Tunza drove into the future when it visited Toyota's Tsutsumi factory in Toyota City, Japan, home of the Prius, the leader in a new age of hybrid vehicles.

The Prius is a hybrid between a petrol and an electric car - running on a combination of conventional fossil-fuel-based energy and battery power. It is self-charging as the car's motion is used to power the battery. It produces less than half the emissions of a normal car - helping create cleaner cities and combat global warming.

Of course, no one would want to drive around in something that feels like a child's toy or mad scientist's experiment. But owner surveys in the United States - where more than 50,000 Prius cars were sold last year - report over 90 per cent customer satisfaction.

And at this year's Oscars in Los Angeles, more than
20 stars - including Leonardo DiCaprio, Charlize Theron, Scarlett Johansson and Orlando Bloom - made their entrances in chauffeur-driven Prius cars rather than the traditional stretch limo.

What is it like? We tried one out under the helpful eye of 26-year-old Toyota employee Tomoko Imai. 'You won't find a key to start it,' she told us. 'Just press the power button on the dash.'

As befits a hybrid, the Prius combines the familiar and the strange. Apart from a few futuristic touches, such as intelligent hands-off parking, it feels like a normal car. But when it's at a standstill - for example in a traffic jam - it switches off. Instead of consuming fuel and polluting the city, it just sits and waits. Then, when you want to go, it goes - with a healthy acceleration of 0-100 km/hr in under 11 seconds and a top speed of 170 km/hr, above many national speed limits.

 

Leonardo DiCaprio at the wheel of his Prius.

photo: Associated Press

But it really shines in fuel economy and green credentials. It starts by using battery power and runs on that until the energy demand increases, when the petrol engine kicks in. So it's actually cheaper to run in heavy city traffic than on the open road, the opposite of conventional cars.

Nor is that its only green feature, as Tomoko pointed out. Its mats are made from recycled sugar cane waste and the soundproofing is made of shredder residue - minute particles of resin, fibre, glass and rubber. And, at the end of its life cycle, the Prius's battery can be returned to any Toyota outlet where it will be sent for recycling.

Toyota now sells 90 per cent of the world's hybrid vehicles. And rather than jealously guarding its green technology, it is licensing it to rival car manufacturers, starting with industry giants Nissan and Ford.

Fujio Cho, Toyota's President and Chairman of its Environment Committee, explains that the company wants to contribute to the sustainable development of society and the planet. 'Toyota places great importance on the idea of "good faith"… acting with sincerity and without betraying the confidence and expectations of others,' he says.

 
         
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