Toyota Canada Managing Director, Stephen Beatty, with the 2008 Highlander Hybrid
Toyota Canada Managing Director, Stephen Beatty, with the 2008 Highlander Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Chris Chase

Preview: 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

You have to give it to Toyota for taking this hybrid thing and running with it. Since launching the first Prius in Japan in 1997, it’s managed to turn its Hybrid Synergy Drive gas/electric hybrid powertrain into a brand of its own.

It’s a successful one, too, for which some credit must go to good marketing. But Stephen Beatty, the Managing Director of Toyota Canada Incorporated (TCI), says the driving public still has a lot of questions about hybrid technology: how does it work? And not to mention: does it work, period?

So, despite TCI’s prediction that hybrid-powered Toyotas will find homes in as many as 10,000 Canadian driveways in 2007 (according to Beatty), the company figured it was time to hit the road with its first Toyota Hybrid Tour. On June 6th in Ottawa – smack in the middle of Environment Week – the company launched the cross-Canada event that will stop in a number of Canadian cities, with the aim of letting drivers get a close-up look at the company’s hybrid models, and even take a short test drive.

A key highlight of the Ottawa tour launch was the Canadian debut of the 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, which was revealed for the first time at the Chicago Auto Show earlier this year. More on it in the accompanying sidebar; in the meantime, we had a chance to chat with Stephen Beatty about Toyota’s commitment to its hybrid technology.

Toyota Prius at the Toyota Hybrid Tour display on Ottawa's Sparks Street
Toyota Prius at the Toyota Hybrid Tour display on Ottawa’s Sparks Street. Click image to enlarge

Beatty says that while the company expected environmentally-conscious drivers to embrace its gas-electric drivetrain technology, what surprised the company is how passionate some hybrid drivers have become about their vehicles.

“We didn’t see it coming, but the Prius became an emotional vehicle,” he said. “The people buying them with the aim of saving fuel and having less of an impact on the environment got passionate about the concept.”

For that, he credits the “energy monitor” display, mounted prominently in the Prius’ centre stack (it also appears in some form in the company’s other hybrid models).

“That was a controversial feature initially,” he said, adding that it attracted criticism from road safety advocates who felt it would draw the driver’s attention away from the road. “But what it did was put the issue of fuel consumption right in front of the driver, and we think that helped instill a passion for reducing consumption in many hybrid drivers.”

I asked Beatty if he was aware of “hypermilers,” the term used to describe hybrid drivers who adapt their driving style to best take advantage of hybrid powertrain technology. And while the company doesn’t outright endorse all of the techniques that hypermilers employ, he says that it’s important for drivers to realize that they will have to change their driving habits in order for the hybrid system to work as efficiently as possible. To that end, he says, the owner’s manual that comes with every hybrid-powered Toyota includes driving tips specific to those vehicles.

The Toyota Hybrid Tour display on Ottawa's Sparks Street
The Toyota Hybrid Tour display on Ottawa’s Sparks Street. Click image to enlarge

Then, there are the hybrid drivers who have modified their vehicles so that they can be plugged in and recharged using 120-volt household current. I asked Beatty if Toyota might move in that direction at some point, and produce hybrid cars with plug-in capability.

“It’s an idea that makes sense, but it won’t be a truly feasible solution until the power grid is ‘greened,'” he said. “In Quebec, where much of the electricity used is generated through water power, plug-in hybrids would be a perfect fit. But in the United States, most of their electricity comes from burning coal. It doesn’t make sense to build a car designed to reduce emissions only to use an emissions-producing power source to help make it run.”

“Overall greenness has become a competitive advantage for Toyota,” he added. “But we’d like to see more competition coming from other manufacturers in order to better the breed. There are many advances yet to be made in the area of internal combustion engines, but there’s far more left to learn in terms of hybrid technology. There’s a long way to go yet.”

On the topic of internal combustion, what about diesel engines? Since the emergence of hybrid tech, a debate has raged between hybrid boosters and those who still believe oil-burners are the way of the fuel-efficient future.

“Diesels only meet minimum standards (for tailpipe emissions) in California, and are getting better all the time,” said Beatty. “The problem is that while new developments are cleaning up diesel emissions, that’s all that’s happening. Hybrid technology, as Toyota has demonstrated, can be used to increase horsepower, too.”

Toyota FT-HS concept
Toyota FT-HS concept; Click here for more photos. Click image to enlarge

Beatty cites the Toyota FTH-S concept car shown at the Detroit auto show early this year – it’s a 400-horsepower sports car propelled by a hybrid powertrain. The first Highlander Hybrid, the Lexus GS400h performance sedan, and even the current Honda Accord Hybrid are good examples (though Honda recently announced that future Accords, and other Honda models, would use clean diesel technology, not a hybrid system, to reduce fuel consumption and clean up exhaust emissions).

Indeed, it seems that Toyota is gearing up to employ hybrid technology in its truck line-up. Beatty said the company is investigating using gas/electric powertrains to create an alternative to the diesels favoured by the Big Three domestic automakers for heavier-duty applications. That’s the first I’ve heard the concept mentioned by a Toyota official since I interviewed Toyota Canada Inc. President Kenji Tomikawa a couple of years ago, and it sounds like the company is serious about the idea, at least in theory.

2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Beatty said that when the first hybrid cars became available (the Honda Insight was the first one widely available in Canada, following closely by the first-generation Prius), many viewed gas/electric hybrid technology as a bridge to future fuels, like hydrogen. But according to Beatty, Toyota feels that the hybrid concept is now a standard platform for all future fuel-efficient vehicles.

“No matter what liquid fuel you’re burning, the goal is to extend the efficiency of that fuel as far as possible, and hybrid technology is the perfect way to do that,” he said. “In essence, we’ve become the world’s largest electric car company.”

The Toyota Hybrid Tour will be in both Quebec City and Calgary until June 17th; for other dates and places, visit Toyota Canada’s website at Toyota Canada.

For a preview of the 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, click here.

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