Tag Archives: hybrids

Toyota – 7m hybrids should make more noise

Toyota_celebrates_100_000_UK_hybrid_sales_Toyota_54952Toyota tells us it has just clocked up 100,000 hybrids in the UK market, almost 14 years after the first Prius went on sale. Not a huge tally if we’re honest. But Toyota was way ahead of the game back then, and globally it’s now nudging seven million hybrid sales.

That is impressive, because by my calculation it equates to savings of around 47 million tonnes of CO2 and 16.5 billion litres of fuel. And as the company is currently selling 1 million hybrids annually and launching around a dozen more hybrid models by next year, the numbers are accelerating.

But Toyota didn’t give us those stats, which is a pity because it’s a great story. And also because it’s in danger of losing the high ground to noisier companies which are newer on the scene and happy to motor down a hybrid highway paved by the Japanese giant.

Electric vehicles are now firmly in the mainstream, even if they’re not selling in truly large numbers yet. Every manufacturer has an EV of some sort. BMW has moved the game on for EVs with its cool and urban i3. Toyota’s rival for the global no 1 car group, VW, has finally launched its first EVs. And both are offering battery-only products.

But hybrids are the way forward for mass adoption of electric vehicles. The hybrid drivetrain, previously regarded as a slightly clumsy compromise, is now seen as the bridge to fully electric motoring the world isn’t yet ready for. And Toyota’s first-mover status should mean that it owns that space.

It still can. Hybrid technology is finding its way into luxury brands; even Formula 1 has gone hybrid. This is transforming favourability among prospective hybrid car buyers which Toyota, with a large existing hybrid customer base – unlike its competitors – can exploit.

The next few years should be Toyota’s. But it will need to invest in its brand and marketing as much as in its R&D if it’s to hold the high ground it’s already taken technologically.

Bentley, Beijing and the hybrid halo

Mercedes recently said that the combustion engine is with us for at least 20 more years. No doubt that’s right, but it has a particular interest. The fact that it still produces a V12 is a badge of honour for the brand. And no doubt a purchase trigger for Asian plutocrats who absolutely must have the highest in perceived luxury.

bentley-mulsanne-hybrid-concept-2014-beijing-auto-show_100463149_lContrast that with last week’s debut of a hybrid Bentley. It’s an important moment, the more so because it was at the Beijing auto show – a place where the brands don’t normally make concessions to the distinctly Western concept of sustainable luxury. The Bentley is officially a concept car, but significantly it’s a version of the Mulsanne, a production model and the brand’s flagship: if hybrid technology it can be accepted at the pinnacle of traditional, conservative luxury, it can fit with any brand.

With the Bentley, and the simultaneous Beijing launch of a production long-wheelbase hybrid Range Rover, the time when luxury and premium car buyers will want to know why they haven’t got hybrid power is surely approaching. Hybrid systems are at the apex of powertrain technology right now, and if seen as such customers will demand them.

Bentley’s VW Group sister brand Porsche already offers a hybrid Cayenne and Panamera, but they don’t sell. Same for Range Rover’s standard-wheelbase hybrid Range Rover: they’re not proper Porsches or real Range Rovers. But the Bentley and the LWB Range Rover can change this. If the idea of a hybrid Bentley goes down well with Chinese luxury car buyers, it will gain acceptance for Porsche’s hybrids. And if hybrid power is accepted in the limousine version of the Range Rover it won’t be perceived as a dilution of the brand in the standard car.

Creating hybrid versions of range-topping cars enables VW Group and Jaguar Land Rover to exploit the higher margins of big-ticket products and, in time, as the halo effect occurs, to sell hybrid versions of lower-price, higher volume products at a profit. Larger volumes will in turn reduce the cost of hybrid technology.

China is key to widespread adoption of future electric vehicle technologies: as a growing car market with vast volume potential it makes no sense to continue building only a combustion-engine infrastructure to meet the needs of the emerging motorised masses. Last month the premier declared a war on air pollution, yet the country still lacks a vehicle charging infrastructure. Hybrids are therefore the catalyst. It’s good strategy for the carmakers to push hybrid products in China, and to do so top-down, using halo brands and models as cultural influencers. Plug-in hybrids and battery-only vehicles will follow when the infrastructure is there.

So the challenge for global mass-adoption is one of communications, and the audience it needs to communicate with is as likely to read Wired as Forbes. Hybrid systems need to be positioned not so much as a means to supplemental performance or a cleaner, greener conscience as simply the latest and best technology, a must-have.

A premium car without sat nav? No chance. The same surely applies to the technology which is the beating heart of a car.

Frankfurt reflection #3: Toyota – market leaders playing catch-up

The Frankfurt show was the moment when electric vehicles not only moved into the mainstream of the displays, but when they became the stars. Everyone had some kind of EV to show, and it was clear that the technology can be used equally well for economy and performance. BMW covered both angles by using the i3 as shuttles displaying and its production i8 big brother, which has been conceived around the performance and handling advantages of electric motors. A big slam dunk for the Germans.

Frankfurt - YarisAll of which was bad news for Toyota. Its Prius pioneered hybrids, which most people agree present the immediate way forward for EV technology, but it does not enjoy the recognition it deserves. The stats are remarkable: 5.5m Toyota and Lexus hybrids sold to date, resulting in savings of 37m tonnes of CO2 and 13bn litres of fuel. It’s now selling 1m hybrids a year and will launch 15 new hybrid models by 2015, so the stats will accelerate.

So Toyota owns this territory, yet it’s playing PR catch-up with companies whose EVs have only recently begun to surface – not just BMW but VW, Mercedes, Renault and others. I was in PR at Toyota in the 1990s and was constantly frustrated at the lack of recognition in Japan of valuable brand messages, how easy it was to uncover PR nuggets yet how difficult it was to use them.

In Frankfurt Toyota showed a high-performance hybrid concept of its Yaris supermini and gave its entire stand over to hybrids. The next few years belong to Toyota, but it will need to give its PR and marketing people as much credibility as its engineers if it is to take the high ground it’s already scaled in technical terms.

Lexus becomes different by design

LF-CC_004_1280x1024_tcm880-1177805No matter how good its cars, Lexus has struggled to find its place as a brand since it was launched over 20 years ago. Now, however, it seems to have found the resolve to be the bold, confident, alternative brand it always should have been.

The paradox for Lexus is that to be a viable competitor to the established premium makes it needed to avoid trying to compete head-on.  It cannot be a Mercedes, a BMW or an Audi, and being seen to try left it a me-too, a second-best.  Lexus needed to see its newness as an advantage and to clearly state its position. But it still has an opportunity to create a brand around the current and future needs of the market, uncompromised by demands for high volumes. So it can be not only relevant but cutting-edge, daring and appealing on an emotional level.

Ironically, Lexus could always have been the independent-thinking person’s option. I was involved in the launch phase of the brand and its only launch product, the LS400 luxury car in the early-1990s. The economic downturn then meant the LS was a no-brainer boardroom option. Objectively as good in almost every respect as an S-Class, with astonishing refinement and a price about half that of the German car with equivalent equipment, it should have been the smart choice. But this wasn’t backed up emotionally or intellectually. And to the annoyance of the UK marketing department the company was inundated with requests for a tow-hook for customers’ caravans. Imagine that on an S-Class.

Now Lexus is adopting a more lateral approach. The strapline is ‘Creating Amazing’, and it’s aligning the brand with cutting-edge design, technology and creativity. The website is peppered with short films, videos referencing landscape and architecture, travelogue images, design objects, studies in motion.

This last element is significant as it’s reflected in the styling of the latest cars. Movement is embedded in the emerging Lexus design language, and nowhere more so than the ‘spindle’ grille on the new IS series and LF-CC concept. It’s a full-height design, framed by the bonnet panel and the front spoiler, but with a pinch in the sides about a quarter of the way down, where it sits noticeably forward of the rest of the grille. The effect is of a malleable surface being stretched in 3D, of natural energy and force, enhanced by the zigzag mesh being distorted above and below the pinch like a graphic illustrating space bending theory; think Audi grille redesigned by Stephen Hawking. It’s not a form we’re familiar with, so it jars at first. It’s not classical or beautiful but complex, innovative, even disruptive.

This IS is the first production iteration, but the super-sculpted LF-CC shows where Lexus will be in a couple of years or so. For the first time, Lexus styling will reflect the advanced technology of the company’s hybrid powertrains. Dynamic form will follow dynamic function.

Lexus has the assets to be a truly exciting brand, different from the German standard-bearers by design. To occupy its own space. To make you think. Which is what a Lexus should do.

Toyota to lose no 1 spot but become sexy

gt86-exterior-8-1It’s been easy to overlook Toyota over the past few years.

Volkswagen is relentlessly pursuing the world number one spot. Hyundai and Kia are doing a convincing job in Europe of owning the Asian quality/value space Toyota occupied by default not long ago. The market is moving away from the traditional product segments at Toyota’s core: Nissan took the lead with the Qashqai crossover, and premium brands have come conquesting in these segments. And of course Toyota was hit hardest of all by the Japanese Tsunami, while high-profile recalls made customers question its quality and reliability – for many the reasons for buying a Toyota.

In Europe, sales fell by over 3% last year and by more than 8% in the first half of this year. But the company regained the top spot for global sales in 2012, has held on in the first half of this year, ahead of General Motors and Volkswagen Group, and its overseas sales have hit a record high. And remember that GM and VW have far more brands in their portfolios – in the latter case SEAT, Skoda, Audi, Porsche, Bentley, Lamborghini , Bugatti and MAN and Scania trucks in addition to the core VW brand. In comparison Toyota Motor Corporation has only the Toyota brand plus small contributions from Lexus, Daihatsu and Hino trucks. Toyota’s is a far more organic approach.

Toyota may well not hold off GM even to the end of this year, given the state of the Japanese market and a boycott of Japanese products in China following the territorial dispute in the East China Sea. But the company has woken up to the need for more appealing product. In Europe it has launched seven new variants or major variants in little more than 12 months, including the FT-86, an affordable halo car with real personality.

But most importantly, over the longer term, as Volkswagen’s acquisitive strategy and ambition inevitably pay off in volume terms and number one status, Toyota will be cashing in on its market leadership in low-carbon vehicles. Thanks to the Prius, it simply owns this space. And the hybrid drivetrain, previously regarded as a slightly clumsy compromise, is now seen as the bridge to the fully electric motoring the world isn’t yet ready for en masse. The arrival of the plug-in hybrid makes it more virtuous, while the adoption of hybrid technology by Ferrari and McLaren for their latest hypercars makes it sexy.

Scroll forward five years. Toyota number one? Unlikely. Toyota sexy? More likely than you’d imagine.

The electric dream

Renault-Twizy-Sport-F1-concept-front-three-quarterThe other day a relative asked if they should consider an electric car. If they had noticed the recent RAC Foundation report into low-carbon vehicles they probably wouldn’t have bothered. It pointed out that just 3600 plug-in electric vehicles have been registered in the UK despite a government incentive introduced over two years ago to stump up £5000 towards the cost. And that take-up by 2020 may account for just 2% of the UK market.

The media made much of this report but no-one should be surprised. First, as with all new technologies, these vehicles are expensive and the economy isn’t exactly helping. The cost probably won’t come down properly until China becomes a mass adopter. Second, so far there’s been hardly any choice. More than that though, pure EVs and plug-in hybrids will only ever be part of the solution – just as combustion-engined vehicles will continue to be and, in time, more exotic technologies. And public transport. And bicycles. Horses for courses: plug-ins are great for urban centres and short commutes. If you go longer distances you’ll need a plain old hybrid or a conventional car. Or perhaps a train. One size will not fit all. It won’t even fit all members of most households.

The range limitations and price of EVs are frighteners. There are other barriers too – battery life and replacement cost, charging time and infrastructure. And, for the environment-conscious consumer likely to want a plug-in EV, where the power for those batteries comes from.

But battery-only EVs are something of a diversion, and the pace of progress is way ahead of the sales. Since the grant was announced we’ve seen the launch of the Vauxhall Ampera/Chevrolet Volt, with an extender system to remove range anxiety and give proper 300-mile-plus potential. It’s a game-changer. And for plug-ins, Renault has begun launching cars in the £10,000-£20,000 range, dramatically cheaper than the £30,000 early offerings from Nissan and Mitsubishi.

The French company’s two-seat Twizy may be wacky and not qualify for the grant, but it’s a halo product for the cause and it makes perfect sense in cities. Peugeot and Citroen’s hybrids don’t qualify either, but they’ve moved the game on too by engineering diesels into the mix. And placing electric motors in the rear wheels for an effective four-wheel drive system. So more performance and grip.

Our friends in Westminster probably see the performance factor as unhelpful, but it’s vital to building appeal. EVs have huge torque, so they can make natural drivers’ cars. Ferrari and McLaren had two of the most significant launches at the Geneva motor show a few weeks back. The La Ferrari and P1 may be for race tracks and private museums but their combination of a fossil-fuel engine with electric motors and battery packs, and the ability to recover and store energy, may point the way for EVs: cars with small engines given much more power by electric motors supplemented with recovered energy.

Battery performance needs to improve and costs need to come down. But the challenge now is as much about how EVs are communicated as about the technology. Yes, they need to be a sensible investment and usable every day. But they also have to be shown to be stylish. Fun. Good to drive. Bristling with technology. The latest in gadgetry. Cool. Saving the planet can be just a no-cost option.