Car Test: The Silent Death or: Electric Toyota: How do the EV, the PHV and the FCV compare?

November 19th, 2010  |  Published in Comments & Features, Gadget Review, Mobility & Space

On Thursday, Toyota had a small test event of the electrified cars at the showroom Toyota Megaweb in Tokyo on Thursday. The company made three models available for a short test ride:

1. A prototype of the coming iQ-based battery-electric vehicle (EV), that will be launched in the USA, Europa, Japan and maybe even China in 2012

2. its plug-in hybrid vehicle PHV (an hybrid car than can be charged by plugging into the grid), (already available in small numbers)

3. a Fuel Cell Vehicle (FCV), that generates its power from Hydrogen, scheduled for launch in 2015.

1. The EV (the near future)

The electric iQ.

Whereas Nissan and Honda enter the EV market with a full-fledged passenger cars, Toyota’s first EV will be Smart-like small. For the prototype, Toyota basically took its three-seater iQ and just exchanged engine and tank for an electric motor and a lithium-ion battery in the floor.

Toyota obviously does not buy in the belief of Carlos Ghosn, the CEO of Nissan and Renault, that EVs are ready for prime time in the small car segment. Instead, Toyota sees the potential first for miniscule short-range city-hoppers. More about this choice later in a separate article about Toyota’s strategy.

How does it drive?

The test track was too short for a final verdict. Just two rounds of a few hundred meters.

But one thing can be said: It’s fast, it’s brutal, it’s fun. It goes off like a rocket, because almost all the torque is available from the start. And because of its low center of gravity (the battery is pretty heavy) and the quite wide car, it also handles nicely in a the slalom part on the track.

Engine noise is obviously not an issue. You just hear the tires, the wind, the ventilator and the simmm of the 47 kW electric motor, that is able to push the car up to 125 km/h. Not too fast. But who cares, we are in Tokyo, not on a German highway.

The verdict:

The e-iQ feels like a real product. It is very fun to drive. But then, a lack of acceleration was never an issue with EVs, but price and range of the battery.

The driving range will be one of the lowest in the EV market, with merely 105 Kilometers, because Toyota only puts a relatively small battery under the seats. The competitors claim around 160 Kilometers per battery-charge. On the other hand, it will be one of the cheapest EVs, for exactly the same reason, the small and therefore cheaper battery.

2. The PHV, the Plug-in Prius

The Plug-in Prius.

The plug-in Prius is already available, sort of. A few hundreds are being produced, before Toyota will increase production towards 2012. That is why we were allowed to drive on the road. It is a much smoother, more refined way to travel electrically than with the pure mini-EV. In other words: compared to the mini-EV it is tame and lame.

Having said that, Toyota did a very good job in managing the switch-over of the electric to the gasoline engine. At lower speeds and normal acceleration the Plug-in Hybrid rides on battery power and the 60 kW electric motor only. But if in need for extra speed, just push down the accelerator pedal, and additional 73 kW of the gasoline engine starting to kick in smoothly. Other than the little roar of the internal combustion engine and the extra push you don’t feel any difference.

Toyota positions the plug-in obviously as their counter offer to full passenger car EVs of its competitors, a restricted EV without range restrictions, so to speak. Although it can only drive around 20 Kilometers on battery only, it can out-run any EV several times. Test drivers squeezed 2000 Kilometers out of the tank. Annoying (at least to me) the plastic finish and a noticeable high pitched sound in electric mode. Especially the steering wheel felt odd at its lower part, where the smooth silver metallic plastic connects with slighty rough steering wheel.

3. FCV, the FCV advanced (few years off)

The FCV is based on a huge Kluger. With 1880 Kilogram it is clearly the Sumo in the stable. It handled well. No big difference from a normal car. But with only 90 kW the under the hood the FCV feels clearly underpowered. The result: Smooth, noiseless, clean, but boring. But again, this is only a R&D vehicle. A real product will certainly look different. The launch of the first commercial FCV is scheduled for 2015. Not much to say about it at the moment.

After the test: „The silent death“

The more EVs I drive, the more mixed feelings I get. Don`t get me wrong, after driving the e-iQ or the Mitsubishi i-Miev you wish, they would be available for a reasonable price rather sooner than later. They are just so much fun to drive.

And that is exactly the point: Maybe they are too much fun to drive. The small EVs just cry out loud to the driver „Push me! Faster!“, because what they lack in „roar“ the make up in „zoom“.

Or in other words: Because of the high torque at lower speeds small EVs might educate drivers to race in city traffic. That seems hardly intended, and is certainly dangerous. Maybe they will get the same nickname as the electric bicycles in China: The silent death.

The Plug-in Prius is a totally different animal. Unlike the mini-racer it is a cultivated cruiser, that educates you to drive economically. The driving performance is not spectacular, but most people don’t want to be race drivers. They want to drive relaxed and leisurely. And that the Prius does well.

My take: Bigger EVs educate more to environmental and safe driving than smaller EVs.

As much as I like it, maybe the future will not see to many of the electric racing mice. The mass market might be dominated by lightweight, relatively slow, and relatively simple with small batteries for city traffic. More like golf carts. And than you will have some way more expansive electric passenger and performance cars. People who need to drive longer distances will opt more likely for hybrids like the GM Volt or the Prius.

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