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The Warsaw Voice » Business » November 26, 2008
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Car Market: Rise of the Hybrids
November 26, 2008 By Bartosz Grzybiński   
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Among the many attempts to introduce environmentally-friendly technology in the automotive industry, hybrid engines are attracting increasing attention. Hybrid-electric vehicles (HEVs), which combine internal combustion engines (ICE) with 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.

The trend for green technology in the automotive industry is picking up steam in the United States, Japan and Western Europe. It has also reached Poland.

The rising prices of fuels, especially non-renewable fuels such as oil, are making energy conservation a necessity. By using an electric motor alongside a standard engine, HEVs have better fuel economy and cause less pollution. They make it possible to combine energy conservation with environmental protection.

Difficult beginnings
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 achieved a top speed of 40 kph and took 10 seconds to do so from standstill. 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…

Far Eastern designs
Hybrid engines were left on the shelf until Honda and Toyota designers started investigating their potential in the 1960s. The Toyota Prius, released in 1997, was the world's first mass-produced HEV. The vehicle's cabin and 408-liter luggage compartment were comparable in size 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.

Toyota Prius
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 hp and the electric motor 68 hp. 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.

'Soft' Honda hybrid
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 (IMA) engine that combines a 1.3l/95 hp ICE and a 20 hp 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.

Porsche hybrid? Why not?
The world HEV leaders are Honda, Toyota and the Toyota-owned Lexus. But other automakers have not been standing still. Porsche has an HEV version of its Cayenne SUV and is expecting to have an HEV version of the Gran Tourismo Panamera, the company's first ever four-door sedan, a year from now.

"Hybrid engines offer exhilarating motoring and low fuel consumption," says Leszek Kempiński, Porsche PR manager at the Kulczyk Tradex company, 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?

Polish Solaris bus
Utility vehicle manufacturers are also starting to take an interest. Polish bus manufacturer Solaris released the world's first HEV bus, the Solaris Urbino 18 Hybrid, in the fall of 2006. Today nine Urbino Hybrids, manufactured in Bolechów, in the southwest of Poland, are plying the roads of Germany (in the cities of Dresden, Leipzig, Bochum, Bremen, Munich, and Hanover), France (Strasbourg), Switzerland (Lenzburg), and Poland (Poznań).

"The Solaris Urbino 18 Hybrid, bought by Poznań's public transportation company MPK, is the first such bus in the country-modern and environmentally-friendly," says Solange Olszewska, CEO of Solaris Bus & Coach SA. "It is an example to follow and an incentive for other carriers in other cities to invest in this unusually ecological and economical means of transportation." The bus, fitted with an ICE and two electric motors powered by batteries mounted on the roof of the vehicle, consumes over 20 percent fuel less than a standard bus powered by a diesel engine, and exhaust emissions are 80 percent lower, Olszewska says.

Economy and ecology
Hybrids are increasingly popular not only because they are more economical now that fuel prices are on the rise, but also because they are environmentally friendly. The Toyota Prius emits only 104 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer, and the Honda Civic 109g. This is far below the current European Union limit of 160g.

These low carbon-dioxide emissions are a major strength of hybrids, especially as the EU limit will be lowered to 120g for newly manufactured cars as of 2012, with manufacturers liable to pay 35 euros for every gram over the limit, under an anti-pollution proposal by the European Commission. This is incentive enough to explore ways of reducing exhaust emissions, including hybrid engines, whatever the level of environmental awareness among consumers.

Attractive price
For now hybrid manufacturers are using various promotional techniques to attract customers. The Honda Civic Hybrid is available in two trim levels with extensive equipment, and the zl.86,600 price tag for the basic MXB version 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.

Honda is also determined to target customers interested in hybrids. At the Paris motor show in the fall it unveiled its Honda Insight Concept, a prototype for a mass-produced hybrid that will hit showrooms next year. The price has not been officially disclosed, but Honda executives say it will be "attractive to customers." The main factor that will make it possible to reduce the costs of the new model will be an upgraded version of the company's multiple-award-winning IMA system. Fuel economy and the exhaust emission level in the Honda Insight will be similar to those of the Civic Hybrid, making the car versatile and environmentally-friendly at the same time, Honda executives say.

"The launch of the Honda Insight will complete the first stage of Honda's new strategy for hybrids," says Magdalena Kędzierska from Honda Poland Sp. z o.o. "The next step will be marketing a car modeled after the CR-Z trial model, followed by the Honda Jazz hybrid. This strategy is designed to make hybrids more affordable and thus more appealing to a wider group of customers."

Incentives from Toyota
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. Despite an across-the-board reduction in the prices of Toyota cars in Poland, the entry-level Prius still costs an off-putting zl.95,000. Fortunately, price is not decisive for those buying executive and luxury cars. "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 our 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 around zl.190,000 for the RX 400h SUV and go as high as zl.475,000 for the LS 600h luxury model. With such price tags many customers tend to view the hybrid engine as just another gadget.

Unimpressive sales figures
However, HEVs have yet to catch on with the general public. Fewer than 300 were sold in Poland last year. Modern technology is expensive, and the Polish legal system offers little incentive to purchase HEVs. This is in contrast to what some other countries are doing in this area. They are promoting HEVs by lowering the taxes on them-by up to 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.
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