Some ideas take time to arrive. In 1966, Jensen’s FF was the first performance car to use four-wheel drive, but it wasn’t until Audi, Porsche and Lancia put their heads down almost two decades later that the industry’s purveyors of speed began to take two driven axles seriously. It’s been a similar story with everything from turbos to stop-start technology.
Now could be the turn of hybrid power – specifically, a plugless blend of petrol and electricity. When Toyota introduced the world’s first mass-made hybrid car in 1997, it’s unlikely they imagined that 23 years and a hitherto non-existent vehicle class would be needed to force the technology into the mainstream. The engineering for the Toyota Prius was so complicated that it took seven weeks to get the original prototype moving – and then only for a few hundred metres. Two years later, however, the car was in the hands of the public and returning roughly double the fuel economy of a contemporary Toyota Corolla. At that moment, and reasonably, everybody involved must have believed there would be no looking back.
But how many hybrid cars have you owned? Quite likely none, although it seems absurd to argue that hybrid technology isn’t yet mainstream. More than six million examples of the Prius alone have been sold since 1997, and today some variation of hybrid power is offered by almost every major car maker, from Suzuki to Ferrari.
The broader sales figures tell a different story, of course, which is that widespread adoption has been slow. Last year, fewer than one in 10 cars sold in Britain used any form of electric assistance at all. And while billboards nationwide are currently saturated with adverts for ‘self-charging’ cars, this is more to do with an industry now desperate to sell the technology and avoid CO2-related fines than it is with building on any pre-existing appetite.
Which brings us to Longcross Proving Ground in Surrey and four mid-sized petrol-electric SUVs. Japanese ones, specifically, hence the angry creases and unexpected curves crammed within a footprint marginally shorter (but wider) than that of the latest BMW 3 Series.