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Lexus chief engineer says its hybrid system is the "most promising"

11 Oct 2006

LEXUS is committed to hybrid technology to the extent that the Toyota offshoot is predicting it could represent as much of 20 per cent of its total Australian sales by the middle of 2007.

This comes in the wake of the luxury car-maker’s second hybrid launch here this year, and precedes the arrival of the V8-engined, all-wheel drive LS600hL hybrid in 2007.

When this happens, it will give the Japanese company a commanding lead in bringing hybrid technology to the market as other car-makers – according to Lexus – are engaged in catch-up mode.

The reference here is to the hybrid project being undertaken in a combined exercise involving DaimlerChrysler, General Motors and BMW, which represents a change in thinking from a group that had previously discounted the Lexus position on hybrids.

The system to come out of this programme shares similarities with the Lexus system but, according to the executive director of hybrid powertrain programs for DaimlerChrysler, Dr Andreas Truckenbrodt, there are things that make the joint development better.

Using technology such as separate high and low-speed modes and four fixed gear ratios in its continuously variable transmission (CVT), the system is claimed to offer better real-life fuel economy and better towing capacity while, according to Dr Truckenbrodt, embracing some "smart control concepts which we want to apply".

But the system will be on the road in the US until late next year (with BMW and Mercedes models further away again) and, so far, has not been designed for right-hand drive.

In Australia recently for the RX400h launch, the general manager and chief engineer for the Lexus planning division, Yoshihiko Matsuda, exercised diplomacy by declining to comment on the relative merits of either his company’s system, or that of GM/BMW/DaimlerChrysler.

"I am not familiar with the (GM/BMW/DaimlerChrysler) system" he claimed at the launch, "So I am not saying which is better."However he did concede Luxus believes its system, which comprises a planetary gear-based CVT and electric motors to supplement a conventional petrol engine, is the "most promising" of those being applied at the moment, including "milder" systems like that being used in the Honda Civic hybrid.

 center imageLeft: GS450h and RX400h (below).

Lexus is clearly quite comfortable with its significant hybrid lead right now as it deftly builds what appears to be an unassailable lead for the foreseeable future, covering all-wheel drive (RX400h), performance/luxury V6 (GS450h) and upper luxury V8 (LS600hL).

At the RX400h launch, Mr Matsuda was also asked a question many observers have wanted to ask since the first Toyota Prius to be seen here came to market in 2001.

Why not a turbo-diesel hybrid?Matsuda-san conceded that such a combination was indeed possible, but suggested the scope for petrol power was more attractive for a number of reasons including, naturally, the dwindling but tenacious perceptions people have of higher diesel emission levels.

He also suggested the high cost of diesel technology could be a discouraging factor, while implying that while diesel already has the economy issue sewn up, it needs to fucus on other issues including the aforementioned conceptions concerning exhaust emissions.

"And the (economy) improvement would be relatively smaller (with diesel hybrids) than petrol," he said.

Interestingly, Lexus in Australia makes a profit out of each RX400h and GS450h sold, even if Toyota has a loss leader with its Prius. This probably has as much to do with the costs passed on by the parent company as it has to do with the fact development expenses are more easily absorbed into high-end vehicles.

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