Wednesday 21 February 2018

It's not easy being green

RATING 87/100

I am absolutely fuming this week. It may have something to do with the old back giving me a bit of bother at the wrong moment, but in reality I've been champing at the bit to get this off my chest. Especially as the car on test, Toyota's new hybrid Auris, bears me out.

So let me start at the start.

The Auris is one of the greenest and cleanest cars on the road. There are not too many that hit 70mpg and pump out fewer than 100 grammes of 'emissions' every kilometre. The vast majority are above the magic 100g/km mark. Many are way above it.

In fairness to the last bunch of jennets in government, one of the few things they got right was how they incentivised motorists to seek out and buy cleaner new cars. They succeeded so well that cars in the lower-emission bands, A and B especially, accounted for the majority of purchases. Mission (or should I say emission) accomplished. Leave a job well done and incentivise somewhere else.

But this new breed of jennet couldn't leave well enough alone. Oh no! Their eyes fell on the money that could be extracted from buyers in those bands. And so in the Budget they slapped €56 more on the road tax for the likes of this Auris next year.

Not the end of the world, you might say. I agree. Indeed it is little more than a euro a week. But that is not the point. Firstly, it adds to the cumulative effect the Budget measures have had: fuel costs will rise significantly as well as the price of a new car because of the VAT increase.

Secondly, it represents the unabashed garnering of our money just because we want to buy 'greener'. And that is a disgrace. It conveys a shocking cynicism and lack of perspective.

I know they had to get the money from somewhere. But why from people who are doing their best to be economical with their spending on a new car and on its running cost? This Auris does 70mpg. Doesn't make sense. And I detest the way they brutally shattered the illusion that we as a nation want to encourage green transport.

Drive the Auris and, despite shortcomings I will come to later, I promise you will feel compelled to acknowledge how extraordinary a piece of technical ingenuity it represents.

Okay, it looks like an ordinary small-family five-door hatchback. It is but it has Toyota's now famous hybrid system (we know it best from the Prius). But just take a minute and consider what it does. There is a 1.8-litre petrol engine and a fairly powerful electric motor, a bank of batteries and, most important of all, a computer that orchestrates their contributions to the smooth running of the car. Sometimes just the one provides the power (it can run for a while as an electric vehicle only); at other times they operate like stagecoach horses all straining at the leash.

Not alone that, but it salvages energy from braking and pumps it into the system. Come on -- by any standards that is a wonder. And here it is in a small, none-too-flashy-hatchback costing around €25,000, with a three-year warranty and capable of 70mpg.

The Auris is sturdy, roomy, comfortable and exceptionally easy to get around in. But it is going to cost you €56 more to run next year because these boyos have decided you can hack an increase.

If it was a lot less green -- like something in Band C, for example -- then the increase would only be half that (€28). Welcome to Ireland, where we have Forty Shades of Green thinking. Why couldn't they leave cars like this alone? After all, it is the first attempt to bring such technology to this size of mainstream car. What incentive is there to buy?

Well one non-tax drawback is the way this car's 'gears' change. In reality they slip upwards and downwards seamlessly in what is called a continuously variable transmission (CVT). It is a great concept and one which takes gear changing out of driving. But in this case it was slow to get momentum going, especially on motorways, and loud, as it tried manfully to catch up with the demands being transmitted by my right foot.

It works but it needs work. I got the flashback sense several times of the bad old days when a clutch would start to slip.

There's good room in the cabin -- decent for back-seat passengers, but the boot hasn't the same space.

Reversing is helped by a camera whose images of what's behind you are shown in the lower left corner of your rear-view mirror -- good idea.

Cars are hardest on juice at start-up and one of the reasons this can do 70mpg is that it runs automatically in electric vehicle mode (EV) as you begin. I found the engine kicked in after a short time. On a couple of longer runs the engine was working a lot. Around town, though, is where you make the big fuel savings: in my case the electric motor did a lot of work.

I drove mostly in normal model but also chose EV (didn't last long) ECO (slower to react) and POWER (you can push on a bit).

It is more expensive than the Honda Insight -- its only really direct rival -- but is markedly superior and easily the better choice.

I see this as a big step into the mainstream. It has its drawbacks and I have no problem saying the CVT system is the major one. And at nearly €25,000, it is expensive against the likes of diesel versions of the Ford Focus, Volkswagen Golf etc.

It would be even more costly if it weren't for the €1,500 VRT rebate on hybrids. Please don't touch that. And maybe when you come to review the whole taxation system, as promised, you might consider how important it is for us all to be encouraged rather than punished for trying to be 'green'.

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