MONTE CARLO -- Monte Carlo is a place where living the high life seems to be mandatory.
Here, one can rent a Lamborghini Aventador for the day (after leaving a mortgage-size deposit, of course) for a mere $4,200, park it outside the famed Café de Paris and pay almost as much for a casual lunch.
However, once a year, conspicuous consumption makes way for a conservation rally. The Rallye Monte Carlo des Energies Nouvelles, or New Energy Rally, is now in its 14th year and ranks as the oldest and most prestigious of its kind.
This event is one of 12 that make up the FIA Alternative Energies Cup. In September, the participants will compete in the 2013 Rallye International Vert de Montreal, also known as the Montreal Green Rally.
The entries at this year's Monte Carlo rally ran the gamut from all-electric Teslas and extended-range Chevrolet Volts/Opel Amperas to a Ferrari running E85 fuel (modified by the owner, no less) and a Canadian entry -- a Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid.
This year, 113 cars, 25 per cent of which were Toyota or Lexus hybrids, squared off for an event that takes them on a 1,500-kilometre tour of the south of France.
The rally is split into two very different contests. The first is a straight time/distance rally, where those cars that finish the stages and pass unannounced checkpoints at the right time avoid penalties. Where the Monte Carlo New Energy Rally differs is the fuel-economy component.
Every drop of energy (fuel and/or electricity) is accounted for and is used to establish the average fuel economy over the entire rally. The overall winner is the team with the best combination of time and fuel economy. This year's winner was a Toyota Prius driven by Arthur Prusak and Jean-Baptiste Loty.
The Canadian car was at the Monte Carlo event because it won the Montreal Green Rally last October (first prize was a berth at Monte Carlo).
Team Prius, as I will call them, saw driver Vinh Pham, a Toyota Canada advanced-technology and powertrain engineer, and co-pilot Alan Ockwell, who has been navigating since the age of nine and is a two-time Canadian rally champion, bring their Team Prius ride home in fifth place overall, an extraordinary feat, given that this is just the second time Pham has competed in Monte Carlo and Ockwell is an event virgin.
While Team Prius finished 18th overall in the time/distance portion of the rally, it finished with the fourth-best overall fuel economy. The team also had the best fuel economy in the hybrid category. Team Prius averaged a staggering 3.9 litres per 100 kilometres over the distance of the rally, just 0.1 L/100 km more than the official combined economy number.
While three all-electric vehicles did pip the Prius in overall economy, there is a caveat -- none could complete the rally without taking enormous time penalties for the stops required to re-juice the battery. To me, that's being rewarded for failure.
The Prius plug-in hybrid rally car was showroom stock. This meant a 1.8-litre, four-cylinder gas engine, electric motor, continuously variable transmission and a high-capacity lithium-ion battery.
The advantage to the plug-in is the all-electric driving range of 22 kilometres it delivers from a full charge. It can also reach 100 kilometres an hour in electric mode. For longer distances, when the battery's power has been consumed, the hybrid reverts to its normal hybrid mode and operates like a regular Prius.
At the overnight stop in Aix en Provence, when all the electric cars were plugged in, the cumulative power draw popped the circuit-breaker after an hour, which represented a serious problem for some cars because of the charge time required for larger batteries. It hurt the Chevy Volts and Opel Amperas the most.
Simply, one hour was not enough to replenish the depleted electrons, which ultimately had a negative effect on fuel economy. The one-hour charge time, however, was enough to top up the Prius. Here, the 220-volt outlet halved the usual three-hour charge time it takes on a 110-volt outlet.
The other interesting part of the rally was just how well the electric side of the Prius worked. The claimed electric-only range of 22 km rose to more than 30 km, thanks to the hilly terrain and the car's ability to harvest power through regenerative braking on the long downhill sections.
More interesting is how the Volt/Ampera teams trounced the competition economy-wise last year and were pretty much no-shows this year. I was left wondering how a new technology could be surpassed in such a short span.
Any event like this would not be complete without spectators. At the end of the rally, Jacques Martineau and his wife stopped by to chat with Team Prius. The couple are native Montrealers, but now live in Monte Carlo.
The couple's move across the pond included shipping their Camry hybrid -- a first for Monaco because it is not sold in Europe. Having owned the Camry for more than six months, it was exempt from import duty and it came with an unexpected bonus -- Monaco gives a $3,985 incentive for driving green. As Martineau said, with a broad grin, his Camry hybrid was the "deal of a lifetime."
There are more Camry hybrids roaming Monaco today, as Albert II, the reigning monarch of the Principality of Monaco, purchased four for his cabinet members. He also drives a Lexus LS 460h, RX400h and was the first European to purchase a Prius plug-in hybrid, which he is routinely seen driving about town. His penchant for hybrids explains the informal moniker the locals have bestowed upon the prince -- Mr. Hybrid.
-- Postmedia News