Toyota Prius - should it be taken seriously or not?

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Chris Martin
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Elsewhere James Elliott started a debate asking people to nominate their top five lists and already there is controversy over whether the Toyota Prius ranks as an important car or not. I had already been working on a report about the past and future of the hybrid concepts and the related 'green' issues, but I thought it appropriate to post it here.

Note I deliberately chose to put this in the Non-classic matters forum, and fully expect to ridiculed and called names, but hey, I'll take that risk now, as I suspect the near future will prove me right. I just wish I could predict what would be the next gimmick the marketing departments come up with, there could be millions at stake.

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  As for how important or otherwise the Toyota Prius is, there are two issues to consider.

The first is where does the Prius stand in the history of hybrids.

The second is does it actually work.

To consider the first point, without doubt this has so far been the most successful hybrid car ever in terms of sales, but is that just a result of good timing?  The marketing people recognised an opportunity cash in on the growing trend for people to want to be seen to be green, as if there is some feelgood factor that goes with doing what is perceived to be the right thing for the planet. The fact that this is as far from green as you can get is irrelevant to these marketing gurus and I will tackle those issues later.

The Prius was launched in 2004 to great acclaim from greenies the world over, and was soon followed by announcements by most major manufacturers that they were too working on their own hybrid models. Toyota, having already invested in the technology, soon brought out other models, the Camry in the larger sedan market sector, and Honda were not far behind with their current Insight. But what of the original Honda Insight? That predated the Prius by three years but failed to sell. Yes it was only a small two-door coupe, and it looked good too, although possibly a bit too radical at the time. I suspect it was just that it was initially presented as ‘a taste of the future’ rather than ‘the future is here’, but if there is any kudos to attach to any hybrid car being seen as important in the overall scheme of things, then surely the Insight got there first.

  However, ten years later, and despite the best efforts of the marketing men, it seems demand has not quite met expectations and while some makers have not bothered to go into production after all, Chevrolet did last year with the Volt and again misread the market. They were forced to lay off workers in March this year and after revising downward their projected sales targets, decided they would no longer set any targets at all. More info on that at;

http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/chevy-volt-why-production-was-halted-and-what-it-means/2012/03/06/gIQAfNILvR_story.html

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  There have been variations on the hybrid theme since the invention of the horseless carriage with some cars using electric motors powered by petrol generators ninety years before Toyota brought their version to market. The Woods had an electric motor for town use, and using a smaller battery than the rival electric-only cars it had a four-cylinder petrol motor to take over the propulsion once out in the countryside while simultaneously recharging the battery, but this was only one of many permutations. Electric cars had at one time been popular in America, but only really of any use in cities as their limited range meant not straying too far from either home, or one of the charging points, and the other selling point of electrics was their apparent cleanliness, silence, and ease of operation all combining to ensure the advertising agencies of the time soon decided to target the lady driver, but the problem of the size of batteries versus the limited range was never fully overcome. Other hybrids included one which had an electric motor in each wheel, again powered by a petrol generator, but as with the Stanley Steamer, it’s days were numbered in the face of the increasing reliability and decreasing price of petrol cars. For a good history of electric vehicles I recommend ‘Taking Charge – The Electric Automobile In America’ by Michael Brian Schiffer as a concise history and valuable reference.

  A major problem facing the electric cars of a hundred years ago was the size and weight of storage batteries and Thomas Edison set up a laboratory at home and devoted twenty years of research into this matter before admitting defeat. And in the following century not much has changed. The Prius relies on a nickel metal hydride battery, and a major worry is the continued supplies of suitable nickel. Xstrata operate the Sudbury Basin mine in Ontario Canada and since starting in 2001 claimed a 15 year life of the mine, so that only leaves four years left? It seems there is not a lot of the right sort of nickel around, and it seems supplies will run out long before the existing oil wells run dry. Another ‘green’ issue here is the cost to the environment of mining and processing this nickel, but that is covered in the article linked below from thetorquereport.

  The city of Los Angeles has long led the way in legislation regarding emissions and set a target in 2003 for 10% of cars sold to have ZERO emissions. This of course for now means electric cars, but that is to overlook the emissions caused by generating that electricity, presumably as long as it does not contribute to the LA smog, they are not too bothered where those emissions go.

  One option open to Los Angelenos is the Honda Fit, an all-electric hatchback being touted as the saviour of the planet, but at what cost? The electric version costs TWICE the price of the petrol model, and calculated at local fuel prices and average annual mileages, it would take the buyer 11 years to save the difference. For an explanation see;

http://finance.yahoo.com/news/honda-electric-car-gets-118-mpg-costs-add-224401144.html

  I wonder how many mugs will grab that one.

  There have been many reports about the Green credentials, or otherwise of the Prius, but rather than trot out various quotes again, it is better to refer all to the most concise report I have found online that addresses all these issues.

  This is worth reading;

http://www.thetorquereport.com/2007/03/toyotas_prius_is_less_efficien.html

  There were a few horror stories about the cost and life expectancy of the batteries in the Toyota, and they moved to adjust the warranty cover in various markets, it is now covered for ten years in California (beware though, that is not the case everywhere) but their claims of reliability are so far based on optimism rather than fact as they have not yet been around in enough numbers to get accurate figures. Just be warned that the replacement price should your Toyota dealer not be feeling too green is now about US$2,500.

  Of course there were many other reports of complaints about the fuel consumption figures being a tad optimistic, and indeed when those loveable rogues on Top Gear tried a regular test route they achieved better figures with, (I believe it was) a diesel VW, but it all comes back to the one irrefutable scientific fact;

  THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS FREE ENERGY.

  And before someone shouts “what about solar panels?” yes, in theory the energy from the sun is free and sustainable, but the efficiency, and manufacturing costs of solar panels, while getting better all the time, are still a way off.

  If anybody can overcome the storage battery problem, and can make an efficient solar charger we may get there one day, but for now, all green claims from the Prius, the feel-good Chevrolet Volt, the high performance Tesla and the successes at Le Mans are just marketing hype.

Chris M.

 

Diplomat
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The Toyota Prius isn't a brilliant car, but I don't think all hybrids should be dismissed. After all, it's free energy that's acquired from used energy from the car's resources anyway. Sure, you have to pay for the fuel, but you get a little bit extra for free.

I don't want an EV or a plug-in hybrid - the reason for that is because I don't want to charge my car for hours so that it can go 100 miles (at best) for the next day. Hybrids take all the benefits of petrol/diesel cars but give you a little extra range. Also, the technology is becoming cheaper now and is becoming more reliable in most cars.

A lot of hybrids have their interior space compromised by the batteries, but Mercedes has put its electric motor in its new diesel-hybrid under the bonnet, next to the engine. This means that the estate version still has seven seats and it remains the most spacious estate car on the market.

The reason I want a hybrid is so that I can fill the car up with petrol or diesel like usual, and fill it up again when it runs out, just like in a normal car, only with a hybrid, I can go a little further.

Oh, and by the way, the Prius was released before 2004. The mark two was released then, but there was one before that.

The original Insight was expensive at £17,000, but it did over 80mpg and it was cool, so I think it was an awesome little car. The Mercedes-Benz diesel-hybrids are also brilliant.

James Elliott
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The Prius is important solely for prompting a seachange in perceptions - it was the first hybrid that the public accepted and bought in any numbers.

However much the green credentials might be a charade, it created a popular belief that alternative energy cars could be credible and viable.

And in turn that kickstarted a huge amount of investment in developing 'greener' (and I use the word with huge amounts of reservation) technologies.

Eventually, as a result someone will create a genuinely 'green' car (putting aside the thorny issue of manufacturing and scrapping).

And, as long as I am still legally permitted to drive the cars I choose to, that's great.  

 

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lukecrowley571
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James Elliott wrote:

The Prius is important solely for prompting a seachange in perceptions - it was the first hybrid that the public accepted and bought in any numbers.

However much the green credentials might be a charade, it created a popular belief that alternative energy cars could be credible and viable.

And in turn that kickstarted a huge amount of investment in developing 'greener' (and I use the word with huge amounts of reservation) technologies.

Eventually, as a result someone will create a genuinely 'green' car (putting aside the thorny issue of manufacturing and scrapping).

And, as long as I am still legally permitted to drive the cars I choose to, that's great.  

What he said. This is exactly why the Prius was on my top-five list of most important cars (behind four others). It wasn't the first, it wasn't the best, but it got the idea out there better than anything else.

Chris Martin
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Good, so at least we are all agreed on exactly how important - or more realistically, unimportant, the Prius is, or was.

James put it better than I could, in a fraction of the words, but  still, the fact that it proved a scam on such a scale was workable is an admirable marketing trick, but does that mean the end product is worth the effort?

Yes it did prove that you can market any old scam if the public want to beleive it, but just remember in the words of Abraham Lincoln;

"You may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time; but you cant fool all of the people all the time."

Once that novelty has worn off, where will the proud owners of the greeniemobiles be left?

And yes James, we can all at least enjoy the freedom to drive whatever we want,

that is why there are still Bugattis, Ladas, HGVs, bicycles, Cortinas, GTOs, Marinas, Elans and Prius's out there.

Chris M.

 

Peter_Mouldweb
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Well, of course when there is a need, there are going to be demands. Whether it is solar panels, nickel parts, or just petroleum that we have been consuming increasingly day after day and years after years. It just have to start somewhere. If no effort is being put in, then the project can never be a success. If the hybrid car market want to see growth and a continuing one, then nickel and solar panels need to be manufactured by hook or by crook.

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Best regards / Peter Mould / pmwltd

MrBenovich
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The irony of that car is hilarious.

It's a car for non-car types. If it make them feel better and allows manufacturers to continue producing cars our children's children will lust after (and collect in 20-30 years) then so be it. 

Chris Martin
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The irony was of course unintentional (isn't it always) but history will record the Prius as just the first hybrid to come to market in any serious numbers.  There have been many before and since, but the marketing men just got the timing right I guess.

However the fact remains that if and when the oil supplies run out, the manufacturers will have to find alternative energy sources if they want to stay in business so it is fair to assume we will see mush greater advances over the next ten or twenty years.

My beef with the Prius is twofold, it is NOT so fuel efficient as to make a significant difference, but worse, there is a belief among some owners that they really are saving the planet!

Chris M.