Yesterday, I wrote about Toyota allegedly cranking up Japanese production of its new Aqua a.k.a. Prius C to 30,000 a month. After I did this, jargon vigilantes protested the use of “engineering feat.” Keep protesting. Today, we will see why the Prius C is an engineering feat. We will also learn how the height of batteries and gas tanks can influence aerodynamics.
In order to research these phenomena, I traveled on your behalf all the way to scenic Keihinmakuhari, Chiba, Japan.
There, in the parking lot of the New Otani Hotel, Toyota had parked a whole fleet of feats.
Soon, this reporter would be able to test drive the Japanese version of the Prius C, which will land on U.S. shores some time this spring. Allegedly, it will come with an EPA city fuel economy rating of 53 mpg, and a starting MSRP of $19,000.Which is said to be one of the best fuel economies on this tortured planet, or, to mollify the jargon vigilantes, pretty darn good.
These get-togethers are being conducted in the charmingly vanilla Toyota style: You meet in a nondescript location, you receive a stack of paper and a quick PowerPoint. Then you get a car. The beauty of these events is that while the members of the Fourth Estate are out driving, you can sit down with the people who actually created that car and talk to them.
We had already talked to Chief Engineer Satoshi Ogiso months ago. (Attention jargon vigilantes: Dirty word in headline of linked article!) Therefore, I had a sit-down chat with the Prius C Project Manager, Masahiko Yanagihara.
Right away, Yanagihara denied The Nikkei’s 30,000 a month claim, in a very diplomatic way.
Yanagihara did not even mention The Nikkei. He however pointed out that the Aqua/Prius C is being built in the Iwate plant of subsidiary Kanto Auto Works in Kanegasaki, and only there. (Keep that in mind, we will revisit this.) He also noted that this specific plant has a maximum capacity of 30,000 units a month, “if we do overtime and such.” He then added that “other cars, such as the Ractis, Belta, Blade etc.” are also being made there. Then he looked me in the eye. A non-verbal “Wakarimashita ka?” (capisce?)
Let’s revisit this: The Aqua/Prius C is being built in the Iwate plant of subsidiary Kanto Auto Works in Kanegasaki, and only there. That includes all cars that are exported. The Prius C is and for the foreseeable future will not be built anywhere else. Now you know how many Toyota expects to sell. For now.
But why (vigilantes, start heating the tar and plucking the feathers) is a compact car with a 1.5 liter 74 hp Atkinson cycle engine an engineering feat? I’ll let you in on a little industry secret: Building good large cars is fairly easy. Building good small cars requires heavy engineering. In a way, large car owners are the guinea pigs for the small car masses. Large car owners get the latest technology in its expensive, awkward and bulky self (think first generation cell phones). Once technology reaches the masses, it must be elegant, small, and affordable. (Think the phone in your pocket.)
To make all the gadgetry fit, the engineers at Toyota put the Hybrid drive on a diet. Even after shrinking, fitting the components wasn’t easy.
The battery had no room behind the seat, therefore, it had to go under the rear seats. Together with the gas tank. (If you think a gas tank and a hot battery are strange under-the seat fellows: Toyota put both in their own steel casing.) When Toyota did that, battery and tank did not quite fit under the seats. “No problem,” would the usual answer be, “let’s raise the rear seats a few inches.” Not good. The rear roofline would have to be raised also in order to avoid heads bouncing into the headliner. That again would have ruined the beautiful 0.28 drag coefficient.
Solving this simple-sounding, but nasty conundrum did cost Toyota 1.5 years. In that time, extra inches and banging heads were eliminated by reducing the height of the battery and that of the gas tank. (Now you know why the Prius C has a 36 liter tank, whereas, say, the Yaris has a 42 liter tank.) Moving the (heavy) battery and the (heavy when full) tank below the rear seat had another advantage: It lowered the center of gravity, which makes that miserly car rather fun to drive. There are many more engineering feats in this car, but this review (of sorts) is already approaching 800 words, and I have yet to drive it.
At 10.7 seconds from zero to 100 km, the car won’t win drag races, but hey, it’s about the same as the Prius (and, come to think of it, the MK I Golf GTI.) Now if you think this is a lead-in to my test drive, then I must disappoint you. Sure, I drove the car. But driving through Chiba while more or less observing the 50 km/h (31 mph) speed limit is no test drive. I am also not willing to criticize the haptic qualities of the plastic used in a trim which you will never see, unless you move to Japan. We will leave this in the hands of our master reviewer Alex Dykes, who hopefully soon will get his hands on, and his butt in a Prius C in the proper U.S. spec.
Toyota paid for a tank of gas (which was hardly used), a boxed lunch and two coffees. I paid the train fare from my home to Chiba, and attention.