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Hybrid Heaven?

Why are we covering hybrid cars? The 300kW Toyota Volta is one reason...

by Julian Edgar

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AutoSpeed is one of the very few car publications that has embraced hybrid petrol/electric vehicles. And, AFAIK, the only publication to do so that revolves around modified cars. It’s not been something that’s been foisted upon us; far from it. But from the first moments of inspecting – and then driving – a Toyota Prius, Michael Knowling and I have been fascinated by the cars.

We’ve driven the NHW10 (Japanese market) Prius, the NHW11 Prius (ie first Australian-delivered Prius) and the NHW20 (current model) cars. I’ve driven a Prius across much of Australia and back again; Michael has driven the auto Honda Insight, and I’ve driven the manual Insight. This week I have on test the Honda Civic Hybrid.

In short, we’ve driven every hybrid that we can – and the count is now up to six.

There are a few reasons why we like the cars so much.

Firstly, when you’ve written as many stories about cars as we have, there’s not a helluva lot that you haven’t seen before. So we’ve done stories on dozens of modified turbo engines, hundreds of modified V8 and sixes and fours. We’ve seen two cylinder engines, three cylinder engines, four cylinder engines, five cylinder engines, six cylinder engines, 8 cylinder engines, 10 cylinder engines and 12 cylinder engines. We’ve seen those that have two rotors and three rotors. Those with a single turbo, two turbos and a turbo working in conjunction with a supercharger. From four valves to 48 valves. Petrol engines, diesel engines, LPG engines.

In fact, without wishing to sound pretentious, it is very rare that we look at any car and are surprised but what we see. They’re all variations on a very common theme.

But hybrids are not from that common gene pool!

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Instead they use fundamentally new technology, and old technology used in new combinations. To understand a hybrid car is to embrace some completely new concepts: regenerative braking, drivelines that have elements with peak torque occurring at 0 rpm, ECU logic that dynamically mixes two power sources into one output.

The second reason that we like the cars perhaps relates to our driving history. In short, we don’t have a hang-up about small, less powerful machines. Michael once owned a 1-litre, 3-cylinder, Daihatsu Charade Turbo; in my driving career I’ve owned a four cylinder 1.2-litre AlfaSud, a 3-cylinder 660cc Daihatsu Mira Turbo, and a 2-cylinder 354cc Honda Z.

In this stage of their development, locally available hybrid cars are small and not very powerful – and that doesn’t hugely worry us.

But having said that, the third reason we like hybrids is the driving experience. By using an electric motor in conjunction with a petrol engine, hybrids have excellent driving characteristics, perhaps best summarised as: ‘torque when you need it’.  In short, electric motors develop their peak torque when they are stopped... which for max acceleration off the line, is just when you want it.

So despite the NHW10 Prius (the very first model) having a measly 43kW petrol engine and a driveline that incorporates a Continuously Variable Transmission, in the normal cut and thrust of urban driving, the Prius feels fine. That’s because there’s 305Nm available from the electric motor between 0 – 940 rpm! Yes, 305Nm instantly torquing from off the line! The current model Prius does even better – an incredible 478Nm is available up to 22 km/h.

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The current Prius has literally no on-road performance downsides; the manual trans Insight you can drive with as much fun as any manual trans VTEC Honda (more, in fact, because the electric assist in that car feels like a small turbo); and even the earlier model Prius can carve up urban traffic (but struggles on open road hills).

And with a performance shortfall much less than the raw figures suggest, what about the rest of the driving experience? Well, we just love the way that when stopped in traffic, a hybrid’s engine automatically switches off. In fact it takes only a few minutes of being stopped at red lights to wonder: why are the other cars running their engines? What’s the point in that?

On the freeway it’s enormously rewarding to be driving at 100 km/h, air con on and radio playing, watching the average fuel consumption reading in the Fours (in litres/100 km) or in the case of the Insight, in the Threes. You watch black smoke belch from the tailpipe of a poorly modified Skyline or 180SX or V8 Commodore as it rushes past in the fast lane (in the couple of seconds of full throttle that’s all that’s possible in these heavily-policed conditions) and realise that you could probably have travelled 10 kilometres on just the fuel that’s pouring out the other car’s exhaust...

But what about in daily, real-life use? Once the novelty has worn off, what’s one of these cars really like?

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I recently bought an NHW10 Prius, the car that was sold only in Japan. Mine is therefore a grey market used import – cheap enough for me to afford, but with still with all the technology. And last week Michael Knowling and I did over 2500 kilometres in it, collecting AutoSpeed stories.

As some of you may know, every 3 months we make an editorial trip, visiting a city such as Melbourne or Sydney and spending a week madly photographing cars and doing stories. This time, the trip was to Brisbane and since I live in the Gold Coast hinterland, I stayed put and Michael came to me.

And what better car to do all the travelling in than my Prius? The freeway from the Gold Coast to Brisbane is mostly four lanes of continuously 100 and 110 km/h cruise – we did the trip every day. Add to those kilometres lots of travel around Brisbane, a day trip to Toowoomba and plenty of Gold Coast trips, and we were travelling literally hundreds of kilometres every 12-hour day.


There weren’t any! Good NVH, excellent air conditioning, adequate performance. And of course fuel economy that saved us literally hundreds of dollars over the week. Even including the steep daily climb through the country road hills to my home, the Prius averaged around 5.2 litres per 100 kilometres...

Of course, if the daily choice was between a 2004 Lancer Evo VIII and a 1999 Toyota Prius, we’d have been taking the Lancer... no issue! But the Prius did a more than competent job at a fuel cost unrealisable in any other car – one with this level of comfort, anyway. No, not even the turbo diesels can do this well – not with plenty of urban kilometres in the mix.

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I think we did something like thirty stories over the week – mostly photographing modified feature cars but with plenty of workshop visits thrown in. And you want to know something? Over that whole week just one person recognised the Prius for what it was. The feature car owner was very causal - when the distances we were travelling every day came up in conversation, he said: “Doesn’t matter how far you go, though, does it? You’ve got a Prius.”

But the almost complete lack of knowledge about the car still surprised me – for without a doubt, the Prius was the most technically sophisticated and complex car we saw all week. Not one car – irrespective of its modifications or cost – came remotely close to boasting a higher level of technology or mechanical complexity. And not a single workshop mechanic knew what the car was – and, incredibly, one of those mechanics actually rode in the car without even realising that he was at times being propelled by electric power! (To be fair, the air con fan was on high so he couldn’t hear the petrol engine switching off.)

It may now be hard to recognise the fact, but hybrid petrol/electric cars have all the elements of cars ripe for future modification. Extremely torquey electric motors – great for off-the-line performance. Excellent fuel economy – so it won’t matter what happens to fuel prices. Internal combustion engines – to which all the traditional mods can be applied. Potentially upgradeable battery packs – battery technology gets better every year.

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And it doesn’t need a crystal ball to realise that the technology is directly upscalable – some high performance hybrid concept cars have already been shown (see below) and it seems likely that Toyota will apply the technology all the way through their line-up, including to V8 engines. Once that happens, the performance/economy compromise will change forever.

So for reasons of fuel economy, driving performance, technical fascination and future development, hybrid cars are something to take notice of....and at AutoSpeed, we’re doing just that.

Toyota Volta

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Developed in conjunction with Ital Design, the Toyota Volta concept showcases hi-po hybrid power. Based around the hybrid V6 driveline of the RX400, the Volta mounts its V6 behind the rear axle and drives two electric motors, one per axle. A traditional transmission is not used. The 300kW output allows the car to reach 100 km/h in 4.03 seconds.

Length 4358 mm
Width 1925 mm
Height 1140 mm
Wheelbase 2570 mm
Front Track 1652 mm

Rear Track 1640 mm
Front Overhang 1004 mm
Rear Overhang 736 mm
Weight 1250 Kg

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Max Speed limited 250 km/h
Economy 7.1 litres/100 km
Acceleration 0-100 km/h 4.03 seconds

Engine V6 3.3
300 kW / 408hp Total output

Drive 4WD
Front Push rod with centrally positioned single shock absorber
Rear “Push rod” with two shock absorbers
Brakes Brembo CCM
Monolithic caliper 8 piston

Pirelli Tyres
Front 245/40 ZR19
Rear 285/40 ZR19
Rims BBS 8.5” x 19” front / 10”x19” rear

More information:

Toyota Prius GT

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Toyota has produced a prototype high-performance version of its Prius. The Prius GT is a concept car designed to highlight the versatility of hybrid technology by providing performance in addition to its green credentials of low emissions and low fuel consumption.

Replacing the standard car’s Atkinson-cycle petrol engine with a 1.5-litre powerplant from the Toyota Echo resulted in a power gain of 29 percent. The electrical side of the Hybrid Synergy Drive system was also uprated for extra performance. The High Voltage Power Circuit in the GT develops 550 Volts, an increase of 50 Volts over the standard Prius. This enabled the fitment of a more powerful electric motor developing 82 DIN horsepower, an increase of 22 percent.

To cope with the extra power, the battery has been upgraded to develop 34kW (an increase of 36 percent) and the generator’s maximum speed has been boosted from 10,000 rpm to 12,000 rpm. In combination, the petrol-electric powertrain in the Prius GT develops close to 100 horsepower per litre.

As well as uprating the suspension to provide sharper handling and improved grip, the development team stripped the interior to save weight – resulting in a net decrease of 180kg, despite fitting extra racing safety components such as a roll cage.

As a result of these developments, the Prius GT can accelerate from rest to 100km/h in 8.7 seconds.

Driven at normal speeds, the Prius GT has the same fuel economy and emissions as a standard Prius because the effects of a more powerful engine are counteracted by efficiency gains from the electric circuit and the overall weight reduction.


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