- The Washington Times - Friday, May 8, 2009

Doublespeak — it is a term inspired by, but not actually used in, George Orwell’s 1949 classic novel, “Nineteen Eighty Four.” The book described all manner of obviously contradictory phrases, which cynics cite as examples whenever they distrust what has been said.

Things like, “War is peace,” “Freedom is slavery” and “Bigger engines save gas.” OK, maybe that last one wasn’t in there. But skeptics will surely reach for “doublespeak” when they hear a carmaker explain that it made the engine larger in its latest model for the purpose of efficiency.

The carmaker in question is Toyota, a manufacturer canonized by the green movement for its efficient products, and the model under discussion is the hybrid-electric Prius, for which Toyota earned its reputation.

For 2010, the gas engine in the Prius displaces 1.8 liters rather than the previous 1.5 liters, and total system power for the combined gas and electric motors is now 134 horsepower instead of 110.

The car nevertheless scores better numbers on the Environmental Protection Agency’s fuel economy test, earning ratings of 50 mpg in the city and 49 on the highway for a combined average of 50 mpg. This is a consequence of the design of Toyota’s Synergy hybrid-electric drive system, which scores better in city driving than on the highway because of the recovery of energy while braking. This is an example, in addition to using a bigger gas engine to save gas, of how such things can be counterintuitive at times.

The 50 mpg average compares with EPA scores of 48 mpg city and 45 mpg highway for a combined average of 46 mpg in the outgoing Prius, according to government math. In my testing on the flat, largely featureless roads in the vicinity of Orlando, Fla., I scored 55, 50 and 53 mpg on urban, highway, and mixed driving loops, respectively, while driving the new 2010 Prius in pretty much the same way I drive most other cars.

In mixed driving, I’ve previously hit about 42 mpg in the outgoing Prius, so it would appear the new car achieves significant real-world efficiency gains. Adherents of electric cars may not want to hear it, but a more sophisticated and powerful gas engine is the main reason for this improvement, according to the company.

“One of the biggest factors in achieving an EPA rating of 50 miles per gallon is a larger engine,” said Ed La Rocque, Toyota’s national small-car manager. “While you may think a smaller engine would be more efficient, that is not necessarily so.”

A smaller engine, in a smaller car, would indeed be more efficient. But when small engines strain to move bigger cars - like the midsized, five-passenger Prius - they burn up those potential gains. In the old Prius, drivers sometimes felt like they were flogging the engine to get the car to go.

“You’ll notice it doesn’t seem like we’re really wringing out that [new] engine,” said Chris Risdon, senior product education specialist and development administrator for the University of Toyota. (Yes, they really have such a place, but don’t look for a degree in classic literature from this school.)

“The previous engine made a lot of noise,” he said. “Now, when you mash the pedal, it’s got power there for you.”

As much as they love their Priuses (more than 90 percent of owners say they would buy another one, according to Toyota), a top request owners have is for better acceleration and more hill-climbing power.

Also, the greater muscle of the bigger engine means that on the highway, the car’s gear ratio can be higher (or, numerically lower) than would otherwise be practical, letting the engine turn at a lower speed. Fewer strokes of the pistons every mile corresponds to fewer squirts by the fuel injectors and less fuel burned, Mr. Risdon said.

This effect is especially pronounced in vehicles like pickups and sport utility vehicles that are put to work carrying loads or towing trailers. “If you have V6 pickup truck and a V8 pickup truck, there isn’t much difference in gas mileage, especially if you are using it as a work truck,” Mr. Risdon said.

I saw this while towing a small race car on an open trailer with a Honda Ridgeline pickup, whose 3.5-liter V6 tore through four tanks of gas at 10 mpg. That was far worse than the 14 mpg returned by the burley 6.2-liter V8 Chevy Suburban I’d tested with the same trailer. This better gas mileage wasn’t in spite of the Chevy’s bigger engine; it was because of it.

The General Motors small block V8 engine is an automotive Labrador Retriever, capable of both boundless energy and energy-conserving idleness. These muscular engines are so powerful that they are practically snoozing during highway driving, turning over at barely more than idle speed while powering the car along at the speed limit.

I hope this explanation disarms some cynical thoughts about doublespeak. If we want still better efficiency, we’re going to have to trade away some of the Prius’ size, weight, passenger capacity, cargo space and possibly safety to get it. So far, there aren’t too many customers lined up to make those trade-offs. Toyota planners predict this more powerful 2010 Prius will be the most popular version yet.

Copyright, Motor Matters, 2009

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