Toyota Five Continents Drive, Europe: Week 1

The Toyota Five Continents Drive team has set off from Portugal on its ambitious 12-week, 23-country and 20,000km expedition through Europe, and we are with them to capture every kilometre. The following is what happened in the first week.

Day 0: Toyota Caetano Portugal Ovar plant, Portugal

Distance: 0km
Accumulated total: 0km

The halfway point in Toyota’s Five Continents Drive expedition has been 18 months in the making. Covering 23 countries and around 20,000km, the planning for this 12-week European road trip is meticulous and the schedule mind-bendingly comprehensive. The purpose is to ensure every dream-drive scenario is covered, that the vehicles are pushed to their limits, and that focus is not lost on the overall objective of the mission; to make ever-better cars.

In the weekend prior to departure, a 30-strong team from Europe and Japan converged on Toyota Caetano Portugal’s Ovar plant in Porto, the site of Toyota’s first European production facility. Forty-five years ago, 10,000 second-generation Corolla models emerged from this plant every year, and the site is currently busy producing the classic 70-series Land Cruiser (above) for the African market.

Ovar will provide not only a fitting starting point for the journey but it was the base from which the team prepared the ten-car convoy and practiced the carefully choreographed departure ceremony. The convoy will be led by the same white Land Cruiser that has already conquered Australia and the entire Americas, followed this time by a Yaris Hybrid, Corolla, Prius Plug-in, GT86, C-HR Hybrid and Proace van. In a first for this project, a further three cars from rival manufacturers are also included to provide a counterpoint in key market sectors.

Similarly, this European drive will deliver both subjective and objective evaluations. Nothing can gauge the feeling of driving a car under different circumstances more effectively than an expert engineer; and this trip will no doubt provide a sensory overload in that respect. But by equipping each car with high-tech data-logging equipment, it will also be possible to digitally quantify those feelings.

It may have been time-consuming to criss-cross each vehicle with wires and find discrete locations for unassuming black boxes, but the Five Continents Drive team is now presented with the fascinating opportunity of examining comparative data across the convoy.

Day 1: Porto, Portugal, to Salamanca, Spain

Distance: 380km
Accumulated total: 380km

The atmosphere at last night’s team dinner in Porto had been a relatively informal affair of smiles, encouraging toasts and tasty local cuisine. But the fact that we were joined by executives such as Dr. Johan van Zyl, President and CEO of Toyota Europe, and Koei Saga (below), Chairman of Toyota Gazoo Racing, reinforced the impression that tomorrow was the start of something important.

In fact, during his speech at the launch ceremony the following morning, Saga-san commented that this ambitious, five-continent study of roads, driving habits and vehicles was as important in making ever-better cars as the effort being invested by the Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally Team. As if that wasn’t enough, Dr van Zyl then reminded all 250 invitees that the beginning of this challenge coincided with the 80th anniversary of the establishment of Toyota Motor Corporation. No pressure then…

Following a number of essential photo opportunities, the cars filed out through an avenue of applause and well-wishing from the Caetano members – the next major stop for the team being the Spanish city of Salamanca, a modest 380km away to the north-west. Feeling like a warm-up exercise in preparation for more strenuous activity later, the schedule was designed to get the team into a rhythm of driving safely for a whole day, punctuating the journey with regular stops and driver rotations.

Nevertheless, it felt like Portugal saved its best for last. Shadowing the meandering Douro River before climbing through the staggered terraces of the country’s wine region, we felt the narrow N222 and N321 deserved their places among the world’s finest driving roads. The C-HR and GT86 were in their element here; less so the Land Cruiser, where the right-hand drive layout became a distinct disadvantage around blind bends. But as the mountains eventually gave way to the flat pasturelands of the vast Duero Basin, the route across the Spanish border and on towards Salamanca allowed models such as the Prius Plug-in and Corolla to shine.

Given the much longer distance planned for tomorrow, we got the feeling that all of the cars would receive a high-speed workout in our dash toward the south coast.

Day 2: Salamanca, Spain, to Granada, Spain

Distance: 621km
Accumulated total: 1,001km

The hour time difference between Portugal and Spain made itself felt in an early rise for the day’s long drive to Granada. As much as all of us would like to simply jump straight in the cars and get going, endurance tests of this nature follow a strict regime that ensures each car is safe and working optimally. This schedule of preparation takes time to complete, so an early departure means an even earlier start.

Each day begins by brimming the fuel tanks the night before, and then filling each team member’s ‘tank’ with a decent breakfast. Before leaving each car is taken through a rigorous 23-point check list that involves fluid levels, air pressure, lights, accessories, vehicle body condition, and the operation of all data capturing devices. Within the team the practice is codenamed ‘4S’, in reference to the alliterative nature of the Japanese words seiri (tidiness), seiton (orderliness), seiketsu (cleanliness) and seiso (sweeping).

Everybody knew that today was little more than a glorified motorway dash down south. However, the route out of Salamanca on the N403 towards Toledo was yet another stunning section of black top, revealing sweeping corners, long climbs and kettles of griffon vultures circling overhead. It was unfortunate to have to drive straight past Ávila’s famous 11th century town walls (below) – the world’s largest fully illuminated monument – but Spain’s agricultural heartland and the never-ending olive groves of Andalucia beckoned.

Pausing for our end-of-the-day refuel in the outskirts of Granada, it was interesting to note that our C-HR Hybrid had used three litres less fuel during the journey than its competitor car with a downsized turbo petrol engine. The cars had followed each other all the way and maintained the same speed with an identical number of passengers and similar load.

Day 3: Granada, Spain, to Mojacar, Spain

Distance: 346km
Accumulated total: 1,347km

Last night’s arrival at our hotel at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountain range provided something of a surprise. Though innocent-looking enough from the main road, as soon as we turned into the sprawling complex we knew this was no ordinary stop-over. The number of secure garages equalled the number of rooms, and there were heavily camouflaged development vehicles everywhere. Literally, all over the place.

It turned out that we were all here for the same thing, as team member Jonathan Webb (above), General Manager of Vehicle Performance Engineering at Toyota Motor Europe (TME), explained to us in the morning briefing: “Many manufacturers are here at the Sierra Nevada to test development vehicles. The surroundings provide some of the most severe tests of engines and brakes you can find on public roads in Europe.

“So today we are going to experience first-hand the sort of work they do and test our own vehicles on those same routes. We will start here at the base, which is around 700m above sea level and climb to the ski centre at around 2,500m.

“It’s a tortuous, unrelenting climb of around 30km, so it’s very demanding on the engines, especially when weighed down with passengers and luggage, and running the air conditioning system. Then on the way down it works the brake system incredibly hard, too. So the vehicles are really pushed to the extreme.”

Jonathan went on to brief the specially selected team members scheduled to drive the C-HR Hybrid and its competitor C-segment car. They were given the additional responsibility of analysing their drive on-the-move using the prototype data capturing hardware developed by TME. If any particularly favourable, unfavourable, or unusual reactions were experienced they were to immediately press the relevant category on a special touch-screen display (below) and ask the co-driver to note down their observation on a piece of paper.

This digital flag would mark the point in the journey where the phenomenon occurred so it can be investigated within the data file. It is anticipated that some of this information will be shared with the entire team by the end of the week.

The day’s remaining journey along the Autovía del Mediterráneo to Mojácar held two surprises: a huge thunderstorm in Almería, the area with the lowest annual rainfall on the European continent, and the sheer enormity of Spain’s tomato production.

Day 4: Mojacar, Spain, to Valencia, Spain

Distance: 458km
Accumulated total: 1,805km

Considering the fact that our Mojacar stopover was still within easy reach of the Sierra Nevada, an additional special stage had been planned into the schedule before we needed to rejoin the Autovía del Mediterráneo towards Valencia. It would have been rude not to. Using another quiet public road favoured by vehicle development engineers, the focus of this fast-flowing 100km loop was to observe brake noise and overall vehicle performance.

This part of Andalucia can be both dusty and humid, conditions that can accelerate the arrival of brake squeal, while the road can be likened to a grand-scale Nurburgring, featuring lots of straights leading to tight corners and a rollercoaster ride of ascents and descents. We were warned that brake fade could become an issue, a fact that was especially important before entering the ancient village of Lubrín. How the group with the Land Cruiser V8 got through those tiny cobbled streets was anybody’s guess.

Once again, the same two cars – C-HR Hybrid and a C-segment competitor with a dual-clutch transmission – were equipped with the data-capturing devices for the special stage. But it wasn’t until the evening’s debriefing session that the scale of information captured in yesterday’s special stage was revealed to the team – the very ones tasked with using this event as a springboard to developing ever-better cars.

Specifics of the analysis have to remain confidential but the data provided a fascinating comparison of the percentage of time each car spent at certain engine revolutions. Vehicle speed was also examined alongside engine revs to illustrate the connection between engine speed and sound, while we also discussed how throttle input can affect a driver’s perception of power.

Seeing this objective information displayed so clearly really helped the engineers understand how a car’s mechanical characteristics can affect subjective viewpoints, and that two vehicles can carry out essentially the same job in entirely different ways. It offered plenty of food for thought which, given the time, we all felt was best discussed over an actual plate of food.

Day 5: Valencia, Spain, to Barcelona, Spain

Distance: 422km
Accumulated total: 2,227km

Another early start and a snatched mouthful for breakfast was more than rewarded with today’s special visit to the Applus IDIADA vehicle test and development facility in Santa Oliva, just outside Barcelona. Like an impenetrable fortress, the closest most people get to understanding what goes on behind the scenes here is to examine the satellite view on Google Maps. The 5C team, however, was privileged to be given a presentation and brief tour of the site.

Not only is IDIADA one of the largest and most comprehensive vehicle proving grounds, it runs world-class chassis, body, powertrain and safety engineering departments – all of which are used by many major manufacturers in the development of new vehicles and technologies. Toyota is one of these regular clients and operates a permanent workshop at this headquarters facility.

In order to gain access to the site we signed a confidentiality agreement, left all cameras and recording equipment behind, and went through the same security checks found at an airport. So the most we are allowed to show you is an official aerial shot, which offers an idea of the scale and variety of test courses available, and our approved group photo. Although some of the team had been to IDIADA before in an official capacity, the majority of us were stunned at what we saw.

While we were not allowed to take our cars around any internal courses, the engineers had mapped a test route around local roads (part of which forms the ‘El Montmell’ special stage in the Spanish round of the WRC) to offer us an idea of their evaluation procedures.

The ascent started in La Bisbal del Penedès and climbed to Aiguaviva, followed by a descent to Sant Jaume dels Domenys. During the drive we were asked to try and perceive steering response and precision, vehicle balance, axle delays and weight transfer, in order to try and place our cars within a simple X-Y graph that plotted the vehicle’s fun factor and agility against the quality of being straightforward and easy to drive.

Interestingly, the purpose of this was to help the team distil complex feedback into something a customer might express to us about his or her car, and then be able to understand the engineering needed to achieve or enhance that feeling.

The results would be revealed in that evening’s dinner, which also marked the start of a well-deserved weekend break in Barcelona.

Visit the official Toyota GB blog next Monday for details of the second week’s activity as the 5 Continents Drive team travels through France, Italy, Austria and Slovenia.

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