Been There, Done That
|Rent a Hybrid|
On your next vacation to the United States, see how practical environmentally friendly cars have become by renting one!
The leader in environmentally friendly rentals, EV Rental Cars, has locations across the country, many in the larger metropolitan markets, and offers a wide range of vehicle choices, from the compact Honda Insight to the more spacious Toyota Prius sedan.
Environmentally friendly automobiles have certainly had a rocky beginning these last few decades. Poor marketing, consumer apathy, and unrefined technology has all too often typified each false start. The General Motors EV-1 for example, an all electric car the company spent one billion USD to develop, failed to reach beyond the enthusiast market due to its impractical short range and high initial cost. Other potential gasoline replacements have been and still are, hampered by similar problems, as well as the lack of a consumer supply infrastructure.
Suffice to say, the future, at least in the near term, belongs to gas-electric hybrids. Utilizing an innovative combination of electric motors and an internal combustion engine to provide power, hybrids increase fuel efficiency while lowering emissions. Hybrid vehicles are only recently beginning to gain wider appeal and consumer attention, particularly due to the efforts of Japanese auto-makers, especially Toyota, the leader in gas-electric hybrids, and Honda. Hybrid's economic price, a well equipped model can be had for under 20,000 USD, have also helped spur sales. American and European automakers are lagging behind in their production of hybrids, but several of the major players have such autos in the pipeline. Partly this is due to these manufactures, especially GM and Ford, devoting greater resources to next generation technologies, such as hydrogen power, rather than focusing on the nearer, evolutionary, steps typified by hybrid technology.
What are hybrids?
Before going into an overview of the various hybrid offerings in the current marketplace and those offerings destined for future markets, lets take a look at just what exactly is hybrid technology. The current crop of vehicles, the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius for example, focus primarily on drivers who need a smaller and highly efficient vehicle, a configuration in which hybrids excel. Due to the small size, they weigh less and allow for a very aerodynamic design, both important requirements to improving efficiency. The Honda Insight has a very slippery drag coefficient of 0.22, even the current Porsche 911 has a higher number, coming in around 0.30.
However, with their small engines, current hybrids are unlikely to concern the engineers in Stuttgart - at least, not yet. Here is why, unlike their internal combustion counterparts, electric engines produce peak torque at zero RPM, making them ideal for initial acceleration. As the torque drops off with greater acceleration, the gasoline engine kicks in. With 0 to 60 times in the 12 second range, the current crop of hybrids certainly are hardly speedy. This will change in the very near future though. Both Subaru (a division of General Motors) and Honda debuted new hybrid powered compact sports cars this year. With more manufacturers jumping onto the hybrid bandwagon, look for the offerings to become more diverse and far more interesting in the next few years.
One of the first hybrids to come to market in the world, and the first to hit the shores of the United States, the Honda Insight was, and still is, an impressive achievement not only technologically, but also commercially. Although it has been a fairly low volume seller for Honda, it has never-the-less proved there is a market for highly efficient and environmentally friendly cars. This two-seat compact car was designed primarily with efficiency in mind, so the body is a light, all aluminum, configured into a highly aerodynamic tear-drop shape. Another important aspect of the success of the Insight was cost, with the well equipped base level car coming in under 20,000 USD. As one would expect with a car focused on saving gas, there were concessions made in the performance department. Although responsive, the car is by no means fast, and the engine warbles a bit, a side effect of the three cylinder engine. The tires are also slicker than average, to reduce rolling resistance and improve fuel economy, which, unfortunately, limits grip and negatively affects cornering performance.
Like the Honda Insight, the Toyota is both a technological innovation and a commercial success, though the sales trophy easily belongs to Toyota. For the 2004 model year, Toyota had to increase production by more than 30 percent to meet demand. With Why has the Prius been such a remarkable success? Simply put, it is a perfect balance of economy and practicality that has been needed to propel hybrids into the mainstream. Despite the larger inline 4-cylinder gasoline engine and a 40 horsepower electric, the Prius is slower than its Japanese hybrid brethren, mainly due to its larger size. Never-the-less, it is still fast enough for over-taking, and comparable with similarly priced four door sedans, speeding to 60 MPH only a few seconds slower than a Honda Civic.
Lexus RX 400h
Coming from the Toyota’s United States luxury division, this new Lexus SUV marks an important step forward for hybrid vehicles. Although there are many various types of cars in the pipeline, most hybrids currently on the market are small sedans or compact cars. The RX 400h will be the first SUV, and more importantly, luxury level hybrid to come to market. Not only does this new Lexus not skimp on horsepower, it actually improves on the standard RX 330, on which the RX 400h is based, as the hybrid power-train adds an additional 40 horsepower. Beyond the new hybrid technology, the RX 400h is largely similar to the RX 330, meaning plush leather, elegant wood and aluminum accents, and a vast collection of advanced electronics. Launching in the United States for the 2005 model year, the RX 400h will chart an important new course for hybrid technology.
Toyota CS&C (Compact Sports and Specialty)
Sometimes a new technology needs a dramatic package to galvanize public interest, and the Toyota CS&C (Compact Sports and Specialty) concept certainly seeks to do just that. This mid-engined 2+2 sports car is a further development of Toyota’s already advanced hybrid technology. With the 1.5-liter gasoline engine powering the rear wheels and the powerful second generation electric engine powering the front, coupled with its low curb weight, the CS&C certainly would prove a dynamic and entertaining drive. Ground-breaking technology does not stop with the power plant, the driver interacts with the car’s systems through a holographic imaging system. Although the striking styling likely would be too extreme for a production model, this innovative concept could be a harbinger of things to come from the expanding compact sports car market.
Debuting at the 2004 North American Auto Show in Detroit, the Subaru B9SC is a compact sports car, similar to the Toyota CS&C, again displaying the versatility of the hybrid platform. However, the B9SC takes a unique approach to the gas-electric balance. While most hybrids use the electric motors to support the internal combustion engine, the Subaru Sequential Series Hybrid Electric Vehicle (SSHEV) relies primarily on the electric motors for power. At low and mid-range speeds, up to about 50 MPH, the gas engine is used only intermittently to recharge the advanced lithium-ion batteries. Above that, and during intense acceleration, the gasoline engine is engaged for additional power. Another unique aspect of the B9SC’s hybrid power plant is its flexibility, the system was developed to be compatible with Subaru’s current production line, allowing it to be easily adapted for any of their current models. With GM, the parent company of Subaru, increasingly sharing platforms and technologies between its subsidiaries, it is a safe bet that we will see the SSHEV system in other GM products sometime in the near future.