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499: Environmental charge
The futuristic electric-and-gasoline hybrid Toyota Alphard aims to take the financial strain out of owning a large van, while reducing emissions to boot. Justin Gardiner takes one for a cruise.
497: Thrills and spills
The next two weekends feature Japan's two biggest Grand Prix races, the Pacific Moto GP, and the final round of the Formula 1 Championship. Justin Gardiner gets pole position.
495: Time warp
It was christened the Japanese Ferrari when it was launched way back in 1991. Justin Gardiner reckons the intended compliment still doesn't do justice to Honda's NSX.
493: Point to point
Just how much faster is a 1,000cc superbike than a 50cc scooter in our sprawling megalopolis? Justin Gardiner borrowed a few Aprilia bikes to find out.
491: Future classic
The Audi TT Roadster has become the archetypal convertible of the decade, with good looks matched by great handling. Justin Gardiner gets behind the wheel.
489: Name value
Toyota's Lexus is one of the most respected brands in the West, but almost unheard of in its home country. Justin Gardiner wonders why.
487: Revolutionary ride
Mazda proudly proclaims that its RX-8 is peerless, and for once the claim is more than marketing hype. Justin Gardiner revs it up.
485: Thinking big
What’s behind the astonishing popularity of oversized scooters on Tokyo’s roads? Justin Gardiner and three veteran motorcyclists aim to find out.
483: Off the beaten path
Honda’s Element harks back to the days when a 4x4’s interior could be washed down with a hose. Justin Gardiner goes for a spin.
481: Track days
Tokyo offers amateur racers the chance to prove that they’re the next Michael Schumacher. Justin Gardiner hits the speedways.
479: My Fairlady
The Datsun 240Z changed the fortunes of Nissan Motors back in 1969. This year, the new 350Z heads up their international line-up for the 21st century. Justin Gardiner reports.
477: Small is better
Justin Gardiner gets the scoop on scooters to fit every taste and budget.
475: Two for the price of one
Justin Gardiner drives two cars that can fit into a single parking space, the Smart K and the Suzuki Twin.
473: Multiple personality
In a world of nigh-on-identical minivans, Fiat’s Multipla dares to be different. Justin Gardiner drives the distinctive import.
471: Days at the races
Honda, the traditional Japanese champions of motorsports in Japan, are facing a tough challenge on their home turf. Justin Gardiner looks forward to what promises to be a bumper year for racing enthusiasts.
469: The ride stuff
Just in time for spring, Don Morton tells you how and where to choose the perfect bike.
467: Most impressive
Justin Gardiner tools around in Subaru's Impreza, the automotive equivalent of a mild-mannered bloke who turns unruly after a few pints.
465: Outside the box
Justin Gardiner mourns the passing of the Toyota HiACE, a campsite favorite and the best of a dying breed.
463: Cyber Cypha
Justin Gardiner finds that Toyota's latest super-mini not only takes you out to dinner, but helps you decide where to go.
461: Award magnet
Mazda's new mid-size Atenza is attracting accolades the world over. Paul Thompson zoom-zoomed along to find out why.
459: Down the road
After a year of cute cars, 2003 promises more power, pace and raw sex appeal. Justin Gardiner peers into his crystal ball.
453: Fleet of foot
Japan's convoy of quirky emergency vehicles includes everything from mopeds to the country's fastest cars
451: Truck and treat
Paul Thompson tracked down the latest automotive trends from the 36th Tokyo Motor Show


Environmental charge

The futuristic electric-and-gasoline hybrid Toyota Alphard aims to take the financial strain out of owning a large van, while reducing emissions to boot. Justin Gardiner takes one for a cruise.

French movie star Jean Reno, aka "Mr Alphard," launched Toyota's flagship people carrier almost exactly a year ago. At that time, it was only offered with 3-liter V6 and 2.4-liter straight 4 gasoline engines, recent environmental legislation having reduced the attraction of diesels. Although they are not particularly inefficient engines, thanks to their BEAMS technology, they are, in fact, far more environmentally friendly than standard units. When coupled to a two-ton vehicle with all the aerodynamic grace of a barn, they became gas guzzlers, returning around 9 kilometers/liter, according to Toyota, but less than half of that in the real world.

Hence, this hybrid version, launched just over a month ago, and featuring the same technology as the 100 miles-per-gallon, 35.5km/L Toyota Prius. While the hybrid Prius has just a 1.5-liter engine, the Alphard is powered by the standard 2.4-liter, plus two electric motors, one up front, and one nestling above the rear axle. In a system that Toyota calls E-Four, the van is ordinarily a front-engined, front-wheel drive machine, but automatically becomes 4WD, or even (electric only) rear-wheel drive, depending on driving conditions.


Special attractions
The first indication that this van is a bit special comes when you turn the ignition key. Initially it appears that nothing has happened, but if you listen carefully, the faint hum of electric motors can be picked up and the gas motor is just about audible. Select drive, release the brakes and away you whoosh, almost silently, under electric power. A digital display on the dashboard lets you know what's going on: power from the van's huge battery is turning the front wheels. Touch the accelerator and a second yellow arrow points from the display's virtual battery to the rear motor, doubling your power.

Depressing the throttle still further cuts out the yellow arrows, but an orange arrow to the front wheels appears in their place, indicating that the gas engine is now taking the load. Floor the pedal and the electric motors cut back in, providing the driver with all the power the machine can muster.

Fascinating-if not downright distracting-stuff, especially when the driver lifts off the throttle and the arrows reverse and turn green, showing that the van's forward momentum has turned the motors into dynamos, and the battery is now recharging, ready for the next stop-start. The upshot of this is not only that drivers spend less time watching the road ahead (bad thing), but that they end up trying to drive without using the gasoline engine as much as possible (good thing), resulting in smooth, highly economical journeys. Transitions between gasoline and electric power would be all but undetectable without that display, and the Alphard's silky smooth ride is compounded by its continuously variable automatic transmission, which keeps the gasoline engine at an even speed, and therefore, engine note, at all road speeds. Altogether, the hybrid system is capable of pushing out over 170PS; 131 from the engine, 17 from the front motor and 25 at the rear, which is enough to provide surprisingly sprightly acceleration for very little effort and to keep the van humming along at 140km/h on the highways.

The Alphard's energy monitor tracks the van's battery power

Another added bonus of all that electric power is the three 100V AC power outlets, one between the front seats, one facing the second row of passengers, and the third in the trunk ready to power camping and outdoor gear. Each can knock out a belting 1500W, enough to run a hair dryer, though the engine does need to be started first. As with most three-row, eight-seater vans, all seats can be folded down to form a mammoth bed, and the center row slides backwards and forwards and spins, allowing the rear occupants to face each other. The rearmost row can also move fore and aft, or be folded out of the way, to increase luggage space.

Unlike most other people carriers, the center seats have fold-down trays in their backs for the back seat passengers, prompting wittier ones to look under their seats for flotation devices and to search the ceiling for oxygen masks. Nonsmokers can remove the circular ashtrays, thus doubling the number of cup holders, or use the separate rear air-conditioning to clean their space of second-hand smoke. Also, unusually for this class, there are slide doors on both sides, which for an additional ¥120,000 can be opened remotely. Airbags are of course fitted as standard up front, but the family man's pretty much essential "optional extra" of side and curtain airbags costs an additional ¥85,000.


Creature comforts
Not that Alphards are being bought exclusively by families. The space and level of comfort inside equals or exceeds that of Lexus or Mercedes limousines, so it is hardly surprising that large companies and government ministries are adding them to their fleets. Starting at ¥3.6 million, only 20 percent more expensive than their all-gasoline stablemates, hybrid Alphards make financial sense, too.

We didn't come close to Toyota's claimed mileage in our long weekend of city driving, but we still managed just under 10km for every liter of regular octane gasoline-about double what could be expected from the petrol versions. And don't forget, vehicles that fail to qualify for at least three stars on the government's new emissions rating system will incur penalty taxes from 2010. The ultra-green Alphard, of course, passed with flying colors.


for more information (Japanese only).

Photo credit: Justin Gardiner

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