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Missing Link Review: 2003 Toyota Alphard Electric-and-gasoline Hybrid Mini Van

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
The Alphard's energy monitor tracks the van's battery power

By Justin Gardiner Japan Today

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.

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.