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The Warsaw Voice » Society » April 2, 2008
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Make Way For the Hybrids
April 2, 2008 By Bartosz Grzybiński   
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Hybrid-electric vehicles (HEV), by using internal combustion engines (ICE) and electric motors, use less fuel and produce lower exhaust emissions. They are easier on the environment and-at least in terms of fuel costs-on the pocket.

Believe it not, HEVs go back to the late 19th century. American engineer Henry Piper filed the first patent for a car in which an electric motor augmented an ICE back in 1905 although France's Compagnie Parisienne des Voitures Electriques was manufacturing HEVs between 1897 and 1907. Piper's bulky, heavy vehicle could reach 40 kph in 10 seconds. This was never going to revolutionize the automotive industry when ICE cars were simpler and cheaper to produce and offered considerably better performance. environmental concerns were not an issue back then.

Hybrid engines were left on the shelf until Toyota started investigating their potential in the 1960s. The Toyota Prius, released in 1997, was the world's first mass-produced HEV. The cabin and luggage compartment (408 liters) are comparable to those of other compact sedans, despite having to find room for an electric motor, a larger transmission and batteries. You would never guess that the car had an extra engine were it not for word "Hybrid" on the trunk.

The Prius rechannels energy that would otherwise be dissipated, for example the energy from braking, into powering the generator that recharges the battery, or to power the electric motor that drives the vehicle. The electric motor starts the car and powers it to around 50 kph before the ICE takes over.

Batteries are recharged while the engine is idling. The ICE delivers 113 ps and the electric motor 68 ps. The operation of both engines and the energy flow between them is displayed on the dashboard as is the status of recharging the batteries. The single speed continuously variable transmission (CVT) allows for a theoretically infinite number of gear ratios, which makes for a smooth drive provided you do not accelerate too rapidly.

The Honda Civic also comes in an ultramodern HEV version with single-speed CVT. The car is a "soft hybrid" that uses an Integrated Motor Assist engine that combines a 1.3l/95 ps ICE and a 20 ps electric motor. The latter is mounted over the crankshaft of the former and cannot power the vehicle independently as is the case with the Toyota Prius. The second-generation IMA engine allows the electric motor to power the car up to 30-45 kph. Fitting the batteries behind the rear seats has restricted the luggage compartment to 350 liters, some 35 liters less than its ICE counterpart.

The world HEV leaders are Honda, Toyota and the Toyota-owned Lexus. These all offer imaginative designs and a wealth of accessories, and consumer tests affirm their quality and reliability. This is not to say that other brands have been standing still. Porsche has an HEV version of its Cayenne SUV and is expecting to have an HEV version of the GT Panamera, the company's first ever four-door sedan.

"Hybrid engines offer exhilarating motoring and low fuel consumption," says Leszek Kempiński, Porsche PR manager at Kulczyk Tradex, which has exclusive rights to import the marque into Poland. "The Full-Parallel-Hybrid is going to be a trailblazer in terms of efficiency and innovative design," he adds. Who would have predicted this from one of the world's pre-eminent sports car manufacturers, even a couple of years ago?

Utility vehicle manufacturers are also starting to take an interest. Polish bus manufacturer Solaris released the world's first HEV bus, the Solaris Urbino Hybrid, in the fall of 2006. More than a dozen Urbino Hybrids, manufactured in Bolechów, have already been sold to Germany and Switzerland. "We are delighted at how rapidly our hybrid buses are starting to appear on the streets of European cities," says chairman Krzysztof Olszewski. "The bus will soon be tested by Polish public transport operators like Warsaw's MZA. I hope these tests convince decision-makers that hybrid technology is the best response to rising fuel prices."

Hybrids are also environmentally friendly. The Toyota Prius only emits 104 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer and the Honda Civic 109g. The is way below the present EU limit of 160g. This limit will be 120g for newly manufactured cars in 2012 with manufacturers liable to pay 35 euros for every gram over the limit. This is incentive enough to explore ways of reducing exhaust emissions, including hybrid engines, whatever the level of environmental awareness among consumers.

However, HEVs have yet to catch on with the general public. Fewer than 300 were sold in Poland last year. Manufacturers have been using a lot of promotional techniques. "The Honda Civic Hybrid is available in two extensive accessory versions," says Agata Luboradzka from Honda Motor Poland. "Standard accessories in the basic MXB version include electric controls, front, side and curtain airbags, ABS, ESP, an audio/CD system, automatic air-conditioning, aluminum wheel rims, and a free metallic paint option. The MX version has all that plus cruise control, xenon headlights, front seat heating and a leather steering wheel. The zl.86,600 price tag is only zl.4,000 more than that of the 1.8l ICE Civic 4D with similar accessories. Environmentally aware customers are bound to appreciate that."

Toyota uses an eight-year warranty to promote the Prius but neither that nor the company's reputation in Poland has managed to boost sales. The answer to this little mystery may lie somewhere in the fact that prices start at zl.103,000.

Fortunately, price is not decisive in the executive and luxury markets. "Lexus is the only car maker that has been mass-producing hybrid cars for more than three years," says Monika Małek, press officer at Toyota Motor Poland. "Hybrids are becoming more popular every year. Last year's sales of 166 units accounted for 22 percent of total sales. It is worth noting that Lexus cars carrying the 'h' [for hybrid] symbol have so far constituted some 31 percent of all Lexus cars sold in Europe."

The well-heeled can choose between the Lexus GS 450h, LS 600h and RX 400h. Prices start at zl.240,000 for the RX 400h SUV and go as high as zl.600,000 for the LS 600h luxury model. Customers tend to view the hybrid engine as just another gadget. Modern technology is expensive. But some countries are promoting HEVs by lowering the taxes on them-by 40 percent in the Netherlands-or by granting the purchasers special privileges such as the right to use bus or taxi lanes or to enter restricted urban areas. Poland does not as yet offer much by way of incentive to purchase HEVs. But the trend for environmentally-friendly technology in the automotive industry is picking up steam in the United States and Japan and has finally reached these shores. Rising fuel prices, especially for non-renewable fuels, are increasingly making energy conservation more a necessity than a virtue. HEVs are bound to become more popular in the future.
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