa and an Audi….) The Crown uses the 1G-GZE supercharged, DOHC, 2-litre in-line six. In fact, we can almost stop right there: what other manufacturer was producing a supercharged DOHC engine in the late Eighties? Or – and get this – more or less the same car was also available with a twin-turbo version of the same engine – the 1G-GTE. And I’ll say it again – what other manufacturer had twin turbo in-line sixes around in the late Eighties? I can think of only one – Nissan with the Skyline GT-R.

So here’s a company with sufficient engineering prowess to produce not one but two innovative forced induction versions of an engine. An engine that is so silky smooth that a BMW six of the same era is harsh in comparison. The world didn’t realise what was going on, because the Japanese kept these cars to their domestic market. But with this kind of engineering background, it must have been relative child’s play to come up with the 1UZ-FE 4-litre V8 of the Lexus LS400.

Driving the Crown, I can see eerie echoes of the LS400 that was still to come. The brilliantly-subdued NVH, the shape of the doortrims and the presence of a central, third, sunvisor above the rear vision mirror, the rear air-conditioning controls and vents. Bits and pieces in the engine bay, too.

Click for larger image

But one aspect of the Crown is light-years away from the Lexus. The Crown handles miserably. Even forgiving the rear dampers on my car which are very tired, the Crown has enormous body roll, horrendous squat, and an almost complete lack of driver feedback. You might see the Lexus lineage in the driveline, but you certainly can’t see it in the dynamics.

So even having experienced the Crown, it’s clear that Toyota did still pull one out of the hat with that first Lexus.

Just as they did with the Prius.

And I for one am happy to go on record and say that Prius has started a revolution that we’re only now starting to clearly see…just watch what happens over the next five years.

Comments are closed.