by Jim Kerr

Hybrid Synergy Drive. We first heard about this automotive hybrid powertrain design with the introduction of the 2004 Toyota Prius. The original Prius, launched in 1998 was also a hybrid, but the development of the second generation Prius included many advancements in hybrid technology and a powertrain concept well beyond the context of a single model line.

2005 Toyota Hylander Hybrid
2005 Toyota Hylander Hybrid. Photo: G. Yoxon. Click image to enlarge

Just this past week at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show, only hours after the Prius was named 2004 North American Car of the Year, Toyota demonstrated their commitment to producing ecologically compatible, comfortable, practical and fun to drive hybrid vehicles by announcing future Hybrid developments.

Toyota’s 2005 Highlander will be the second Toyota vehicle and the world’s first seven-passenger hybrid SUV to receive their Hybrid Synergy Drive powertrain. This mid size Sport Utility will be powered by a 3.3 litre V6 gasoline engine along with a larger capacity battery than the Prius that will deliver nearly double the power to an all new high speed electric motor. This new electric motor will operate at twice the speed of the Prius’s 10,000 rpm electric motor and deliver more than twice the power.

Add the gasoline and electric motor together and the Highlander’s horsepower is projected to be around 270 ponies. That power will move the Highlander from a stop to 60 mph in less than eight seconds yet still give fuel economy similar to a compact sedan. Driving range is estimated to be more than 1000 kilometres on a single tank of fuel. This hybrid will also meet the Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (SULEV) rating, the toughest in the industry.

Lexus will also receive a hybrid. The RX 400h is a luxury SUV to be built on the RX330 platform and like the Highlander will be powered by a 3.3 litre V6 engine and electric motor. These vehicles are “full hybrid” which means that they are capable of operating either in gasoline or electric mode as well as a combined power mode.

2005 Lexus RX 400h

2005 Lexus RX 400h

2005 Lexus RX 400h
2005 Lexus RX 400h. Photo: Toyota. Click image to enlarge

Drivers will notice the absence of the traditional tachometer. In its place, the RX 400h has an illuminated power meter that displays the level of power generated by the gasoline/electric hybrid powertrain. Gasoline/electric power distribution can be monitored on the standard 18 cm touch panel display screen, similar to the current Prius.

Optional all wheel drive systems will use an additional rear drive electric motor, providing even quicker acceleration. The additional motor also boosts system efficiency with its regenerative braking system. When the vehicle is coasting or the brakes are applied, the electric motor becomes a generator, storing energy in the battery that would normally be lost as heat in the brake rotors. I find it interesting that unlike conventional 4wd vehicles, this hybrid system not only improves acceleration even on good traction surfaces but is more efficient too!

Truck owners don’t need to feel left out. Toyota used the Detroit auto show to unveil a concept vehicle – the FTX pickup truck. This concept is a preview of the capability of the next generation 2006 full size Tundra pickup. Peak under the hood of the FTX concept and you would find a large displacement V8 hybrid gasoline-electric engine with torque and power to haul those large loads yet deliver the fuel economy of a V6. While the next Tundra will not be a hybrid at the start of production, Jim Press, TMS executive vice president and COO says an optional hybrid powertrain “is under serious consideration down the line”.

Even though Toyota was already planning future hybrid vehicles, the interest by drivers has (pleasantly) surprised them. The original Prius production plan for 2004 calendar year was 36,000 units.

Toyota FTX Concept
Toyota FTX Concept. Photo: G. Yoxon. Click image to enlarge

Although the 2004 Prius just arrived at dealers in October, Toyota Motor Sales in the U.S. has already announced a 31 percent increase in production to 47,000 units annually of its all-new, second-generation Prius gas-electric hybrid sedan to help meet the vehicle’s heavy demand in the market.

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