Last year, Honda’s Insight was the cheapest hybrid at RM99,812 and not surprisingly, it was the best-selling hybrid model in the country. The low price was, of course, due to the government allowing hybrids (and electric vehicles) to be sold at duty-free prices to encourage Malaysians to use more environment-friendly cars.
This year, the cheapest hybrid is the new Toyota Prius c, a smaller brother to the Prius which created the hybrid segment in 1997. It’s not surprising that the Prius c is cheaper than the Insight since that is also the case in Japan and as both models are sold duty-free, the same applies here. However, this did not seem like it was going to be the case as a month ago when UMW Toyota Motor’s gave an estimated price on its website as RM103,900. Even with that price indication, some 600 orders have been received, showing that Malaysians are keen on buying hybrid models which are proven to reduce motoring costs.
But at the official launch, the surprise was that the model is RM97,000 – with insurance – and the reason for the drop to below that of the Insight was explained by T. Hibi, Deputy Chairman of UMW Toyota Motor: “Our earlier price was only an indication. We continued to try to offer the Prius c at a lower price and finally, we decided that we should show our appreciation to the Malaysian government for the duty-free incentive and we have absorbed some more of the cost to make it more affordable.”
Having lowered the price, UMW Toyota Motor has to sell a lot more units and its target for 2012 is 2,500 units, 1,000 units more than the target for the bigger Prius which has also been improved for the new year. To date, the company has sold 2,707 units of the Prius since its introduction in Malaysia in 2009.
That the Prius c can be launched in Malaysia as originally scheduled demonstrates how quickly Toyota was able to restore its production processes after the earthquake and tsunami almost a year ago. In fact, the factory where the Prius c is made is located in the region which was hit by the earthquake and though the factory was not damaged, production had to stop for a while. Panasonic, which makes the hybrid batteries, had also set up a new plant in the same area and was also affected.
“When the earthquake hit the region and disrupted factory production, we were greatly concerned about the launch schedule,” revealed Mr. Hibi. “But Toyota’s efforts to restore production were so successful that we did not have to change our plans and can launch the new model today.”
Aerodynamic efficiency is a very high priority for hybrid vehicles as the more easily the car can slip through the air, the less energy that is needed to overcome wind resistance. Extensive aerodynamic features were engineered into the Prius c to help bring the Cd down to 0.28 without turning it into a ‘bubble on wheels’.
The measures to reduce aerodynamic drag include a reduced frontal surface area by having a reduced ride height, and ‘pagoda’ roof, triangular silhouette, integral rear spoiler, flush underbody with special features to manage airflow and reduce turbulence, and aero-stabilizing fins in various areas.
With the Prius c, Toyota’s designers also introduce ‘aerocorners’ on the body to smoothen airflow as it moves over different surfaces. ‘Under priority’ is another design feature which emphasizes the trapezoidal radiator grille design for optimum aerodynamic efficiency and cooling.
At the rear, the designers sought to express stability and active character through the shape and style of the tail lamps. Each lighting unit is large and highly visible with an arrowhead profile (like the Prius) that adds to the dynamic looks.
To reflect the more youthful character of the car and to appeal to younger buyers, there are bright colour choices offered, eg orange and red. The nice blue shade, which is available in Japan, does not seem to be included in the choices though.
The hatchback body structure makes extensive use of lightweight, high-strength steel to help reduce vehicle mass and improve fuel economy, without sacrificing the ability to absorb and disperse impact energies during an accident. The high level of torsional rigidity afforded by the body structure also makes it possible for the engineers to optimize suspension tuning for ride and handling.
Most of the information is shown on a 3.5-inch full-colour TFT (Thin Film Transistor) display which has various screens, including an energy monitor to show energy flows in real-time and an ECO Score which allows the driver to keep track of fuel efficiency over a certain period. Fuel consumption records are also shown in a bar graph so the driver can see how driving style and traffic conditions affect fuel economy, and adjust his or her driving style accordingly.
|A graphic display shows the driver how energy is flowing in the hybrid system and when the electric motor
is being recharged or is solely powering the car. No key is required to start the engine (right)
There are two packages available for the centre area of the dashboard. The standard package for the 2DIN audio system has an AM/FM radio receiver, CD-player as well as inputs for USB thumbdrives and other portable music players. For the more advanced DVD-AVN package (extra-cost option), there is a 6.1-inch colour touchscreen, radio, DVD player and Bluetooth connectivity. This package includes a rearview camera and navigation system covering Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.
Hybrid vehicles typically have automatic shutdown of the engine when idling periods are long so as to save fuel. This has implications on the air-conditioning system which is extremely important in tropical climates and Toyota’s engineers have developed a lightweight, compact electrically-powered system for the Prius c which ensures that comfort is not sacrificed. The system uses an electric compressor to maintain cooling and should the battery power be low, then the engine will run for a while to recharge it. However, the electric compressor itself does not draw on engine power, unlike conventional systems, thereby contributing to fuel efficiency.
The Smart Entry & Start System makes it unnecessary for the driver to use a key to lock/unlock the doors or to activate the engine (it does not start running when the switch is pressed). For security, the system is only active when the smart key is within 1 metre of the car.
The boot capacity is 260 litres and this volume can be increased by folding down one or both the rear backrests. Many motorists in Malaysia (and maybe other countries) are still not comfortable with the skinny space-saver emergency spare tyre (and even less comfortable without any tyre at all!) so Toyota provides a full-sized normal wheel and tyre.
The Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) system, proven in the Prius, has been adapted to suit the smaller size of the Prius c. In a way, the one in the Prius c is an evolutionary development as components such as the engine, transaxle and battery are more compact and lighter (by 42 kgs compared to the one for the Prius). Much of the powertrain mass is located lower and closer to the middle of the car while the battery is installed under the rear seat, contributing to better weight distribution and a lower centre of gravity for more stable handling.
Other innovations include an electric water pump, eliminating the need for drive belts, a cool exhaust gas recirculation system and quicker warm-up times for the catalytic converter. During braking, some energy is recovered and used for recharging the battery.
The HSD integrates the operation of the engine, electric motor, Continuously Variable Transaxle (E-CVT), and a 144V nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery, an advanced power control unit (inverter), a DC-DC converter, a step-up converter and a hybrid control computer. The hybrid control computer governs the seamless use of the petrol engine and electric power, depending on driving demands and selected drive mode.
The HSD can generate a total output of 74 kW/101 ps with 111 Nm of torque. Together with the light weight of the car (1,140 kgs), performance levels are claimed to be on par or better with other similarly-sized models. However, when it comes to fuel consumption, Toyota claims that the Prius c beats all others in its class.
The driver can alternate between three drive modes while on the move: Normal, Eco, and EV mode. Eco mode reduces overall energy consumption by prioritizing fuel economy and altering throttle response as well as air-conditioner performance. EV model is available in certain conditions where just the electric motor is used; speeds of up to 50 km/h can be achieved in this mode which gives the noise-free experience of an electric vehicle.
The platform for the Prius c has some similarities to that of the Vios with a similar suspension layout as the Prius, consisting of front MacPherson struts and a tuned torsion beam at the rear. The spring and damper characteristics have been tuned for dynamic handling, minimum body roll and a smooth ride. The electric power steering system requires no power from the engine to operate and the car has a small turning radius of 4.8 metres. A steering ratio that requires just 2.28 turns lock to lock quickens the car’s dynamic response.
With its attractive price and ‘cheapest hybrid’ title, the Prius c will certainly draw lots of buyers. When asked if UMW Toyota Motor is concerned about parallel importers bringing in Toyota hybrids and undercutting the company in pricing (which has often happened with some other imported models), Encik Ismet said that while there’s nothing to stop anyone from buying Toyota hybrids in Japan and sending them to Malaysia, they can’t sell it as cheap as UMW Toyota Motor
“They will have to pay the full import tax and excise duty because the duty-free incentive is only given to official franchise holders. So it would be hard for the parallel importers to sell at a price lower than what we are offering,” he explained.
Click here to read our QuickView driving impressions of the Prius c
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