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Japanese Carmakers Refine Gas-Electricity Engines (February 24, 2006)

Hybrid and fuel-cell cars. Clockwise from top left: the Subaru B5-TPH, the Honda FCX, the Mazda RX-8 Hydrogen RE, and the Toyota Fine-X. (Jiji)
The age of the hybrid car has finally arrived. Amid heightened concern over the environment, Japan's automakers have spent the last decade rolling out cars powered by a combination of electricity and gasoline. The latest models of these hybrid cars boast vastly improved engines and other features that leave their predecessors in the dust. With these new models, hybrid cars are set to become a mainstream choice for drivers in Japan and overseas.

Fun to Drive
The main advantage of hybrid vehicles is that they are environmentally friendly - due to reduced carbon dioxide emissions - while not requiring the user to recharge their motors, as is the case with other types of electrically powered vehicles, such as bicycles. Japan's biggest automaker, Toyota Motor Corporation began selling the world's first mass-produced hybrid vehicle, the Prius, in 1997. Honda Motor Co. followed suit in 1999 with the introduction of the Insight.

Sales of the hybrid cars to North America and Europe got underway in 2000, and the vehicles quickly attracted a lot of attention around the world. The movie star Leonardo DiCaprio is reportedly an enthusiastic owner of a hybrid vehicle, and the British auto magazine Engine Technology gave a hybrid system its 2004 International Engine of the Year award plus awards in three other categories. All the positive publicity has served to boost sales: worldwide sales of Toyota's hybrid vehicles had surpassed 500,000 by October 2005.

When the vehicles first appeared, though, they were dogged by the widespread belief that their acceleration and other performance features were inferior to those of gasoline-powered cars. Toyota has responded by pouring a great deal of effort into improving the cars' basic performance, making the vehicles not just good for the environment but fun to drive too.

The carmaker seems to have achieved that goal by developing a revolutionary hybrid system called THS II in 2003. This system couples a 1.5-liter engine with a motor producing 50% more horsepower than its predecessor. The combination produces acceleration surpassing that of a 2.0-liter gasoline engine.

As for its next-generation systems, Toyota has rolled out the THS-C system to power minivans, and the E-Four, the world's first electric power plant for four-wheel drive vehicles. For sports utility vehicles, the automaker ensures a fun and safe driving experience by equipping its models with a combinations of the E-Four and THS II systems.

Power to Spare
A major feature of the hybrid systems is their ability to convert the kinetic energy from deceleration, caused by braking, into electricity and then reuse that electricity for other purposes.

Toyota's hybrid minivan is capable of generating large amounts of electricity. Through a 100-volt AC socket inside the vehicle, the minivan reportedly delivers up to 1,500 watts of power - enough, says Toyota, to power household electrical appliances like a hair drier or a microwave oven, or to recharge a power-assisted bicycle or an electric cart. Some of the vans have been customized as mobile offices, equipped with personal computers, fax machines, and other devices that use this electricity as their power source.

While researchers work to further refine electric-gasoline hybrid systems, there is another race taking place to develop an even more environmentally friendly way of powering cars. In this field, fuel-cell (FC) technology, which uses hydrogen as a fuel, is the clear favorite.

Honda was the first automaker in the world to market a fuel-cell-powered car. Its latest development is the FCX Concept, a next-generation vehicle that boasts a small yet highly efficient FC system. Honda has also come up with a system that can be used to produce hydrogen in the home.

Toyota, meanwhile, rolled out a fuel-cell hybrid vehicle of its own in the autumn of 2005, the Fine-X. Equipped with a tank containing highly pressurized hydrogen, the only emissions it produces, are water vapor.

All of these developments show that Japanese automakers continue to be at the forefront of eco-friendly car technology as global concern about the environment gathers momentum.

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Copyright (c) 2006 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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