Archive for the ‘Alternative Fuels’ Category

The 2010 Honda Insight and Toyota Prius

Saturday, January 24th, 2009

It’s not exactly hot news any longer, but earlier this month Honda and Toyota pre-announced new or improved small hybrid vehicles. In Honda’s case, it was a brand new platform with an old name, the 2010 Honda Insight. In Toyota’s case, it was the redesigned 2010 Prius.

The 2010 Honda Insight

Honda has revealed more information about the new Insight than Toyota has about the next iteration of the Prius, so it’s easier to analyze the Insight’s pluses and minuses. The 5-door Insight’s styling is very similar to that of the Prius (although it can be argued that Toyota borrowed from Honda’s styling of the original Insight when it created the Prius). With the Prius as the benchmark, though, you might sum up by saying that the Insight is less in several regards: The overall size is smaller, the gas engine is smaller, its EPA fuel economy is rated at 40/43 (less than the Prius), and it’s expected to be less expensive than the Prius — although, neither manufacturer has revealed pricing as I write this.

Specifically, the new Honda Insight has a 1.3-liter semisingle-overhead-cam, 8-valve, 4-cylinder engine that makes 98 horsepower. By U.S. standards, that’s a small engine for a car whose curb weight is 2723 pounds. The 10-kilowatt electric motor delivers 13 hp. It should be noted that Honda’s hybrid technology uses a very small “assist” electric motor. (For comparison: Toyota’s 2009 Prius employs a much larger 50-kilowatt, 67-horsepower electric motor. According to Toyota’s preliminary specifications, the 2010 Prius electric motor will make 80 horsepower.)

The Insight has a continuously-variable transmission (CVT) and a nickel-metal hydride battery, a combination found on many other hybrids. The wheelbase is 100.4 inches. Honda’s approach is to go smaller and lighter — a strategy that makes sense given that the power-to-weight ratio is a big issue in hybrid vehicles, and even more importantly, weight has a huge impact on fuel economy.

Pricing is an important part of the Insight value proposition. Although Honda has not released pricing, industry observers have pegged it as possibly starting as low as $18,000 or $19,000, which is several thousand dollars less than the 2009 Prius.

But is less really more? That’s difficult to judge from a spec sheet. The Insight is expected to be available in April. Honda’s Insight website offers detailed specs, but for more information, see the 2010 Honda Insight press release.

Finally, I was let down by the final design and trim out of the 2010 Honda Insight. It doesn’t live up to the concept vehicles that came before it. To me it looks faintly reminiscent of a smaller 2001 Dodge Stratus with a Prius rear end. The front grill looks cheesy. Honda’s U.S. vehicles have, in general, lost their design appeal. My 1989 Accord was gorgeous in comparison with the current day Accord. The 2010 Insight isn’t butt ugly, like the previous generations of the Prius. It’s just bland.

The third-generation 2010 Prius

Toyota is calling this vehicle its “third generation Prius,” but as I predicted in earlier posts, it does not offer a lighter-weight lithium-ion battery pack. There are significant hurdles of safety and manufacturing that Toyota and others have not been able to iron yet pertaining to mass production lithium-ion batteries for hybrid vehicles. Even so, Toyota has managed to upgrade its technology in several significant ways.

The conservative body changes are also not the “pretty Prius” that was heavily rumored last year. The biggest change is is a nearly four-inch pushback of the hump in the roofline and some pillar repositioning to improve aerodynamics and deliver more rear-seat headroom where it’s needed. The cargo area is over two inches wider, and a tad longer. Toyota claims that the redesign also reduces the new Prius’ coefficient of drag to an impressive 0.25 (down from 0.26).

The 2010 Prius gets a larger, higher torque 98-horsepower Atkinson-cycle 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine. Toyota says this larger engine (the old one was 1.61.5 liters) will deliver better fuel economy at highway speeds because it will be strong enough to run in a higher gear range (added for the 2010 Prius), even on inclines. And while this hasn’t been EPA-tested yet, Toyota is predicting 50/ 50 miles per gallon in combined driving.

Several changes are aimed at reducing power consumption. Toyota lightened its electric motivation system by trimming the size and weight of the electric motor, inverter, and transaxle. (Imagine if they paired that with a lighter battery pack.) The new Prius also offers LED low-beam headlights on some trim lines. The air conditioning system has been reengineered for cool-down efficiency.

Perhaps more importantly for those in colder climes, the heating system is more efficient in the 2010 Prius. I get about 5 miles per gallon less in the dead of winter in my 2007 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. The Prius probably doesn’t take this much of a hit because it was designed from scratch as a hybrid. The Highlander Hybrid’s heat is slow to take effect, so you really need the anemic heated seat to get through a New England winter. The gas engine has to run more frequently to make cabin heat. On really cold days, I’m not driving for gas mileage — I’m driving to warm up!

The new Prius has several new systems and functions that may be more glitzy than truly useful. But they’re also kind of cool. For example, an optional sliding-glass moonroof contains solar panels that can power a ventilation system even when the car is parked and off. It reduces cabin temperature on sunny days, reducing the initial cool-down period for air conditioning.

Some of the more advanced — and clearly in need of real-world testing — features include Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Lane Keep Assist, the Pre-Collision System, and Intelligent Parking Assist. Each of these uses technology designed to save you from yourself, and, as such, I’m not a big fan. On the other hand, I haven’t tried them either.

Toyota’s 2010 Prius website is a triumph of form over function that doesn’t actually impart much more than basic bullet points about what’s new. Even the pictures of the new Prius there are based on a late prototype, not the final vehicle. The 2010 Prius press release is far more detailed. Check it out for more information. Until there are more hard facts on the 2010 Prius, you can refer to the 2009 Prius specs for details, since many things — such as its 106.3-inch wheelbase — are unchanged.

My On-Paper Assessment

It should be noted that while both the Insight and Prius are 5-door hatchbacks, the Prius is larger than the Insight. It’s also likely that the Prius base price will be at least $2,000 more than that of the Insight, and the cost delta could be as much as $5,000. Toyota is very busy watching its bottom line these days. The point: These cars are not really quite in the same class. If you want a low-cost hybrid that gets over 40 mpg and has a back seat and a fifth door, the Honda may be just fine for your needs.

Based on the specs we have to date, however, for me it would be no contest in favor of the Prius. I believe performance, both in terms of pick up and gas mileage, will be better in the Toyota hybrid. (The Honda is very likely to offer better handling.) The Prius also offers more cargo space. These are the most important things to me.

In the real world where people have varying priorities, there’s more than enough room for two 5-door hybrids. Both vehicles will be successful, and despite their similarity in appearance, will appeal to different types of buyers.

Hybrid Closure: Buying a Second Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Friday, June 20th, 2008

Somewhere in New York City is a cab driver whose name I never caught who is partly responsible for helping me make this decision. He gave me a ride from LaGuardia into the City in his 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, and we spent 35 minutes comparing notes on all the hybrid vehicles we knew. He loved his cab, which already had upwards of 100K miles on it. It started me thinking: I had been concentrating on buying an economical third vehicle, something like a Prius or Civic Hybrid. But was keeping my pristine, under-20K-miles, 2004 Toyota Tundra DoubleCab pickup truck the responsible thing to do? It didn’t even take me a New York minute to consider that question. The answer was: No.

So, if I didn’t have a pickup truck, what vehicle would I need to handle my weekend woodworking and landscaping projects while at the same time allowing me to ferry around kids to soccer games, etc.? Despite having excellent second row seating, the Toyota Tundra DoubleCab is no fun to park or zip around town in. Since my wife bought her 2007 Toyota Highlander Hybrid last August, I’d taken to using her car on the weekends — when I could get it.

Sitting there on the L.I.E. in the back of this guy’s Highlander Hybrid cab, the answer crystallized in my mind. I have hitch attachments that extend the relatively short cargo area behind the first row of the Highlander (and ply wood won’t lie flat, but it’s not like I usually buy more than four sheets a time). I have a cargo platform (2 feet by 5 feet) that slips into the hitch receiver, giving me a lot more storage space. I’ve also used it to ferry my snow blower and gas grill for servicing. I have a bike rack hitch attachment. The Highlander has a decent roof rack and a fairly long roof line. Most of all, I don’t need to haul big things very often. To be honest, the truck has spent more time ferrying Christmas trees than serious payloads. If I really need a pickup, I can always rent one. In the era of $4 gas, a pickup truck that’s not a full-time work truck is not just a luxury, it’s just plain irresponsible for my needs.

So with that as the lead in, I decided several weeks ago to buy a used 2006 or 2007 Toyota Highlander Hybrid — the same vehicle my wife owns. I’d already done all the research when we bought her car. It’s the best designed, most fuel-efficient people mover to be had. Owning one for nearly a year hasn’t changed my opinion on that score one jot. There are still 2008 Highlander Hybrids around, but I’m not fond of the newer model, especially because it’s quite a bit more expensive.

In the end, I fell into a lucky deal — a used 2007 model with only 4,000 miles on it that was literally owned by a little old lady who rarely drove it. It’s exactly like my wife Cyndy’s except for color and DVD navigation option. Cyndy doesn’t care for DVD navigation because of a strong preference for analog dials and an absence of glitzy graphics while she’s driving. Even the interior color of my new vehicle is the same as hers. All I had to do was have the dealer add the tow hitch. The Highlander is rated to tow up to 3,500 pounds, but what I’m interested in is the 350-pound tongue weight for various attachments that lack wheels.

Won’t his and her Highlanders be kinda cute? Isn’t the Highlander a plain and drab Camry derivative? Yes and yes. But it’s the right vehicle for my needs. The hybrid technology will add 10-15 mpg over what I’ve been getting with the truck, plus it’s a lot more enjoyable to zip around in, park, and do all the things that parents with young kids do. And the Highlander will be an adequate vehicle for most of my home-improvement projects.

I take delivery tomorrow.

More Scuttlebutt on the 2009 Prius

Friday, June 6th, 2008

From a salesman at a Toyota dealer I frequent, I heard some details about the next-generation Toyota Prius a couple of days ago. I can’t verify this information independently, but I believe it’s probably close to the truth:

1. The next-gen Prius (which may or may not be the 2010 or 2009 model) will get a new, more fuel-efficient 1.8-liter 4-cylinder gas engine from the 35-mpg 2009 Toyota Corolla. The new Prius will get higher gas mileage — probably mostly as a result of this new gas engine.

2. The new Prius body will have mild cosmetic updates, not a major upgrade. The body will have longer, sloping nose and will have a sportier appearance overall.

3. The new Prius will not have lithium-ion batteries, and I was told it will not have a larger electric motor (although that second point was conveyed with far less confidence).

4. The Prius name will be used on a small line-up of vehicles that are under development now.

5. Toyota is planning a new hybrid vehicle that will have Prius model-line badging and will be called the “Abat” (spelling?). It will be a hybrid 4×4 truck crossover based on the RAV4 platform combined with a drivetrain derived from the Camry Hybrid. My source described it as being a cross between the Subaru Brat of the late 1970s …

… and the Honda Ridgeline. It will have a fold-down rear wall that lets you extend the bed into the rear seat like the Ridgeline and Chevy Avalanche. When extended, the bed will be 6-feet long.

If this information about the Prius is true, Toyota may call the new drivetrain in next year’s Prius the third generation of its Hybrid Synergy Drive (hybrid technology), but if so it will be letting its marketing department get the best of it. Any new evolution of the hybrid technology should involve a system that lets the vehicle drive a bit faster and longer on electric power before the gas engine kicks in. In my opinion, it should also incorporate safe, longer-lasting, lighter-weight lithium-ion batteries.

That said, the new Corolla engine is EPA rated at 27 mpg city and 35 mpg highway. In its initial test, Consumer Reports got 32 mpg in the mixed driving and 40 mpg on the highway — with the 4-speed automatic. The gas economy of the new 1.8-liter Corolla engine is pretty impressive. A colleague of mine recently traded in his Toyota Tundra DoubleCab pickup for the new Corolla. He tells me he’s getting 40 mpg with it. He commutes 90 miles a day (both ways), and the Corolla has cut his gasoline consumption by half.

Outlook Worsening? Or Becoming More Realistic

I probably don’t have to tell you that things are getting worse on the oil front. Despite a recent temporary drop in oil prices, many experts believe we’re not going back to sub-$100-a-barrel oil prices. General Motors announced that it’s dropping its focus on big SUVs and turning its attention to building a small vehicle with a 1.4-liter engine for domestic consumption.

I think we can finally expect to see both a raft a new hybrids as well as many more small vehicles with small, highly fuel-efficient engines. The American consumer has gotten the message. In my area, there’s now as much as a six-month wait for the Toyota Prius. People are snatching up small cars rapidly. Car sales finally beat out truck sales in May. Things are changing rapidly.

My thinking has changed too. I had been planning to keep my 2004 Toyota Tundra DoubleCab as a luxury — a weekend-only vehicle. But I’m now thinking about trading it for some sort of hybrid vehicle, possibly even a second Highlander Hybrid. I realize my purist readers are going to bash me for the large hybrid if I go that way, but I’m giving up a vehicle with ultimate utility, and I’m going to need something I can haul stuff with. I do woodworking and landscaping myself, and I’m not prying my wife’s Highlander Hybrid out of her hands, or messing it up with my Home Depot runs. I’m thinking a used 2006 Highlander Hybrid, by the way. I can’t afford the new design. They’re way expensive. But I may have trouble locating a used one.

Toyota’s Next-Gen Hybrid Tech and 2009 Prius

Sunday, May 25th, 2008

SNB reader and economist Giacomo Ponzetto sent a very interesting email questioning some of my thinking in An Increasing Priority: Fuel-Efficient Automobiles. One of the points he raised was whether this was the best time financially to buy a Toyota Prius. His point is that Toyota is gearing up to release the third generation of its Hybrid Synergy hybrid-electric technology. It’s also redesigning the body of the 2009 Prius.

We know very little about Toyota’s third-gen hybrid technology as yet, but what’s leaked out is that it’s supposed to offer better gas mileage and more power. The car is apparently also undergoing a redesign that may make it one-inch wider and three to four inches longer (according to various reports). Toyota may also be increasing the number of trim levels, and may eventually offer other vehicles with the Prius badge, including some sort of small minivan.

There is precious little information directly attributed to Toyota about any of details. In fact, there are a great many conflicting reports. One of the more recent stories from Edmunds Auto Observer is, however, worth a read. The story offers more detail than any other story I’ve read on this subject, and it pegs the launch date of the redesigned Prius as January 2009. A May 2008 Road & Track story also sheds some light on the topic. The rest of the links flesh out additional information, including what Honda is doing:

This Popular Mechanics image, which may be a photo illustration, is likely not based on the actual final version of the new Prius. It appears to be an artist’s rendition of the 2009 Prius based on published descriptions of the new dimensions of the vehicle and changes to the nose. The refinements shown to the rear end, while attractive, are probably not in the cards. This Road & Track slideshow shows what it purports to be camouflaged 2009 Prius. If these images show something like the real deal for 2009, it’s a very mild cosmetic upgrade that might be nothing more than a mild refresh while we wait for the big change in 2010.

The Right Time to Buy?

Toyota, Honda, Nissan, GM, and Ford are just some of the world’s auto manufacturers that are gearing up in a big way to deliver major new hybrid line-ups and also plug-in hybrid vehicles over the next couple of years. 2010 is the likely arrival timeframe for many of these efforts. So, should you wait?

In my opinion, no — not if you’re already in the market for a new vehicle. The Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid are both viable vehicles right now that will save you money and cut back on harmful emissions right away.

The only steep-demand tax that consumers are paying Toyota right now is that dealers aren’t dealing off the suggested retail price of any of their hybrid models. In many U.S. markets, they’re completely sold out of hybrids but they’re continuing to sell them sight unseen “off the boat.” Customers don’t even get a pre-purchase test drive. Plus you’ll likely have to wait a couple of months to take delivery. But bottom line, the prices haven’t gone up yet.

Even if Toyota intends to hold the price on lower-end trim levels of the Prius, I have my doubts about whether it will be able to do so. Some of the factors that go into my thinking include the weakness of the dollar against the yen and other currencies, the cost of transportation, reduction or elimination of tax incentives, building demand for hybrids, possible limits on the production levels for the less expensive models, the worsening U.S. economy, and rising costs of manufacturing, both in the U.S. and overseas. In the 1990s, Toyota dealers in my area routinely slapped dealer mark-ups on their high-demand vehicles of as much as $2,000 above retail. Even though Toyota frowns on such practices, it could happen again.

What about the new technology? Might you have buyer’s remorse with the 2008 model?

I can’t say you won’t. I may feel that way if I buy a 2008 Prius. But there’s always something better around the corner. The real question is, is there be a significant reason to wait?

It appears that Toyota will be launching a new Prius in January. But will it be truly the next-gen hybrid technology, or is it a stopgap update while Toyota attempts to ramp up lithium-ion product? The Edmunds Auto Observer story implies that it’s all coming in early 2009, except the lithium ion batteries. The Road & Track story implies something that’s more likely. Toyota may offer three different levels: Base, Luxury, and Eco. That fits the company’s current situation. So, in that scenario, here are my guesses about the equipment levels for each trim level:

The Base model may have the current mpg levels and possibly the 1.5-liter engine with the existing nickel-metal-hydride batteries. It will be stripped way down to keep the price down. Some of the uplevel options won’t be available at all.

The Luxury model may get the 1.8-liter engine with the nickel-metal-hydride batteries. Gas mileage may suffer a little, but performance will be improved. This will be the most popular Prius sold, and it will probably be priced around $28,000 to $$29,000 depending on options.

The Eco model could have lithium-ion batteries if Toyota and its battery partner Panasonic can work out the production issues (and that’s a big if, in my opinion). The Eco model may have a June or July release date. This model could offer better than current Prius gas mileage with better than current Prius performance (on demand, but with a loss of gas mileage). But you’re going to pay for it. I expect this model to sell for as much as $32,000 to $33,000.

All three models will have the redesigned body style.

Of course, all of this is just my guesswork. The reality could be something very different. We might, for example, see only the new body design and Toyota’s improved Hybrid Synergy electric motor. The main advantage of that new motor is an increase of power output. If the weight is about the same as the old motor, or if it’s miraculously less, then Toyota should be able to run the car to higher speeds and for longer durations without switching on the gas engine. That would deliver notable improvements in fuel economy around town. Would Toyota dub that level of improvement its third-generation hybrid system? It just might. I’m pretty sure that, originally, Toyota had intended to factor lithium-ion batteries into that mix. But we’ll see.

I do think that Toyota will eventually get all this right. It’s trying to please both the eco and performance crowds. It did the same thing in miniature with the 2008 Highlander Hybrid. That’s why I bought the lighter, smaller 2007 model. I didn’t need a slightly bigger, heavier design. If the 2009 Prius tries to be more things to more people without significantly improving its HEV technology, then it might not offer the vaunted gas economy improvements that Toyota has leaked to the press here and there — at least, not until 2010.

In the end, it comes down to money. How many years will it take to pay-back your hybrid technology if the 2009 Prius costs more? Gas prices are very high right now. What about the loss of savings right now? I’m not an economist or an accountant. All I know is that, for me, it’s a good time to buy this year. If the cost of oil continues to climb, demand will ramp up that much quicker. And usually, prices of goods are determined by supply and demand.

What do you think? If you’re making a move to a new vehicle with better fuel economy, should wait for the barrage of new offerings waiting in the wings, or jump on what’s available now? There’s no right answer, but I’m interested in people’s insights and opinions. Feel free to post your comments or send me an email.

An Increasing Priority: Fuel-Efficient Automobiles

Friday, May 23rd, 2008

It’s been roughly nine months since I addressed the subject of alternative automobile fuels and fuel-efficient automotive technologies. I last wrote on the topic in these two stories late last summer:

Since then, average U.S. gasoline prices have risen from $2.74 per gallon to $3.88 per gallon (source: GasBuddy.com). In recent weeks, the average U.S. retail price of diesel has also risen dramatically (Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration); it’s currently up $4.49 per gallon. When I wrote very favorably about Clean Diesel last year, diesel prices were in something of a free fall and were almost $2.00 less per gallon on average than they are today.

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More Automotive Future: Clean Diesel

Saturday, September 29th, 2007

My essay a few weeks back called A View of Our Automotive Future stirred up a lot of controversy and generated a lot of reader email. It’s easy to forget that as wound up as people get about Microsoft, Apple, and Linux, nothing compares to what happens when you poke people where they really live: their automobiles.

I also managed to anger a whole ton of people with my comments about climate change being — to my mind — man-made. Almost no one wrote me to disagree that we’re experiencing climate change; but many SFNL readers wrote to tell me that global warming is not caused by the significantly increased CO2 levels generated in part by humanity. OK, well, everyone is entitled to their opinion. My concern is that the polar ice cap is melting, and we’re standing around debating whose fault it is. My tendency is to focus on solving the problem.

I’m happy to report that another huge batch of readers wrote to tell me that they, too, have purchased a hybrid gas/electric vehicle of some sort. Interestingly, though, a lot of people also wrote to tell me hybrids aren’t really the answer. Of course they’re not the last word. They still burn nonrenewable resources, don’t they? The point many were trying to make is that the complexity and weight involved with internal combustion/electric hybrid vehicles makes them imperfect — especially as replacements for larger vehicles. They also make small vehicles heavier with their battery packs. This is all true. It’s the engineering trade-off for a vehicle that has two means of propelling itself. But that doesn’t change the fact that even my wife’s relatively heavy Toyota Highlander Hybrid gets better gas mileage than its lighter nonhybrid Highlander brandmates. It also gets nearly two times the miles per gallon delivered by the SUV it replaces in the Finnie household. And it generates fewer harmful emissions.

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A View of Our Automotive Future

Monday, September 10th, 2007

Almost two years ago, in the wake of hurricane Katrina and the subsequent rise in gas and oil prices, I made the GasBuddy.com peer-based gasoline filling station price site Link of the Month. Then I took the opportunity to write Gratuitous Rant About the Auto Industry, which focused on the government’s toothless CAFE standards and the auto industry’s lack of initiative in aggressively exploring alternative-fuel-based systems.

What followed the opinion piece was an intriguing bevy of email from Scot’s Newsletter readers both agreeing and disagreeing with my viewpoint. Many of the messages I received were from people who work as engineers and scientists in the power and automobile industries.

One of the more common refrains was that hydrogen/oxygen-based fuel-cell-powered automobiles just aren’t a realistic alternative. I disagreed, and still disagree — but I recognize that hydrogen has several hurdles to leap. We’re certainly a long way from being able to just switch to hydrogen-based fuel-cell vehicles.

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