Making the case for a hybrid, again

Written by Vikram Chaudhary | Updated: Aug 11 2012, 08:04am hrs
When extended a proposal to drive the new hybrid car in town, I picked my bicycle to reach the nearest metro station, took the metro train, dropped down near the dealership, and walked till I reached thereessentially, taking a relatively eco-friendly route to reach the car. This, I call the Prius effect! To auto enthusiasts, Toyota Prius doesnt quite require much introductionit is a pioneer in hybrid technology and the first mass production hybrid vehicle. More than delivering better fuel efficiency and lower carbon emissions, the car has introduced futuristic design and able driving performance for a hybrid, and has received great acclaim across the world. To the environmentally-conscious, Prius is a Latin word meaning to go beforeaccording to Toyota, the name was chosen because the Prius was launched before environmental awareness became a mainstream social issue (essentially, when Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997).

But what exactly is a hybrid A hybrid vehicle uses both the internal combustion engine and an electric motor to propel a car. The electric motor is there to achieve both better fuel economy and better performance. Modern hybrids use technologies such as regenerative braking (rather than wasting it as heat energy) that convert the vehicles kinetic energy into electric energy, which, in turn, charges the batteries.

Not many may know this but a hybrid is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it was more than a century ago that the first hybrid was developedthe Lohner-Porsche Mixte Hybrid made by Ferdinand Porsche was the first gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle in the world. But, back then, or even until the 1980s, there was no need to invest in hybrid R&D because of the low cost of petroleum (thus low cost of running vehicles) and comparatively little environmental consciousness. This was until the times started to change. And sometime during such times, the Prius took birththe first car went on sale in Japan on December 10, 1997, a day before Kyoto (December 11, 1997).

The Prius came to India in 2010 but the car you see in pictures here is the all-new variantamong other changes, it is powered by the solar ventilation systemthat was introduced at the Auto Expo in Delhi earlier this year. The new Prius comes across as the most identifiable designs on the street. The bold bumper with a tiny grille (the cars engine cooling requirements are low) make for a clean front. Looked at from the side, youll see the focus is on reducing air resistance that contributes to better performance and fuel-efficiency. The rear spoiler integrated into the high hatch sets it apart from any other hatchback on the roads, and the large tail lamp cluster (it uses LED lamps) adds to the difference. The design itself has a lot of technology riding behind itself.

The drive, as expected, is unlike most cars, and the experience begins right from the time you step inside. From standstill until you gradually reach 40 kmph, there is absolutely no sound from the carthe reason, it runs exclusively on the electric motor (although the noiselessness takes some getting used to). Press the accelerator hard and the petrol motor comes to life and, with the already running electric motor, gives you the performance of a 2.4-litre class car even though the petrol engine is a 1.8-litre one. Nearing a traffic junction, press the brakes and the regenerative brake system takes over, turning the cars kinetic energy into electric energy. Stop at a traffic junction and the petrol motor automatically shuts off but the electric remains on, thereby ensuring the cars AC is running, without unnecessary fuel consumption and emissions associated with idling. Park the car in the sun, go for a coffee, come back and find it cool (again, without any emissions!) because the solar ventilation system fitted on the roof of the new Prius generates a little amount of electricity and uses it to ventilate the cabin. Oh, so much for technology!

The drive, although, is not very involving. But the only reason is that modern drivers are yet to get into that mode when they feel the performance showing without those typical engine notes.

The space on the inside is very generous and the fit and finish is as good as it can get. The information display is on the centre console but the really futuristic part is the head-up displayit projects various driving information on the lower windshield glass directly in front of the driver, minimising eye movement. The central display itself is a great way of not only keeping you entertained but also provides for a cleaner consciousness! The car doesnt look very large on the outside but that is because of the minimum exterior, maximum interior design philosophy. The use of a high hatch ensures more flexibility; after all, you need some space to store the batteries also! So, just underneath the rear luggage storage flooring is the space for the nickel-metal hydride battery. Overall, the inner space is mammoth and the comfort matches what you get in a large luxury car.

The petrol engine in the new Prius is now the 1.8-litre 2ZR-FXE Toyota VVT-i and, along with the electric motor, it produces a total maximum output of 100kWnot earth-shattering but definitely good enough for a car this size and weight. Mention must be made here of the fact that the Prius weighs just 1,385 kg, helped by a lightweight body and reducing the weight of the components being used in the car.

On the safety front, the car comes with crash safety body that comes with front and rear crumple zones, active headrests that contribute to reduction of neck impact in the event of an accident and supplemental restraint system (SRS) airbagsdriver, front passenger, driver knee, side airbags and curtain-shield airbags.

Retailing between R27.38 lakh and R29.40 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi), the Prius doesnt come cheap. And in day-to-day traffic conditions, you dont get that good a fuel-efficiency to offset your high buying costs either. But what you get for this amount is exclusivity, the feeling of setting a benchmark for the future and, most importantly, a much, much cleaner consciousness of driving a vehicle that does its bit for the earth. And, to some, that does matter. To others, can Toyota please give the Prius for R20-odd-lakh