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The Warsaw Voice » Society » August 1, 2013
Car Review
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Anyone for a Hybrid?
August 1, 2013   
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Hybrid-electric vehicles, equipped with both an internal combustion engine and an electric motor, 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.

Although hybrid cars have been on the market for nearly two decades, they still stir heated debate. For some they are synonymous with innovation and environmental awareness, while others dismiss them as a marketing ploy targeting customers who see hybrids as the in-thing—and who are willing to pay handsomely for them.

In Poland, hybrid cars are still something of a hard sell because, even though consumers are aware that such vehicles are eco-friendly and economical, deep down they are wary of this ultra-modern technology, and many simply cannot afford to buy a hybrid car—as these are widely (though not necessarily accurately) considered to be far more expensive than conventional vehicles. Some of those ready to lend an ear to conspiracy theories even believe that the fashion for hybrids and green cars in general has been stimulated by automakers looking to make a killing on their products.

Early beginnings
Believe it not, hybrid-electric vehicles 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 internal combustion engine back in 1905, although France’s Compagnie Parisienne des Voitures Electriques was manufacturing such vehicles between 1897 and 1907. Piper’s bulky, heavy automobile could reach 40 kph in 10 seconds. This was never going to revolutionize the automotive industry seeing that conventional 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 hybrid-electric vehicle. 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.

How does a hybrid vehicle work? It 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 until it gains speed; then the combustion engine takes over.

The operation of both engines and the energy flow between them is displayed on the dashboard, as is the status of the batteries. The single-speed continuously variable transmission allows for a theoretically infinite number of gear ratios, which makes for a smooth drive provided you do not accelerate too rapidly.

Toyota leading the charge
The world’s leading producers of hybrid vehicles are Toyota and the Toyota-owned Lexus brand. Since the debut of its Prius model in 1997, Toyota has produced more than 5 million hybrids. The Japanese automaker offers cars with an imaginative design and a wealth of accessories, and consumer tests affirm their quality and reliability. Toyota sells many hybrid models in various segments of the automobile market, starting from city cars.

“Polish customers discovered the hybrid Yaris last year and this version immediately won a 20-percent market share,” says Robert Mularczyk of Toyota Motor Poland. “The transfer of the complete hybrid technology from the Prius to the city Yaris has made it possible to reduce the price from around zl.100,000 in the case of the Prius to zl.66,000 in the case of the Yaris and have the car priced only a several thousand zlotys more than the diesel version.”

Another Toyota hybrid, the Auris, is making its debut this summer. Equipped with all available comfort and safety features, the compact Auris, thanks to its hybrid system, uses only 3.7 liters of fuel per 100 km in city driving. Comfortable and pleasant to drive, it boasts the lowest total running costs on the market, taking into account the cost of fuel, servicing and depreciation. The warranty on the hybrid system is five years and the warranty on the battery can be extended to 10 years. The most serious argument in its favor could be the price. The hybrid version costs zl.84,900, only zl.10,000 more than a model with a combustion engine and an automatic transmission. Given the car’s parameters, the additional cost pays back after about 50,000 kilometers. Even those not persuaded by economic and environmental arguments would still do well to go for the hybrid because of the smooth and quiet drive it offers.

However, the price, which plays a significant role when you look for a less expensive car, is usually less important in the case of premium cars. “Lexus is the only luxury brand that has been mass-producing hybrid cars for years,” says Monika Małek, Lexus press officer at Toyota Motor Poland. “From 2005, when we began selling Lexus hybrids in Poland, to the end of last year, we sold a total of 1,714 units. Hybrids are becoming more popular every year. Last year’s sales of 257 units—the CT, LS and RX models—accounted for 45.01 percent of total sales of Lexus cars. We expect even better results in 2013, as have put two new hybrids, the GS and the IS, on the market. It is worth noting that Lexus cars carrying the ‘h’ [for hybrid] symbol already represent more than 90 percent of all Lexus cars sold in Europe.”

For wealthier clients five hybrid models are available, ranging from the compact CT200h to the mid-range Lexus IS 300h, the executive GS 450h and the luxury LS 600h (also available in the Long version). Those partial to SUVs also have the opportunity to drive a hybrid version of the RX 450h. Prices start from around zl.113,000 for the CT200h and end at a mind-boggling zl.715,000 for the LS 600hL limo.

Market rivals
Although Toyota was the first to mass-produce hybrid vehicles, many other corporations, including Honda, were also working on this type of car at the same time. Today, Honda offers several hybrid models. However, in the case of this automaker, these are so-called “soft” hybrids. The electric motor is mounted on the crankshaft of the combustion engine and cannot by itself power the car, unlike in the case of Toyota vehicles. It only becomes active when the car is idling and supports the combustion engine during the startup phase by adding torque.

The PSA corporation (Citroen & Peugeot) uses similar technology in its hybrid models. What is new in the case of the Citroen DS5 or the Peugeot RXH is the use of a diesel instead of a gasoline engine, which results in even more driving economy.

The Infiniti luxury vehicle brand owned by Japanese automaker Nissan also offers hybrid cars. One is the Infiniti M35h, which accounts for 14 percent of all Infiniti cars sold in Poland.

Wojciech Kordalewski, CEO of Infiniti Polska, says the automaker wants the M35h to account for 30 percent of all Infiniti cars sold in Europe.

The Infiniti hybrid is a responsive car, and offers the same kind of road handling as the gasoline and diesel versions, as well as the same travel comfort. Another strong argument in favor of the hybrid is its price, only zl.8,000 higher than for the diesel. As a bonus you’ll get better fuel economy, quietness on long-distance trips and a warranty for the entire powertrain extended to five years.

A hybrid option, next to the traditional 2.2 diesel, will also be available for the new Q50 model. However, with the Q50, the hybrid will account for a much greater proportion of sales than in the case of the M model, Kordalewski says. The main advantages of that model will be its four-wheel drive and a direct steering system capable of adapting the work of the steering system to the driver’s preferences, depending on the type of surface along which the car is moving.

Today, almost every car maker offers a hybrid or plans to unveil one in the near future. This also applies to well-known marques that are not readily associated with environmental concerns. For example, Porsche offers a hybrid version of its Cayenne SUV and a hybrid version of its Panamera four-door sedan, while a year from now a hybrid version of the 918 Spyder two-seater sports car will hit the market as well. Who would have expected that of one of the world’s best known sports car manufacturers even a couple of years ago?

The trend for environmentally-friendly technology in the automotive industry, which is picking up steam in the United States and Japan, has finally reached these shores as well. Rising fuel prices, especially for non-renewable fuels, are increasingly making energy conservation more a necessity than a virtue. Hybrids are bound to become more popular in the future because they make it possible to not only save energy but also to limit emissions. The only problem is the price tag—because, for the time being, going green comes at a cost.
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