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Auto blogThu, 13 Mar 2014 07:58:00 EST
Used to be that if you wanted a luxury automobile - especially one to be chauffeured around in - your choices were basically limited to a sedan. It could be bigger or smaller, more or less expensive, depending on your needs and budget, but it was always going to have four doors and a trunk. But these days the rich and famous are looking elsewhere for their commodious forms of pampering transportation. There are, of course, the crossovers and SUVs, which only seem to be getting bigger and more expensive thanks to the likes of the Mercedes-Benz G-Class, Range Rover L and upcoming Bentley sport-ute. But luxury vans are becoming the new big thing.
That's the point that one dealer in Japan is trying to make to Toyota. The dealership owner himself reasons that if he's going out on the town, he's likely to take his chauffeured Lexus LS. But if he's taking a few friends along, even the biggest sedan isn't going to cut it. So he takes a Toyota Alphard (pictured above, also known as the Vellfire), a JDM van that's even bigger than a Voxy/Noah or Sienna but hardly a high-end affair. That's why he's asking Lexus to make a luxury van.
The idea may seem a little far-fetched, but isn't without precedent. It didn't take much for Lexus to transform the Land Cruiser into the LX and thus create its first luxury SUV. And as Mercedes has shown with pimped-out versions of the Sprinter and now with the debut of the new V-Class in Geneva, there's clearly a market for it... in some countries, anyway. The only question in our minds is how long it's going to take other luxury automakers to catch on, because let's face it: the Chrysler Town & Country ain't gonna cut it for those used to be driven around in a Maybach.
All is right again in the Toyota kingdom. The Japanese manufacturer's bread-and-butter sedan, the Camry, has been put back on Consumer Reports' "Recommended" vehicle list, following improved performance in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's crash testing.
You'll recall that the 2012 and 2013 Camry were infamously booted from the list due to "Poor" ratings in IIHS' notoriously tough small-overlap crash testing. Toyota vowed - just last week actually - to fix the ratings. As the Toyota brand's head, Bill Fay, said last week, "It's still a five-star car. It still does very well in all the IIHS tests. It did not in [the small overlap frontal crash test], and we're busy making the necessary adjustments so that we can address that."
Now, though, those redesigned cars have been tested, earning an "Acceptable" rating in the overlap testing. According to Consumer Reports, Camrys built from November 2013 on feature new internal structures that improve the car's crash test scores enough to make it a "Recommended" buy. IIHS has also elevated the car back to a position in its Top Safety Pick category, although it falls short of the new gold standard, the Top Safety Pick + rating.
Did you know that the Yaris is Toyota's best-selling vehicle in Europe? That may help explain to us Americans why the car that's lowest on the company's totem poll here in the US got turned into an all-wheel-drive hybrid track monster for the 2013 Frankfurt Monster Show.
Called the Toyota Yaris Hybrid-R, this three-door pocket rocket isn't just a hybrid making a lot of horsepower - it incorporates technology from Toyota's TS030 Hybrid racecar that competes in the FIA World Endurance Championship series, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The Yaris Hybrid-R packs a 300-horsepower, turbocharged, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine under its hood, which should be enough for most speed freaks, but Toyota pairs it with two 60-hp electric motors at each rear wheel (the same ones used in the production Yaris Hybrid that's sold in Europe). That makes total system output an insane-for-this-size 420 hybrid horsies.
But that's not all, as the Yaris Hybrid-R forgoes the traditional battery pack below the rear seats in favor of a supercapacitor, which can both hold more energy and has a much faster power charge/discharge speed than traditional batteries. Paired with the supercapacitor is a third 60-hp electric motor/generator positioned between the engine and six-speed sequential transmission. Its job is to feed the super capacitor energy during deceleration and direct its power to the rear electric motors when more grip and oomph is needed.