So, I’ve got this new car. Actually its a used car, but it’s new to me. It’s a Toyota Estima Hybrid. In the states we’d call it a minivan; here in the UK they refer to it as a minibus. Three features distinguish it as unusual: it’s a hybrid, it’s a Japanese import and, by UK standards it’s big, huge even.

I’ve never owned a hybrid before but I’ve wanted one for several years. Hybrids are a combination of gasoline and electric power. The on board computer tells the car when to use gas power and when to use electric. All four wheels are powered and generally receive a mix of both gas and electric stimulation. When stopped and at low speeds it is entirely electric; as a result it’s quiet. At traffic lights the thing seems to die altogether and, in a sense it does; the gasoline engine shuts off completely. It comes on again when you exceed ten miles an hour. It’s a stealth vehicle at low speeds.

The second benefit to a hybrid is exceptional gas mileage. Toyota boasts this van can get 51 miles to the gallon, 1000 kilometers per tankful (that’s 621 miles). On my drive back from Birmingham I put 280 miles on it and the gas gage is at ½. We’ll see what it does with the rest of it.

I’m very pleased with the car and it promises to be a fine vehicle for the family. But, like all used cars it has its peculiarities.

Japanese engineers first developed the hybrid in an effort not to improve gas mileage, but to reduce emissions. Japan is a small island with lots of people driving so the emissions question is more than the political football it is in the states.

Apparently when a car is five year old in Japan it is required to go through a very extensive and expensive inspection. The cost is so high that for most Japanese drives it is cheaper to buy a new car. The result is that there is a glut of used vehicles with left hand drives on the market. As the UK is one of only a few other countries that drive on the left hand side of the road, importers bring a lot of used Japanese cars to Britain.

That’s great for the UK. The only wrench in the works is the language issue. In Japan they speak Japanese. English is a second language. The result is that my new used van has a lot of Japanese text on its buttons and dials. The dash has a control panel much like the new Sat-Nav devices found in upscale vehicles today. It’s like a little TV that registers a lot of technical information about the performance of the vehicle. But, it’s all in Japanese!

I asked the dealer about it when I picked it up, hoping there would be a “language selection” button I could press on the thing. He suggested that I could figure out most of it just by playing with it, much like you would with a new cell phone. OK.

The owner’s manual is also entirely in Japanese; two thick books of it. Again, there are pictures, and pictures do express a thousand words, but if the words are in Japanese they are not much use.

Again, I asked the dealer about it. “Oh, you can find an English version on e-bay for £18,” he said cheerfully. So far I haven’t found it, but I haven’t given up yet.

I’m hoping to replace the control panel with a UK version and have called a parts warehouse that claims to have 9 million pieces of dismantled Japanese imports. I’m not sure I want to know where they’ve come from.

My car’s third distinguishing feature is its size. By US standards it’s an average sized car, but the Brits think it huge.

Last night cousin Donald commented on it.

“Man, that thing is HUGE!”

“It’s like a coach,” his girlfriend added.

“You think so?” I said surprised. “You should have seen our twelve passenger van in the US. It was about seven feet tall. Now that was big.”

Aunt Margaret pointed out that, “Yes, the US cars are big, but so are the roads. Much bigger than the roads here in the UK.”

She’s right about that. My van fits, but only just. Yesterday I tried to turn into a friend’s driveway and couldn’t make it round the bend. There wasn’t enough width in the road to allow it. Even with their small cars, most of the Scots back into parking spots. It allows for more maneuverability.

Good thing my mammoth vehicle has a reversing camera; the image comes up on the control panel when the car is in reverse. I’m just glad the image is not in Japanese.

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