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Red faces for green pioneers: Toyota and Honda have suffered ignominy promoting their revolutionary 'hybrid' cars. Michael Harvey thinks they deserve better.

Financial Times, Jun 17, 2000, 962 words

If only the promotions were as clever as the engineering. In the fight to embed their new-age "hybrid" cars in the mind of the British public, Honda and Toyota have been in danger falling over each other since the start of the year. Last month they both took an embarrassing tumble as a result.

In mid-May, members of the notoriously sniffy Veteran Car Club of Great Britain celebrated 100 years since the first 1,000-mile trial in the UK, with a restaging of the run. The entry included some impressive turn-of-the-last-century machinery of the type normally seen only on chilly November mornings en route to Brighton - a 1894 Benz, for example, an 1896 Panhard-Levasseur and an 1899 Daimler.

Into this 19th century mix, the great minds at Honda thought (or was it Toyota?): "Why not throw in some 21st century technology?" It was a nice idea.

Only the equivalent great minds at Toyota (or was it Honda?) had exactly the same idea. The rank-and-file membership of the VCC, somewhat more exclusive than that of the MCC even, must have been red-faced at such rampant commercial exploitation.

The cars in question - the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius - deserve better than stunts and C-list celebrities. They are probably the two most prescient cars in production anywhere in the world today; each is built around technology that will, most likely, not only extend the lifespan of the internal combustion engine, but might also prove the enabling technology for the fuel-cell batteries that could power cars - or whatever we call them - in the 22nd century.

A hybrid, as its name suggests, combines different power sources. In the case of the Insight and the Prius, it's a very lean petrol engine and a battery-driven electric motor. (It could just as easily be a diesel engine and an electric motor, or for that matter a hydrogen-fuelled, zero-emissions fuel cell with a more traditional battery-powered motor.)

From the engineer's point of view, what's important is that adding an electric motor to the drivetrain allows the petrol (or diesel) engine to operate at its most efficient speeds only (in the case of the Prius, that is between 1,000 rpm and 4,000 rpm). Below those speeds, the engine can be switched off entirely and the car driven by the electric motor alone on the battery.

Above that, the battery can provide a little extra power when the engine starts to run out of it. From the driver's point of view, hybrids offer something even more impressive. Depending on just how altruistic you regard yourself, you might be moved by the staggeringly low levels of emissions each car produces. Or then again, and with your eye on the possibility of the Pounds 5 gallon, you could be impressed by the staggeringly low level of fuel they consume.

Emissions is the big story and the reasons these cars exist.

Remember that in the US, the world's biggest car market and where the Insight is already on sale, the rising price of gasoline might be the topic on everyone's lips but is still largely irrelevant when it comes to choosing a car.

That's not to say fuel consumption is not an issue. There's a direct and unalterable relationship between how much fuel a car burns and how much carbon dioxide a car produces. There may or may not be a direct and unalterable relationship between carbon dioxide and global warming, depending on whether you work for a carmaker or not ...

Hybrids such as the Insight and Prius not only further reduce the amount of nitrogen oxides and unburned hydrocarbons (which make smog) as well as carbon monoxide produced by your car, but the amount of carbon dioxide, too.

If you're that way inclined, you will later this year be proud to drive a car that cuts the first group by up to 90 per cent, and cuts CO by up to 60 per cent.

Then again, if you wonder why on earth you should drive a high-tech economy special while the Americans continue to consume fuel so liberally, then you might be interested to hear that the Insight boasts an official government mileage figure of 83mpg, and the Toyota is expected to return 56mpg when it takes the test later this year.

The less impressive figure from the Toyota does not reflect a less impressive car. On the contrary, it's possibly the more impressive since it is able to achieve so much of what the Honda does with so little sacrifice.

It is, in many ways, a predictably dull car from Toyota; four doors, five seats, a big boot and a kind of indeterminate Japanese motor anonymity that we all thought had disappeared years ago.

Of course, it's anything but dull. The driving experience is a seductive blend of the familiar and the unfamiliar. It drives like a good modern car with a CVT (continuously variable transmission) gearbox - there are no lumpy up or down shifts - with the bonus of being almost completely quiet at low speeds, when the engine is shut off and the car is running on the electric motor.

I have yet to drive the second generation version which will go on sale in Europe, but I spent a pleasant week with a prototype in Tokyo two years ago, hypnotised by the tiny display in the dash which shows the flow of power through the various components.

Since then more than 35,000 have been sold in Japan, justifying Toyota's decision to wrap the future of the automobile in clothes from its past.

Not so Honda. For a company that prides itself on its technology, it cannot have enjoyed being second on the market. Whether it was pique then or more likely the desire to take the technology to its apogee, the Insight is far from conventional in appearance or construction: the advanced aluminium and plastic two-seater teardrop body that contains Honda's hybrid makes the Insight much lighter and more slippery than the Prius, even if there's only room for two and a small briefcase.

It's an unfamiliar shape but unlikely to be so for long. The Insight has got a very busy programme of marathons in the UK this summer; pacing the two-legged variety, setting the pace in four-wheeled, how-many-miles-on-a-tankful-of-fuel events. You'll recognise it from the 2ft tall "Clever & Clean" logos on its sides.

I don't ever imagine the cherished vehicles of the VCC ever had to endure such ignominy to get their point across 100 years ago.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited