Toyota’s Bid to Turn Petrolheads Into Hybridheads

While car sales of hybrid models have shown a steady increase in the last decade, there is still a perception that the green benefits of going hybrid come at the cost of limited performance. This is largely due to the absence of hybrids from the racing scene, which is the platform where popular cars like the Audi A8 and the Subaru Impreza initially gained their prestige. Now it seems Toyota – still the manufacturer at the forefront of hybrid technology – is trying to change that.

The process started last year, when Toyota entered the TS030 HYBRID prototype in the Le Mans 24 hours, one of the world’s iconic motorsport events. The decision attracted a lot of publicity, which had the intended effect of showing that hybrids were competing in a race demanding the ultimate combination of speed and staying power. In the event, the two TS030 cars which combined a 3.4 litre V8 engine with an electric motor had to retire before the end of the race, which was won, as usual, by conventional-engine Audis. But what may have seemed like a setback could actually prove valuable learning experience for Toyota’s hybrid-focused engineers, who show no signs of giving up in the battle to turn the hybrid into a bona fide racing concept.

Late last year, chief engineer Tetsuya Tada said in an interview with Top Gear that the company was testing a new hybrid prototype of the much-loved G86, an evergreen on websites like Car Sales. According to Tata, some of the technology from the Le Mans TS030 will be used on this prototype. While remaining tight-lipped on details, he said the focus for Toyota was now on incorporating a Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) to provide the new prototype with a racing edge.

KERS is a system for storing the car’s moving energy generated during braking. It works by using a flywheel or electric motor, usually containing a lithium ion battery, to store energy which can later be used to generate increased acceleration at greater fuel economy. The technology has already been used in Formula One, and would seem to transfer well to the racing world where lighter fuel loads can make the difference between success and failure.

So in Toyota’s G86 Hybrid case, the KERS would feature an electric motor, probably with a battery rather than the more expensive super capacitor. Tada suggested he wanted to make the car affordable, which is another sign the focus on racing prototypes is ultimately directed at making the hybrid a more attractive option for a wider range of consumers. That logic certainly makes sense in light of the decision to use the G86 as the model for this intriguing hybrid experiment. In an ad campaign last year, Toyota aimed the car squarely at a section of the market for whom cars are not just metal boxes to get from A to B in, but dream machines with the capacity to enliven lives. That is a type of car buyer who, previously at least, may have treated the hybrid as an environmental option with no real motoring credentials.

Tapping into the psychology of this market could see Toyota lead the way in making real inroads into the ‘petrolhead’ culture, which until now has had that name for good reason.

Article by Alex Dwyre, whose passion for cars goes all the way back to his 1965 Alfa Romeo GTA, which he bought at the tender age of 22. Ever since 1992, he’s been writing reports on the automotive industry for different news organizations.

Over the last decade, Alex realized how important the development of a sustainable automotive industry is for the planet’s future. He is now directing all of his writing efforts towards green motoring.

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