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Explaining Sex to a Virgin...

Another hybrid beckons...

by Julian Edgar

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It’s a bit like trying to explain sex to a virgin.

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Or, perhaps more accurately, a virgin trying to learn about sex through reading. Simply, it won’t really matter what I write here – the joys of owning a hybrid petrol/electric vehicle will not be adequately communicated.

It’s not just grinning when others constantly complain about the rising price of fuel. It’s not just the smugness that comes from sitting at traffic lights, engine automatically switched off, listening and watching as those all around pointlessly and stupidly slurp their way through the tank. It’s not even – in the case of my NHW10 Prius – watching pedestrians hurriedly jump out the way when you silently, electrically, glide through carparks or along bumper-to-bumper cappuccino strips.

Nope, hybrid ownership is not just these things but a lot more – the availability of maximum electric torque at zero km/h and zero rpm; the feeling of driving something more technologically advanced than almost anything on the road; filling the tiny tank and knowing the range is greater than any other car drinking petrol; braking down hills knowing that all the way down you’re doing the equivalent of refuelling....

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And in the case of the ’99 Prius – a car said by some motoring writers to be squashed and cramped – it’s the sheer bloody roominess of the cabin. For its external size, this is one of the most spacious non-hatchbacks around. That’s also helped by the lack of the hugely wide ‘tailshaft tunnel’ and centre console that afflict so many cars – even those that are front-wheel drive.

Nope, the old Prius is certainly not perfect – not even in my car’s modified form. The steering – Toyota’s dreadful Nachlauf geometry – is very poor, with no feel around centre and a vagueness which is completely out of character with the car. The lack of a fold-down rear seat (in this model the high voltage battery is behind the seat back) reduces practicality, and aerodynamically the car’s not particularly stable (and that’s not helped by the steering).

And no one could ever call it a good looking car.

But my wife and I have enjoyed the Prius so much that the most expensive car in the household – a ’98 Lexus LS400 – has now not been driven for months. What?! Yes, without ever realising it – let alone making a conscious decision – it’s been the Prius that we’ve driven everywhere: shopping, sight-seeing... everything. That’s helped by my working from home and my wife being in the final weeks of finishing her tertiary studies, which she also does from home, but by the same token, to abandon the driving of a car that’s much faster, more luxurious and handles much better without even thinking it through is a stunning real-world indicator of how the Prius has insinuated itself into our lives.

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By don’t I miss the V8 Lexus performance? Well, not really. My license hangs by a thread (ironically, through driving the Prius too fast – see 153 km/h in a 110 zone) and when driven at normal speeds, there’s honestly not a lot of difference between the two. (When AutoSpeed colleague Michael Knowling and I drove a Prius for the very first time he commented: "Hell, they could have lifted the equipment level a little and stuck a Lexus badge on this" – NVH is very good.)

I’ve also always also subscribed to the theory that any car – irrespective of its power and handling – can be a lot of fun to drive; it’s all in how you drive it.

(And it should also be mentioned that when I have new cars to test, those are the cars my wife and I drive everywhere – it’s important to do as many real-world kilometres in them as possible. However, without fail, we can’t believe how quickly all these new cars slurp through the juice: the standing joke when either of us grabs the keys is that the press car will be empty of fuel....)

And it’s not as if the Lexus isn’t costing me a lot each month, either – in fact, its lease payments are large indeed. But I am the world’s biggest procrastinator so even when I realised that the obvious move was to spruce up the Lexus a little (eg repaint the bumpers, recolour the slightly wearing leather) and sell it, I did nothing.

But the realisation that the Lexus now meant so little to me that I didn’t even bother driving it was startling... and made me recognize how deeply the hybrid bug had bitten.

So what about buying another hybrid then?

Prius Models

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My Prius is a Japanese domestic market model – the NWH10. This model was released in Japan in late 1997. It uses a 43kW petrol engine and has 30kW of electric power available.

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The first model Prius sold outside of Japan was the NHW11 model, which looks the same as the NHW10 but has some significant underskin changes, including engine power increased to 53kW and electric power increased to 33kW.

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The current model, the NHW20, has both a new body and although the fundamentals remain the same, even more significant driveline changes. Engine power has increase to 57kW and electric power is up hugely to 50kW. The NHW20 has sold very well.

Honda Insight

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It was back in 2003 that I first drove a hybrid Honda Insight. We did a major drive story in AutoSpeed, travelling over 4000 kilometres in the two weeks we had the car, with 3500 of those done in four days. (See Special Feature- Honda Insight.) That drive revealed some of the car’s deficiencies – poor suspension dampers and tyre noise – but it also revealed the Insight as easily the most economical car ever sold in Australia, and arguably the world.

How economical then? Well, my modified turbo Prius gets about the mid-fives (litres/100km) in its normal use – mostly short trips or hilly country road driving. (As it happens, that’s also the figure we got when driving the current model Prius interstate – both cars do much better in urban conditions.) But the Insight on a similar long distance drive got 3.6 litres/100 – some 34 per cent better!

Some people argue that the passenger car diesels and small conventional petrol engine cars sold in Australia can get similar economy to a hybrid. In my experience, that comparison is valid only when comparing the economy of those cars on a long country road trip (the worse consumption scenario possible for a hybrid like a Prius and the best for conventional cars) and not in city conditions. But whichever way you want to arrange the figures, nothing available locally comes close to the actual, real world 3.6 litres/100km of the Insight. Nothing.

When it was released, Wheels magazine (hardly a bunch of economy drivers sympathetic to a hybrid cause) drove an Insight continuously around Sydney until it ran out of fuel. It did over 1000km on its 40 litre tank.

Back when I drove the Insight I thought its consumption was bloody good, but I didn’t realise that even five years after its release, it would still be seen as just an incredible a figure.

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But the Insight is a much smaller car than the Prius; furthermore, it is much more poorly packaged. There are just two seats and the rear load area under the hatchback is mostly filled with the battery/inverter/control box. In a way it’s also a much ‘softer’ hybrid than the Prius: it can’t travel on battery power alone and has a much smaller capacity high voltage battery and electric motor/generator. But it has huge technological advantages over the Prius (any Prius): an all-aluminium body that is super lightweight (about 820kg), aerodynamically slippery (Cd = 0.25) and has a small frontal area. It also has a vastly better engine design than the Prius.

While people like me get excited by the Prius, its 1.5 litre four cylinder engine technology is pretty basic. There’s variable cam timing on only one cam (the inlet) and the efficiency lift is only from weird valve timing matched with a high static compression ratio, grandiosely called the Atkinson Cycle. Otherwise, it’s just an Echo engine that revs to only 4000 rpm (slightly higher in later models). The really trick part of the Prius driveline is the Power Split Device, the variable transmission bolted to the engine that contains the two electric motor/generators.

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On the other hand, the Insight runs a brilliant 3-cylinder 1-litre engine that has a broad torque curve through its VTEC valve timing. Most significantly, it can run super lean air/fuel ratios, with the produced Oxides of Nitrogen adsorbed by a special cat converter. (The Prius runs an air/fuel ratio of 14.7:1 all the time.) On Australian-delivered cars, the Insight transmission is a 5-speed manual, with a thin electric motor sandwiched between the motor and gearbox.

So in a nutshell, when compared withall other cars I can easily buy, the Insight has:

The lowest aerodynamic drag coefficient – and probably considering its small frontal area, the lowest overall aero drag

The lowest fuel consumption

The most sophisticated body construction (along, it must be said, with the Audi A8, Jaguar XJ and Honda NSX)

The lowest emissions

It is also very safe for its size. But it has also seats for only two, a quite low recommended maximum load mass, primitive drum brakes at the back, poorer NVH than contemporary small cars and suspension which is nothing great.

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Back in 2003 I wrote:

For me the Insight nearly succeeds. If it rode and handled like a Peugeot 206 GTI, if it had the NVH suppression of a Lexus IS200 (or even of a Prius - the hybrid Toyota is much quieter than the Insight), then I'd be seriously looking at spending some money on one of these amazing cars. Oh no, not a new one... The secondhand prices of the Insight have crashed, reflecting its awkward status. A quieter, better handling Insight at $25,000 secondhand? Yes, I'd be approaching a loans officer.

Well now the Insight can now be bought secondhand from about $15,000.... Yeah sure, that money would buy a more practical Honda Jazz (and I like the Jazz) or a Hyundai Getz and a lot of fuel, but neither of those cars would give me a fraction of the joys of not only owning a hybrid, but also owning the most economical car on the road – bar none.

Hmmmm.....

"Just a POS"

I often hear car enthusiasts not only being negative about hybrids but actively hating them. In a weird kind of way, hybrids seem to threaten their perceptions of what cars should be.

If hybrids got 3 litres per 100km I might be interested. – Well, the official highway cycle figure of the Insight is 2.8 litres/100km and economy in the Threes is a consistent real world outcome.

They’re just gutless pieces of shit. – The new Lexus GS450H and LS600H hybrids are fast cars indeed and, compared with other cars that can get excellent economy, the Prius actually has very good performance (0-100 km/h in the Tens). Also, see the end of Hybrid Heaven?.

A diesel is a lot less of a gamble and gets better fuel economy. – Diesels don’t better the economy of hybrids of a similar size when a mix of driving conditions is considered. Less of a gamble? See below. (But wait for diesel hybrids, then we’ll see some interesting fuel consumption figures!)

How long’s that battery going to last? When it dies you’ll be up for [huge $ number] . - This one’s an interesting one. If you’re buying new, there’s no problem – both Honda and Toyota have bent over backwards to cover any battery problems, even out of the (long) warranty periods. Secondhand a long way down the track it does have the potential to be a problem – the first Prius models (sold only in Japan) are coming up for nine years old and some are just starting to have battery problems. But like any nine year old car with a major drama (eg a gearbox), people are simply sourcing a lower kilometre replacement from another car that’s been wrecked. Battery re-packing is also available. Finally, the battery just doesn’t die, it reduces slowly in capacity. My Prius now has less battery capacity than it had new, but it makes little driving difference. Mechanical problems in hybrids have been very rare indeed.

And I haven’t heard this one but it’s sure to come up eventually: You’re can’t do anything to modify them. In fact, you can do far more to modify a hybrid than a conventional car, because you have not one but two power producing systems that can be tweaked...

Compared....

Including my modified turbo NHW10 Prius, here’s how the cars compare.

Model

Prius NHW10

Prius NHW11

Prius NHW20

My Prius NHW10 turbo

Honda Insight

Engine Power (kW)

43

53

57

55?

46

Electric Power

(kW)

30

33

50

30

10

Vehicle Mass (kg)

1240

1220

1250

1250?

817

Mass/power (kg/kW)

17

14

12

15

12

0-100 km/h (seconds)

16

13

10

14

11

Typical on-road fuel economy (litres/100km)

5.7

5.2

4.7

5.5

3.6

Footnote: the primary purpose in turbocharging my NHW10 was to improve country road hill-climbing ability, something the modification succeeded in doing very well. However, this chart doesn’t show that.

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