I read Catcher in the Rye when I was a sophomore in high school and I remembered being a little disappointed by the end. Holden didn’t really prove to be much of a hero, and as a lover of the traditional story, I didn’t get it. I asked my mom, a teacher, why Salinger’s little book was such a masterpiece. “It’s a coming of age story,” she said. And then I understood, being much the same age as the protagonist. Holden Caulfield’s little adventure in the city was a disillusionment, when he had to face the fact that though he was born with into wealth, not everything was going to fall into his lap.
Last week, the Paris Motor Show dropped on that Gallic capital, rolling out some truly exciting cars. The McLaren P1 thrilled us, the Peugeot Onyx concept surprised us, and the Jaguar F-Type had us jutting our lower lips in a “not bad” frown.
But the most exciting new concept to me was the least exciting of them all. It was largely overlooked, it’s uglier than a Bentley SUV put through a blender, and will never see production. Yet it was to me a tiny stone that will start an avalanche in the industry.
It’s the impalatably-named FT-Bh by Toyota. Granted, it’s just a concept, but concept cars are supposed to be cool, and this thing’s hideous. The looks, however, are not what I find so interesting. It’s a hybrid, but that’s old news. And it claims 100 mpg, but that’s low in the concept hybrid field. It’s how Toyota managed that figure that I find so interesting. They shed weight.
The whole car weighs less than a ton. Starting with a Yaris, they stripped out the econobox and redesigned the frame to be thinner, using less material and cutting mass. Even the speedometer is made of conductive paper, so it’s light and lights up. There’s no carbon fiber, either. Just plain old steel. A hybrid’s chief shortcoming is always weight. Traditionally, automakers have built hybrids the same way they build everything else, only with an extra ton of battery weight. But as you know, dropping a palate of batteries on your roof won’t improve your gas mileage, especially if you’re still lugging around a conventional engine and an extra electric motor.
But the FT-Bh shows the kind of thinking that automakers need to adopt if they plan to make the hybrid work. This isn’t to say the hybrid hasn’t been successful, but it saturates its segment and seems to sell more on ecological basis than economical. If Toyota wants to reach into other segments with the Prius and its spin-offs, it needs to do certain things better, much better, than conventional cars.
The hybrid can no longer stand on a title. Like young Mr. Caulfield, it must earn its way. It must come of age. That’s why ideas like the FT-Bh are so exciting. They mean the industry is getting serious about conserving fuel. Hopefully that tech will then bleed over into the conventional segment, as well, making sports cars lighter, more efficient, and more fun, even if they don’t have any hybrid bits.
Not making an appearance at Paris was Porsche’s latest, the 918 Spyder. It’s proof that Porsche, and their Volkswagen/Audi parents, understand all of this. People (let’s face it) have been disappointed with the gas mileage of their commuter hybrids, and Porsche wasn’t about to release a performance hybrid that couldn’t perform.
So they pumped up the R&D and produced a wonder, a 770 hp supercar that can hit 93 mph in electric mode before you have to mash a button that fires up the mid-mounted V8 so you can top out at 202 mph. If you’re just driving it to work, you’re a boss you can get 78 mpg out of the beast. Porsche is quite serious.
There are no more free passes for hybrids. If automakers want them to sell, they have to compete. Porsche and Toyota, at least, understand this. Hopefully the rest of the industry is learning it, too.