After seeing Toyota's race-winning success (in its second attempt at fielding a hybrid-powered vehicle) in the 2007 Tokachi 24-hour Super Taikyu race, I had to face the fact that hybrids were no longer just a fad. Even in online video clips, the Denso SARD Supra HV-R Super GT car would make any gasoline-head drool as it powers off silently from a start with just the whine of its sequential gearbox. Only several hundred feet later can the blat, blat, blat of the 4.5-liter GT-spec 3UZ-FE be heard as it fires effortlessly into life.
So I finally drove a hybrid for the first time. To make sure I got the full mundane commuter experience, I opted for the Camry Hybrid instead of the Prius or the ber-luxurious Lexus LS600hL. Even in its simplest, most mass-market form, Toyota's hybrids are simply fantastic works of mechanical engineering and engine/powertrain programming. To really appreciate it (which I doubt any hybrid owners do) you have to look into the guts of the hybrid drive system.
The mad scientists from Toyota figured out an ingenious power split planetary gear unit with sun, ring and carrier gears all linked to different parts of the drivetrain. This allows the engine, as well as drive and starter motors, to switch on and off or alternate between charge and drive modes with no interruption of power-somewhat like an automatic transmission, but with multiple inputs and outputs.
Then there's that addictive fuel economy and drive mode display in the center console. It turns a boring commute into a video game as you try to get the highest mpg. Call it a nice carrot on a stick to further help the hybrids' fuel-sipping reputation.
As the novelty wore off, I came back to the same conclusions and critiques I had from the get-go. In theory, the hybrid idea is great for commuters. The electric motor does all the stop-and-go work while keeping the engine off. Under constant cruising conditions, the engine is doing the work as well as some charging-like a normal car, except hybrid engines typically run higher compression and are thus more efficient. I'm sure Toyota and Honda both decided that, for the dynamic range of driving conditions, hybrids are the best answer (as opposed to turbodiesels for many European manufacturers), but the cost/benefit practicality is still in question.
Most hybrid systems are targeted to save gas for commuters stuck in low-speed, stop/go traffic. And if there's one thing drivers stuck in traffic have in common, it's that no one's paying attention to their driving. They'd rather be doing their make-up, listening to the radio, yapping on the phone or screaming at their spawn (or their friends) raising hell in the back seat. Granted, letting go of the brake pedal every now and then to move five feet requires little attention and is absolutely boring, but the end result is that drivers are hard on the gas, then hard on the brakes. Even in a hybrid car, this is bad for consumption, since a quick stab at the gas will still kick the engine in for full power.
Under mild acceleration, the consumption gauge skyrockets like any car, but the hybrid is sluggish, on account of the CVT transmission. Even at mid-throttle, the revs and the mpg gauge climb, but the car just putts along. To get it to really move so three other cars don't sneak into the gap between you and the car in front, you have to bury the gas. This switches off the electric motors, making hybrid assist seem moot.
There's also no braking effect, whether from the driveline or resistance from turning the charging motor(s) when off the gas. Hybrids simply keep coasting, making cruising or traffic driving excruciatingly painful. There's just no connection with what the car is physically doing. In traffic, you have to resort to using the brakes, which means free momentum energy squandered into heat instead of charging the batteries.
Short of sitting in gridlock, I'm sure a smart driver using engine deceleration and keeping revs between peak torque and horsepower (near peak BSFC or brake-specific fuel consumption) could get similar real-world mpg in a base-model, four-banger, manual-transmission Camry as the 400-pound heavier hybrid with all the losses in its slushbox CVT transmission. Honda's old Insight might have been the best solution-combining a minimalist chassis with a stick shift. Weight ultimately affects gas. Driven in anger, even our flyweight 225 wheel-hp Lotus-killing Project MR2 Spyder would easily outdistance the Camry Hybrid in fuel consumption. And what about the old CRX HF that could pull up to 50mpg?
Let the soccer moms and commuters have their delusions of gas savings and environmental benefits while they drive hybrid-powered two-ton Suburbans. It's their money, since they clearly don't get it. As for us, while the Supra HV-R is a bright beacon of future possibilities, an everyday-driven, performance-oriented hybrid drive system still seems far off. The capacitor-driven HV-R system wouldn't last 30 minutes in gridlocked traffic.
For gas-saving fun, stick with sport compacts, throw on a small turbo, and learn to really drive. How you accelerate, brake and cruise will make a night-and-day difference. n
10 ways to save gas (especially in stupidly fast cars like Project MR2 Spyder)
1.) Low rpm doesn't mean less gas. Lugging the engine at low revs sucks more gas because of the added load, especially if you're under boost.
2.) Add a couple of pounds to your tire pressure. You might compromise grip, but grip doesn't do much in traffic.
3.) Be smooth on the gas. In most cases, rolling into the go pedal too fast usually tells the ECU you want to accelerate, causing it to throw the car into enrichment mode and injecting additional fuel.
4.) Stay in the sweet spot. If accelerating steadily, the engine's sweet spot is between peak torque and peak horsepower. This provides the most combustion bang for the fuel buck.
5.) Engine brake. An engine uses less fuel under full vacuum, when engine braking, for example, as opposed to idling. The deeper the vacuum, the less gas is used.
6.) Gap the traffic. If you can stay in one gear and just use engine braking by predicting the traffic, you're saving gas and not wasting energy in braking.
7.) Make up your mind. When cruising, cruise at a reasonable rate. When you're getting on it, put the engine in its sweet spot and floor it. If you're cruising and decide to accelerate just by rolling on the throttle from low revs, you're wasting gas while you wait for the engine to start making power.
8.) Cruise control. A modern-day cruise control system is smoother than a right foot. It will keep a constant throttle for more efficient cruising and avoid throttle jitters over bumps that might throw the car into enrichment mode (this is why most cars now have e-throttles to smooth out what a foot can't control).
9.) Pick the gear for the job. Manual gearboxes are your friend and aren't there just so you can row from first to fifth and stay there until you stop.
10.) Look up. Seeing what's happening far in front will make you smoother and better able to plan gearchanges and passing maneuvers. And avoid excessive use of the brakes, like every other idiot on the road.