Lexus ES to be phased out? You’ve got to be kidding…

Lexus-ES300h-hybrid

Among this author’s many oddball geeky/nerdy automotive interests is following Motor Trend magazine’s annual Power List of the “Top 50 movers, shakers, heart-breakers in the mercurial world of autodom”, as they described it in 2008. This ritual goes back further than that, though, having started in 2005, and has been compiled by Todd Lassa since 2010.

Its latest 2013 iteration reminds us that “steady is the new up”, with less changes in the ranks and listings than at any time in recent memory. Yet, one of the handful of exceptions to that rule is Toyota Motor Company’s President and Chief Executive Officer Akio Toyoda, who rises from the #26 position in 2012 all the way to #3 this year, and is, in Lassa’s words, gunning for first. His passionate approach includes kudos for the successful Scion FR-S launch and for his cheerleading efforts in ensuring that nonsport models such as the Lexus GS and Toyota Avalon have a personality, as well as spearheading the company’s return to Le Mans and the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Also appearing on the list is Bob Carter, rising from #45 in 2012 to #34 this year, chiefly on the strength of his promotion last April to Toyota Motor Sales USA’s Automotive Operations Senior Vice President, a position that includes responsibilities for Scion and Lexus as well. Fortunately, Lassa affirms that, like corporate chief and scion Toyoda, Carter personally prefers sporty cars over Camrys, and goes on to suggest that Carter may become Toyota’s next American board member, an honor that other pundits have suggested for Senior Managing Officer of Toyota Motor Corporation and Chairman of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada Réal “Ray” Tanguay.

The third Toyota official on the 2013 list, and marking his first appearance in the #45 position is Lexus Product Marketing Planning Division General Manager Mark Templin. Talk of his “unenviably tough job assignment” and goals of growing Lexus outside North America, however, were overshadowed by the jaw-dropping suggestion that Lexus’s aims included “Phasing out best-selling ES. Let Toyota Avalon have the segment”.

So, was Todd Lassa (who also serves as Automobile magazine’s Executive Editor) merely playing armchair product planner and expressing a wish for a more enthusiast-friendly lineup of Lexus sedans? Or is Lexus planning to follow the current Mercedes-Benz and future BMW playbook of using rear-wheel-drive platforms for D-segment and larger models and front-wheel-drive platforms for C-segment and smaller vehicles going forward? This author reached out to Mr. Lassa and received the following reply:

The statement about RWD does NOT come from Mark Templin. Several sources have told me that Toyota will satisfy the Lexus ES market with the Avalon.

Interesting, and something this author has decidedly mixed feelings about. As implied above, going with rear-wheel-drive-centric mid-sized and larger models (with all-wheel-drive options for snowy climes) would cement Lexus’ status as a worthy Mercedes-Benz and BMW rival with an equal emphasis on handling and driving dynamics. On paper, this makes the front-wheel-drive ES an out-of-place throwback that is saddled with a reputation as a dull-to-drive, old folks’ retirement community conveyance. By the time the Lexus ES’s 5th-generation was launched in February 2006, it was a model built but unavailable for sale in its native Japan, and sold only in North America and a handful of Asian and Middle East markets. Its newfound success in China (where, at one point, it was the 4th-best-selling luxury sedan) was thwarted by Sino/Japanese tensions over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands that sent all Japanese car sales in China plummeting just as the new 6th-generation ES made its move to the larger Toyota Avalon base – primarily to satisfy China’s longing for maximum rear-seat legroom in a luxury segment whose vehicles are usually chauffeur-driven.

In a way, though, it would be a shame if the ES goes away, for its newest iteration, arguably, wears the cleanest, most attractive and least overwrought take on Lexus’ new spindle grille and design language, and this author was quite pleasantly surprised by its driving manners and handling. Then again, similar kudos have been expressed over the new 4th-generation (XX40) Toyota Avalon which shares its underpinnings with the newest ES. And we’ll certainly admit that a top-of-the-line 2013 Toyota Avalon Limited is probably closer to the latest Lexus ES than any of the previous ones were to a Toyota Camry XLE V6. And Toyota could borrow a page from the Tundra playbook and slip a Platinum version of the Avalon above the Limited to even better replace the Lexus ES.

Yet, as with our previous story, this author remains skeptical of the rumor that Lexus would eventually kill the ES. It is, by far, Lexus’ best-selling sedan in the United States (and Lexus’ second-best-selling vehicle overall here). To put the numbers into perspective, the 5186 copies of the ES sold in the U.S. during January 2013 exceeds sales of the rest of the brand’s car lineup combined (we’re leaving the SUV and crossover RX, GX and LX lines out of this discussion). And, looking back at the 2012 calendar year, the 56,158 ES units sold in the U.S. are just a couple of thousand units under the sum of last year’s IS, GS and LS sales here combined. ES’s sales advantage, in fact, might have been even greater had it not been for the downtime due to the production changeover from the 5th to 6th generation model. Is Lexus really in a position to “throw away” sales numbers like those? Or does Toyota think that a combination of a better and more popular Avalon, a roomier Lexus IS and a vastly better-selling (and critically-acclaimed) Lexus GS might eventually make the ES redundant? At any rate, with the latest versions of the Lexus ES and Toyota Avalon siblings having been on sale for just a few months and foreseen to sell for 6 to 7 years in essentially their current state, there is still time for Toyota to let the market (and the company’s engineers, product planners and marketers) sort out what the best course of action is going forward.

A final footnote in this discussion is the decades-long, on-and-off rumors that the Lexus ES line would eventually be built in North America. These reached a new crescendo when the latest ES essentially became a higher-lux version of the built-only-in-the-U.S. Toyota Avalon amidst a strong yen/weak dollar currency exchange rate that would make North American assembly far more profitable. Among the latest of those predictions comes from Haig Stoddard of the respected WardsAuto industry journal, who in mid-December 2012 said he “expects Toyota to add production of a Lexus model at its Georgetown, Kentucky plant”, the precise location of Avalon production. This decision alone should have a large bearing on the Lexus ES’s future, and we should add that, since then, the newly-weakening yen versus the U.S. dollar is making the decision to move ES production to North America a less pressing matter.

The 2012 Informed Speculation scoreboard

Rare is the car magazine that does not have a section dedicated to brief notes and comments on future vehicle news, rumors and what we refer to as Informed Speculation, bearing titles such as Upfront, the Oracle, Ampersand and MT Confidential. And, just as often as not, what you read there may turn out to be off-base or utterly false. Those mistaken predictions are quietly disregarded, swept under the rug in the hopes that, with our short attention spans and “too much information” digital age, their authors can pretend they were never made in the first place. To name but one totally random example, Georg Kacher once wrote in CAR magazine that the Toyota Auris Hybrid that debuted in 2010 would be powered by the 2nd-generation (XW20) Prius’ 1NZ-FXE 1.5-liter, 4-cylinder hybrid power train when, in fact, it used the 3rd-gen (XW30) Prius’ larger 1.8-liter 2ZR-FXE unit instead. The 1.5-liter 1NZ-FXE was eventually revived, but in the smaller Aqua/Prius c and Yaris Hybrid models, not in the Auris.

We at Kaizen Factor, on the other hand, are more honest with ourselves. As the 2012 major auto show season drew to a close with the Saturday 9 December end of the Angeles Auto Show, and as the clock counts down to the end of the 2012 calendar year, it’s time to look back at our major Informed Speculation stories and see where we were right and where we were woefully off the mark.

hsd_01The 7 new Toyota and Lexus hybrids due by the end of 2012
Over 2 years ago, a RAV4 EV Demonstration Vehicle press release in the Toyota USA Newsroom informed us that “…by the end of 2012, Toyota will add seven all new (not next-generation) hybrid models to its portfolio”. Naturally, we took that as a challenge and came up with what we felt were the 7 vehicles in question. Our score: 4 out of 7 right.

The “Toyota Prius MPV (also referred to as Prius Alpha or Prius Verso)” was, indeed, named Prius Alpha in Japan, but alternately bears Prius+ (in Europe) and Prius v (in North America, Australia and Hong Kong) badging. The “‘Baby Prius’, based on Toyota FT-CH concept” saw production as the Aqua (in Japan) or Prius c (in other markets). We were also right about the Europe-only Toyota Yaris HSD and the Lexus ES h, although we erroneously felt it was likelier as an ES 450h using the Lexus RX 450h’s 2GR-FXE 3.5-liter V6-based hybrid powertrain. Instead, we got the initial Lexus-brand application (in the ES 300h) of the 2.5-liter 2AR-FXE 4-cylinder hybrid powertrain from the latest Toyota Camry Hybrid.

And the trio we got wrong? Unlike the 1st-generation Auris, Toyota did not add a hybrid variant to the current 3rd-generation Toyota Avensis at the time of its 2012 model year mid-life facelift, nor has the Toyota Sienna minivan received a hybrid version. And the Lexus IS h? Yes, it’s coming, but after the end of 2012 time frame, and not for North America. So, what did we miss in their place? The Toyota Avalon Hybrid and the Lexus CT 200h, which actually went into production in December 2010, a month after the aforementioned press release was issued. Try as we might, we couldn’t come up with a third, so we suspect that Toyota is counting the 5-passenger Prius v with a nickel-metal hydride battery hybrid system and the 7-passenger Prius+ with a lithium-ion battery hybrid system as 2 separate models. Does that make it 5 out of 7 right, then?

7 or 11? The other 4 upcoming Toyota and Lexus hybrids
No sooner had this author posted the above-referenced story that word came, via Yahoo News/AFP and AutoWeek that, in fact, Toyota’s plans were to release 11 new hybrids by the end of calendar year 2012. The difference? Besides the 7 discussed above, an additional 4 were new-generation versions of existing hybrids. Here, we got 2 out of 4 right, with the Lexus GS 450h version of the 4th-generation Lexus GS and the Toyota Camry Hybrid offshoot of its latest 7th-generation.

We were wrong about the Toyota Estima Hybrid minivan, and even though the Lexus LS received a major facelift that was unveiled on 30 July 2012, it wasn’t profound enough to call it a new generation, so we’ll put it in the “wrong” column as well. The two we missed? The 2nd-generation Toyota Auris HSD that just debuted at the September 2012 Paris Motor Show and, just making it under the wire, the hybrid version of the 14th-generation Toyota Crown, officially unveiled on Christmas Day 2012.

The hybrid versions of the Crown Royal and Crown Athlete mark the debut of the 2AR-FSE engine, as predicted in our recent TMC’s Environmental Technology Development update: a peek at Toyota and Lexus’ powertrain future (Part 1) article. Yes, you read that right. What we referred to as the “2AR-FXE with D-4S engine variant” has been given the 2AR-FSE moniker instead. This is essentially the current Camry Hybrid / Avalon Hybrid / Lexus ES 300h 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder Atkinson cycle engine with the addition of D-4S dual direct+port injection, for which we had predicted something in the vicinity of 220-225 total system horsepower. The Toyota Global newsroom tells us that, in the Toyota Crown Hybrids, it produces 162 kW (220 PS), or 217 total system horsepower, just a bit shy of our earlier guesstimate.

The 19 new Toyota, Lexus and Scion models to launch during 2012
With 19 vehicles at stake, this North American-centric prediction had far greater room for error, yet we only note one major miscue: the prediction of a Hybrid version of the just-launched 4th-generation Toyota RAV4. Taking its place on the list: the Toyota Venza mid-life facelift.

Admittedly, we did get some details wrong. The RAV4 EV, for instance, turned out to be a 3rd-gen derivative after all. The definitive inside story of the Toyota/Tesla RAV4 EV collaboration is an Automotive News story by Mark Rechtin titled From an odd couple to a dream team, which informs us that

There also was the problem of developing the EV based on an old platform. In fact, a redesigned RAV4 with a new platform was scheduled to be launched at about the same time the EV would arrive.

It would not be possible to develop an EV concurrently with the new RAV4 platform. And the parties could not wait for the new model to be completed before starting r&d and still meet (Akio) Toyoda’s tight deadline, (RAV4 EV chief engineer Greg) Bernas said. The old platform would have to do.

Other errors include predicting that the 2013 Lexus LS would be the 5th-generation model when, in fact, it was an extensive second facelift to the 4th-gen; and scaled-way-back production plans for the Toyota/Scion iQ EV, from the originally-planned run of 600 cars (400 remaining in Japan, 100 earmarked for Europe and the final hundred coming to the United States wearing the Scion badge) to 100 cars or so total, with about 90 coming to the U.S., the balance remaining in Japan and none going to Europe.

Finally, we must admit that the 4th-gen RAV4′s launch timing (public debut in late November 2012, but production start and on-sale date of January 2013) puts it in a borderline situation where we wonder which year Toyota is counting it in. We’ll stick with the former, but, already, the carmaker has announced 7 new or facelifted models for the 2013 calendar year. And that will be the subject of our next Informed Speculation article.

TMC’s Environmental Technology Development update: a peek at Toyota and Lexus’ powertrain future (Part 1)

On Monday 24 September, what was ostensibly the press preview for the (very limited) production version of the battery electric variant of the Toyota iQ soon became, in the words of Bertel Schmitt of The Truth About Cars, “the strangest product launch I have ever seen”. Given how much information the usually reticent Toyota revealed regarding its future powertrain plans, press coverage was equally strange, veering between overly simplistic and sensationalist sound bites. Toyota to Launch 21 New Hybrids and a New Fuel Cell Vehicle in the Next Three Years! Toyota drops plan for widespread sales of electric car! Toyota kills electric car plans, says ‘capabilities of electric vehicles do not meet society’s needs’! Ultimately, only a trio of accounts of what transpired at the Universal Design Showcase of Tokyo’s MegaWeb are truly worth reading: the aforementioned Bertel Schmitt of The Truth About Cars‘ “you-are-there” report, Hans Greimel’s Automotive News/Autoweek story for its large number of exclusive tidbits of information and, if you’re really pressed for time, Jake Holmes of Motor Trend‘s summary of the full TMC Announces Status of Its Environmental Technology Development, Future Plans Toyota Global newsroom PDF document. If, however, you prefer deep-dive analysis, commentary, interpretation and informed speculation of the sort Kaizen Factor thrives on, stay with us as we deconstruct Toyota’s newest revelations.

A new 2AR-FXE with D-4S engine variant
The “enhanced engine for use in hybrid vehicles, based on the 2.5-liter AR gasoline engine, (adopting) the Atkinson cycle and D-4S system” is none other than a new D-4S (dual direct+port injection) variant of the 2AR-FXE 2.5-liter 4-cylinder Atkinson cycle hybrid engine used on the current Toyota Camry Hybrid and Lexus ES 300h. The existence of this engine was actually revealed a week earlier, in a Lexus USA Newsroom press release for the Lexus LF-CC concept. In a story for the my.IS website, yours truly figured that it would produce something in the vicinity of 220-225 total system horsepower (versus 200 total system horsepower for the port injection-only 2AR-FXE). Toyota’s Environmental Technology Development news release adds a couple of new bits of information. For one, the 2AR-FXE with D-4S achieves the world’s highest maximum thermal efficiency (38.5%), which translates into the engine producing more power and using less fuel, while wasting less heat.

Hans Greimel also informs us that this iteration of the 2AR-FXE engine will receive Denso’s newly-tweaked D-4S injectors that already appear in the 4th-generation Lexus GS and Scion FR-S/Toyota GT 86. In comparison to the original D-4S injectors that date back to 2006, the new ones use a slit-shaped (as opposed to the previous multihole) injector opening. This creates a richer fuel mixture inside the cylinder and results in 1% better fuel economy.

Toyota reveals that this engine will go on sale sometime during calendar year 2013 in an undisclosed vehicle. Greimel, however, suggests that the Japanese domestic market’s Toyota Crown Hybrid will be the first recipient of the new powerplant. Makes sense, as this would allow for some closer-to-home experience before exporting it in the Crown’s platform-mates, the rumored (and trademarked) Lexus GS 300h and IS 300h versions of the 4th-gen GS and 3rd-gen IS, respectively. Given current rumors that the IS 300h, like the outgoing IS 200d and IS 220d, will only be sold in Europe, expect a debut for the Lexus variants at either the 2013 Geneva Motor Show (press previews on Tuesday 5 and Wednesday 6 March) or, later in the year, at the Frankfurt Motor Show (press previews on Tuesday 10 and Wednesday 11 September).

Beyond its initial applications in Toyota’s new rear-wheel-drive N-platform (launched with the 4th-generation Lexus GS and expected to spread to the upcoming 3rd-generation Lexus IS and 14th-generation [S210 or S220] Toyota Crown), will the 2AR-FXE with D-4S hybrid powertrain eventually migrate to the myriad front-wheel-drive K-platform Toyota Camry derivatives that use the AR 4-cylinder engines? Could be…

A turbocharged 3AR-FTE or (better yet) 3AR-GTE?!
In what is perhaps the biggest surprise of the Environmental Technology Development announcement, Toyota informs us that

Starting 2014, TMC plans to launch a vehicle with a new 2.0-liter, turbo-charged AR engine, also based on the 2.5-liter AR gasoline engine. The new engine’s smaller displacement will provide higher fuel efficiency while the turbocharger will improve output.

In other words, Toyota is meeting the challenge laid down by Volkswagen, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler/Fiat, among others, in going the smaller displacement with a turbo route, all the better to “game” the U.S. EPA fuel economy cycle (and its European and Japanese counterparts) into producing lower consumption numbers realistically achievable only if you drive 24/7 like Grandma on a day she forgot to eat her breakfast. Step on it, spool the turbo up to full boost, and you’ll use more gas than in the naturally-aspirated 2.5, but I digress…

As we noted back in December 2011,

When looking back at Toyota’s boosted gasoline powerplants, the company’s history is akin to Audi’s, with a mix of turbocharging (Supra, 2nd-generation MR2, Toyota Celica All-Trac Turbo/GT-Four) and supercharging (1st-generation MR2, TRD aftermarket kits and Australia’s Aurion TRD). The new millennium, however, has seen nothing but superchargers.

Thus, it’s a 180 degree, back-to-the-future turn for Toyota to turbocharge, as opposed to supercharging, its AR 4-cylinder engine.

Deducing what engine code the new 2-liter AR turbo will use is a fairly straightforward matter. As is the case for Toyota and Lexus’ GR V6 engine family, the smaller the first number, the larger the engine displacement, and vice-versa. The 1AR-FE is a 2.7-liter 4-cylinder engine that debuted in Toyota’s current Venza and Highlander, made a brief appearance in the current Sienna minivan and is also available in the Asian-market Lexus RX 270. The 2AR-FE is its smaller 2.5-liter variant (shown above left) that is available in Toyota’s RAV4 and Camry, the Scion tC coupe and the new throwback-badged Lexus ES 250 for the Chinese market. The 2AR-FXE, of course, is the hybrid version we discussed earlier. Thus, a 2-liter version will be a 3AR. The “F”, per Wikipedia, denotes an economy narrow-angle valve DOHC (dual overhead camshaft) head, while a “G” would make it a performance wide-angle valve DOHC. A “T” for turbo is, of course, obligatory, as is the final “E” for electronic fuel injection. Thus, it would be a 3AR-FTE if it’s more economy-oriented or a 3AR-GTE if it’s performance-oriented. Sure, we definitely prefer the latter, but should also note Toyota GT 86 chief engineer Tetsuya Tada’s thoughts on boost (again from our December 2011 article):

Tada-san favours the supercharger approach because it is simpler to achieve than increasing engine size and doesn’t wreck throttle response as turbocharging might. Indeed Toyota says that turbocharging along with four-wheel drive and wide tyres are what make sports cars boring to drive.

In other words, we suspect a more economy-oriented 3AR-FTE is likelier. As to what 2014 vehicle gets the honors of launching this engine, it’s anybody’s guess, but this author suspects some sort of obscure, low-production variant of the Corolla for the Japanese domestic market. I know our co-editor Flipside909 is rooting for it to power a Volkswagen GTI-rivaling son-of-Corolla FX16 GT-S. Or, perhaps, a non-hybrid Lexus CT 200t sporty hatchback with a proper manual transmission?

Another compelling question is whether or not the so-called 3AR-FTE will use D-4S dual direct+port injection. We suspect not, given the historical issues with aftermarket boost for Toyota’s GR-FSE V6s and how Subaru went direct injection-only when turbocharging the FA20 flat 4.

Toyota’s small ND diesel gets a reprieve for Europe
In our first article on the BMW/Toyota alliance, we figured that Toyota wouldn’t bother to reengineer its aging diesel engines to meet upcoming Euro 6 standards. It turns out we were wrong, at least insofar as the smallest of them all, the 1.4-liter 1ND-TV. As the carmaker informs us,

The adoption of newly developed exhaust gas cleaning technology enabled the engine to pass the Euro 6, one of the most stringent exhaust emission standards in the world. Vehicles equipped with the new diesel engine are planned for launch starting 2015.

Thus, expect the 1ND-TV to soldier on in Toyota’s Yaris, Auris, Corolla, iQ, Ractis/Verso-S and Urban Cruiser (Toyota ist/Scion xD) lines, as well as in India-built versions of the Etios and Etios Liva models. On the other hand, the press release is silent on the ultimate fate of Toyota’s medium-sized AD 4-cylinder diesels. Expect those to be replaced by BMW diesels as of 2014.

i-ART: another Toyota/Denso fuel injection breakthrough
Throughout this article, D-4S, the first-ever dual direct+port injection system pioneered by Toyota and automotive supplier Denso, has been a recurring theme. Flying under the radar, however, the latter (itself a member of the Toyota Group conglomerate) announced, in December 2011, the creation of i-ART (intelligent-Accuracy Refinement Technology) the world’s first autonomous closed-loop diesel fuel injection control system. In essence, this system equips each injector with a pressure sensor that communicates its fuel pressure to the engine ECU and, in doing so, significantly reduces exhaust emissions and increases fuel efficiency, compared with the conventional open-looped technology that does not have feedback function from the injectors. i-ART-equipped versions of the 3-liter 1KD-FTV 4-cylinder diesel debuted in the Brazilian market version of the Hilux pickup truck in April 2012. Given the ease with which a 2-liter diesel i-ART test unit met upcoming Euro 6 emisions standards, we wouldn’t be surprised if this technology spread throughout the KD diesel engine family (including the smaller 2.5-liter 2KD-FTV) and to other Toyota truck-based lines such as Land Cruiser Prado and Third World models such as Fortuner, Innova and Hiace. And, if this technology is so emissions-friendly, wouldn’t it be cool to see these diesels in North America’s expansive truck-based Toyota line, not to mention in Lexus’ GX as a rival to the German luxury diesel SUVs? Then again, 3 liters is awfully large for a 4-cylinder engine, and the Germans use 6 cylinder diesels in this size segment, at least in North America, so the KD might be a bit crude for Lexus duty…

Arrghh! Toyota’s CVTs spread beyond hybrids, Europe and Japan
As Toyota’s Environmental Technology Development update shifts its focus from engines to transmissions, discussion begins with one of this author’s pet peeves: CVTs, or continuously variable transmissions. I’m still regretting the way in which the traditional manual transmission with a clutch pedal is becoming a dinosaur of an endangered species, but at least modern torque-converter automatic transmissions and so-called single and dual-clutch (but no clutch pedal) transmissions purport to maintain some level of driver control via “manumatic” modes, gates and paddle shifters. CVTs, on the other hand, are far less likely to offer these options. As of now, dissatisfaction with the “manual mode” paddle shift feel on the Lexus CT 200h’s CVT transaxle led to a decision to limit this option to the Japanese domestic market. Indeed, the so-called “rubber band feel” of CVTs and the way they hold high revs while the car barely seems to move is off-putting to many.

Yet, CVTs also have their virtues, fuel efficiency chief among them. They are also the best way to manage hybrid powertrains, as tepid reviews of hybrids with torque-converter automatics such as the Infiniti M and the Hyundai Sonata/Kia Optima fraternal twins can attest to. At any rate, a number of carmakers, such as Nissan and Subaru have staked their future on the CVT, and Honda and Audi also use them on some models. We certainly hold out hope that diligent engineering will result in future CVTs that…er…don’t suck, as Nissan seems determined to do.

Perhaps we’re dismissive because, in North America, the Scion iQ is the sole non-hybrid Toyota product using a CVT, whereas Japan and Europe offer a plethora of CVT-equipped models. In the latter market, so-called Multidrive (M/D) and paddle shifter-equipped Multidrive S (M/D S) models use the CVT. These, by the way, should not be confused with Multimode Manual Transmission (M/M) models that use a type of sequential manual transmission consisting of a traditional manual gearbox with an electronically controlled clutch (but no clutch pedal). The Environmental Technology Development press release touts

TMC’s newly developed continuously variable transmission, Super CVT-i, (that) has achieved both superior fuel efficiency and smooth acceleration due to its unsurpassed transmission efficiency, improved integrated engine control and reductions in both size and weight. The transmission, first installed on the Corolla for the Japanese market in June 2012, is planned for use on additional models, particularly in the compact segment.

Perhaps those additional models include the upcoming North American version of the 11th-generation (E160) Toyota Corolla.

From the folks that brought you the world’s first 8-speed automatic transmission, the world’s first 8-speed automatic transaxle
Back in 2006, Japan’s automatic transmission manufacturer Aisin AW rocked an automotive world accustomed to 4, 5 and 6-speed automatics by designing the TL-80SN, the first-ever 8-speed automatic transmission. Suitable for rear-wheel-drive applications, it debuted in the 2007 XF40 (4th-generation) Lexus LS 460. The AA80E transmission, as Toyota calls it, soon spread through their V8 car lineup, namely the Lexus IS F, the late, lamented Lexus GS 460 and the Toyota Crown Majesta. Nearly 2 years later, German automotive supplier ZF countered with its own 8-speed longitudinal automatic transmission, the 8HP. After launching with the 5th-generation (F01/F02) BMW 7-Series, the 8HP quickly spread to other brands such as Audi, Bentley, Chrysler, Jaguar, Land Rover and Rolls-Royce. Hyundai, meanwhile, developed its own 8-speed automatic for use in the Genesis and Equus lines.

Notice, though, that even the highly flexible ZF 8HP unit is a longitudinal transmission, used by Audi only in its longitudinally-engined lines (A4 thru A8), and not in its smaller (A3 and below, plus TT) transverse-engine models. Leave it, again, to Toyota and Aisin to follow up the pioneering TL-80SN / AA80E with the world’s first transversely-mounted 8-speed automatic transaxle, the U880F which premiered on the all-wheel-drive Lexus RX 350 F Sport SUV for the North American market in August 2012. And, stay tuned, for Toyota strongly hints that the U880, presumably in “regular” (front-wheel-drive) and F (AWD) iterations, should eventually spread throughout Lexus and Toyota’s FWD-centric models.

21 new hybrid models between now and the end of 2015
Among the numerous revelations contained in Toyota’s Environmental Technology Development update, the claim you see above is among those that has been most widely reported and generated the most buzz. Yet, to our knowledge, no one has attempted to name the 21 vehicles. And, frankly, we’re not about to either, at least not in the in-depth manner in which we dared to guess at the 7 all-new hybrids, 4 revised existing hybrids and 19 new or revised models for North America due by the end of calendar year 2012. The nearly 3½-year time frame and the global (including Lexus) nature of this list makes even Kaizen Factor‘s crystal ball go all blurry and erratic. Further confusing things is what Toyota means by “now”. The Monday 24 September 2012 date of Toyota’s Environmental Technology Development update? Or the August 2012 date mentioned in a couple of Toyota’s footnotes? This seemingly picayune point is key in determining whether or not the Lexus ES 300h, which went on sale in the United States and Canada during August 2012, is part of the list of 21.

Hans Greimel of Automotive News did note, however, that 14 will be either all-new nameplates or hybrid versions of vehicles that don’t currently come with an electric-gasoline option, leaving 7 next-generation, or full-model changes to existing hybrids. The latter are easier to guess at, and we figure that next-generation hybrid versions of Toyota Auris, Toyota Prius, Toyota Highlander, Toyota Estima (a primarily Japanese domestic market minivan that is a bit smaller than the Sienna), Toyota Crown, Lexus RX and Lexus LS are the likeliest 7.

And what about the 14 all-new nameplates or hybrid versions of vehicles that don’t currently offer an electric-gasoline option? These run the gamut from the obvious (The Toyota Avalon which will go on sale by the end of 2012 and the trademarked Lexus IS 300h) to the safe bet guesses to the flat-out speculative. And, speaking of Lexus, do rumored additional, alternate-engined versions of existing hybrids (think Lexus CT 300h, Lexus GS 300h or Lexus LS 450h) count separately among the 21?

Our previous Informed Speculation articles suggested hybrid versions of Toyota Avensis, Toyota Sienna, Toyota RAV4 and, perhaps, Toyota Venza. With the 11th-generation (E160) Corolla already available in Japan in a couple of variants and its Auris offshoot already hybridized, don’t be surprised if a Toyota Corolla hybrid becomes available. Don’t expect, however, a future version, hybrid or otherwise of the Toyota Matrix, which will die at the end of the 2013 model year.

Talk of a potential RAV4 hybrid reminds us that its upcoming 4th-generation (XA40) is expected to sire a Lexus sibling, which could wear the Lexus TX 300h moniker. And might the brand’s two recent hybrid concept coupes – LF-CC and LF-LC – lead to production versions bearing, say, Lexus IC 300h and Lexus LC 600h badges?

And what about the Toyota/Ford collaboration on a “new co-developed hybrid system ready for use later this decade on…rear-wheel-drive light trucks and SUVs”? Does that mean we’ll see hybrid Toyota Tundra and Toyota Sequoia models by the end of 2015? Hard to say, since the original Toyota Global and USA news releases from 22 August 2011 not only fail to mention any prospective production dates but promised to move from Memorandum of Understanding to formal production agreement “by next year” – meaning 2012 – yet, with less than 3 months to go before year’s end, nothing has happened. Might an announcement be forthcoming at the 2012 Los Angeles Auto Show press conferences on Wednesday 28 or Thursday 29 November?

Finally, Lord knows what obscure Japanese domestic market-only hybrids Toyota will come up with. For example, this author vaguely recalls reading something about possible hybrid versions of the oddball, asymmetrical door (single slider on the left, two regular doors on the right) Toyota Porte/Spade twins. Not much of a stretch, really, since they share their underpinnings (read NBC, or New Basic Car platform) with Yaris and Prius c/Aqua.

Thus ends Part 1 of our in-depth analysis and commentary on Toyota’s Environmental Technology Development update, which corresponds to the Initiatives for Energy Conservation section of the news release, focusing on improvements to conventional gasoline, diesel and hybrid powertrains. Stay tuned for Part 2, which will feature our thoughts on Initiatives for Fuel Diversification, as Toyota describes various degrees of electrification such as plug-in hybrids, battery electric vehicles and fuel cells. This will conclude with a Beyond the News Release section featuring additional background information, much of it from journalists that attended the actual press event in Japan.

Bob Carter’s baffling riddle (or, the mystery of the 19th new Toyota for 2012)

Coinciding with the 2012 Detroit Auto Show, trade publication Automotive News held its annual World Congress of car industry executives. Among the events on 10 January 2012 was Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.’s Group Vice President and Toyota Division General Manager Bob Carter’s speech, which was already amply dissected and discussed in our previous Kaizen Factor story. One particular passage of his speech, however, particularly stood out, equal parts baffling riddle and informative teaser that broadly hinted at a new and possibly unexpected Toyota hybrid. Given its expansive nature and need for more in-depth analysis, we felt that the 19th new Toyota product coming in 2012 deserved its own separate article and discussion.

Without further ado, here’s the teaser in question:

Then, later this year we’ll introduce a hybrid that has more room than a BMW X5…is faster than a VW TDi…has higher MPG than a Fiat 500…and lavish features rarely found in near-luxury vehicles…yet comes with the price and value of a Toyota.

I can’t provide any details today…but it’s coming and it WILL make waves.

Let’s break it down, shall we?

More room than a BMW X5
Finding out what the current BMW X5′s interior volume is should be a simple, straightforward matter, right? Wrong! A visit to the BMW USA site’s X5 Specifications page reveals a lack of interior volume information (or, for that matter, no legroom figures, a common BMW and MINI omission). What about the BMW USA News site? Their X5 page includes a link to a Specifications PDF document that, while more informative than the BMW USA consumer site, still fails to mention the EPA interior volume figures that the government uses to determine a vehicle’s size class. Well, then, how about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Fuel Economy Guides? Not there, either, and most if not all crossover and SUV interior volume information is absent.

A Google search, however, reveals a consensus from Car and Driver, Vehix and cars.com that the number in question is 102.4 cubic feet of interior volume. Of the trio of largish Toyota models currently lacking a hybrid variant, the current Avalon’s EPA-rated 107 cubic feet and the Venza’s 108 cubic feet both handily beat the X5 bogey. And the Sienna? C’mon, that’s a minivan… As to the RAV4, a fourth possibility, its current 108.2 cubic feet also qualify, but, as we recently noted, Toyota may well be inclined to distance the next RAV4 from the Highlander and make it a more compact, more direct Honda CR-V rival just like it was back in the day.

Faster than a VW TDi
The question here is, which Volkswagen TDi turbodiesel vehicle is Toyota using as its performance target? The smaller of the two TDi turbodiesels VW offers in the U.S. is the 2-liter, 4-cylinder, 140 hp and 236 lb/ft of torque mill available in the Golf, Jetta and Passat models, while the larger Touareg SUV offers a 3-liter V6 producing 225 hp and a crushing 406 lb/ft of torque. Although the official Volkswagen USA website and their US Media Newsroom both fail to offer 0-60 mph acceleration times for the new Passat TDI, it does offer figures from the other models, ranging from 7.9 seconds for the Touareg TDI to 8.6 seconds for the Golf TDI to 9.1 seconds for the Jetta TDI. One would assume that Toyota is going for the easiest, lamest target of 0-60 mph in 9.1 seconds, but the new 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder, 200 hp 2AR-FXE hybrid powertrain, as outfitted to the 2012 7th-generation Toyota Camry Hybrid sprints from 0-60 in 7.6 seconds, thus outpacing VW’s V6 turbodiesel!

Higher MPG than a Fiat 500
Again, a multitude of numbers are at stake. The least economical Fiat 500 is the automatic 500 Cabrio with its sardine can-like roll-back mega sunroof. This model is EPA rated at 27 mpg city / 32 mpg highway / 29 mpg combined. The regular, steel-roof 500 automatic does a smidge better, at 27 mpg city / 34 mpg highway / 30 mpg combined. Just as Toyota outpaced the fastest VW turbodiesel, let’s assume that it will also outdo the most economical Fiat 500, the 6-speed hardtop manual, with 30 mpg city / 38 mpg highway / 33 mpg combined. Again, the new-for-2012 Camry Hybrid powertrain pulls through, with EPA ratings of 43 mpg city / 39 mpg highway / 41 mpg combined ratings for the lighter, less equipped LE version and 40 mpg city / 38 mpg highway / 40 mpg combined for the heavier, more upscale XLE trim level that would more closely approximate this new hybrid, given all the talk of “lavish features rarely found in near-luxury vehicles”. Given this clue, and after viewing the Toyota Highlander Hybrid and Lexus RX 450h’s fuel economy figures that are hard-pressed to exceed 30 mpg, we can safely rule out any possibility that this new hybrid will be powered by the 2GR-FXE 3.5-liter V6.

A Toyota Avalon Hybrid?…
It is notable that all the pundits that have played this guessing game, from Christie Schweinsberg of WardsAuto to Andy Boxall of Digital Trends to Ben Timmins of Motor Trend to Alan Oshman of Bloomberg BusinessWeek are unanimous in their belief that Bob Carter was hinting at a Toyota Avalon Hybrid. Are they right?

…or something else?
Other theoretical possibilities, as mentioned earlier, are hybrid versions of Toyota’s RAV4, Venza or Sienna. In fact, this author suggested the latter possibility in a November 2010 story. Yet, even back then, the suggestion of a Toyota Sienna Hybrid was described as “the iffiest long-shot”, and tempered by the suggestion that other large Camry-based offshoots such as Toyota Avalon and Venza may, instead be the beneficiaries of hybridization. Thus, after reviewing the evidence, this pundit concurs with his colleagues in predicting a Toyota Avalon Hybrid.

It WILL make waves
This may be a final throwaway clue of sorts, given that Avalon is a mythical island in Camelot / King Arthur lore. And islands are surrounded by wave-making water, right?