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Thursday, 08 March 2012

Hybrid Cars 2012 – What’s The Story?

Decorated But Not Appreciated?

There are as many prize-givings as stars in the sky. They range from the bombastic Annual Academy Awards, also known as The Oscars, to the Employee of the Year at a small company in a remote backwater. One example amongst them that is recognised as a true accolade in many countries is the Car of the Year award. Since its inception in 1963 on the initiative of Dutch motor journalist Fred van der Vlugt it has graced many an iconic vehicle from Rover 2000 (1964), via Citroen CX (1975), to Fiat Uno (1984). How happily petrol-swilling the Swinging Sixties were was demonstrated by delectable offerings such as Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, Oldsmobile Toronado or Jensen FF occupying places in the top three.

Not your promising low-carbon future of personal transport then, but how times have changed. In 2012 hybrid model Vauxhall Ampera/Chevrolet Volt takes the prime spot, following last year’s winner, the Nissan Leaf (100% electric). So the future for clean-conscience four-wheelers looks rosy – or does it?!

We love it, we love it not

Unfortunately, all that praise has not been transformed into sales. At first sight figures do not look that bad. Today nearly five million hybrid cars have been sold. Only, that is worldwide and over the course of 15 years. The bestseller is, and always has been, the Toyota Prius. What might be the reason for this? A major factor could be that it was the first hybrid that was mass-marketed. Introduced in 1997 it had a head start and might benefit from familiarity as well as the perception that it is an exhaustively developed package by now.   

That would mean all technical niggles have been ironed out but it was concerns over fire risks from batteries, unwanted acceleration and faulty brakes that dented the reputation of the Prius with a knock-on effect on other electric vehicles (EVs). Despite most problems being exposed as either driver error or unwarranted fears the damage was done.

Another headwind all EVs have to fight against is the constantly improved fuel economy of combustion engines. Paired with optimised aerodynamics consumption figures have dropped and dropped. Even a hefty Mercedes Benz S-Class in 350 BlueTEC guise merely sips diesel from its tank, managing a more than respectable 46 miles to the gallon (38.3 mls/US gal; 6.15 l/100km). Since many mainstream manufacturers have some kind of clean-green machine on offer but, of course, carry on building conventional cars too, EVs do compete against each other and products from their own stable.

Hands with money and small plant
This time we cannot even blame politicians for lack of support. Governments the world over are dishing out incentives in order to get more electric cars on their roads. There is widespread agreement that any goals to lower carbon dioxide emissions to a meaningful degree are doomed without personal transport that is moved away from fossil fuels, if not entirely on the technology side for now then at least in terms of consumption. While Germany does not offer a direct pay-out, hybrids attract road tax relief for 10 years, which amounts to about £375 (€450/$590). America also concentrates on tax credits and is about to raise them to a maximum of £6,350 (€7,600/$10,000), whereas in Britain a buyer receives up to £5,000 (€6,000/$7,900) towards the purchase price.

No doubt more could be done. EVs are still a lot more expensive than their conventional  counterparts. A Toyota Auris, for example, costs about £16,500 (€19,800/$26,000). Its hybrid equivalent is for an additional 25% in the price list. In view of that, aid in Germany is measly. Instead the government rather supports research, which is not going to spur on potential buyers, but in the same breath says the country needs 1 million electric cars on German roads by 2020. Equally questionable where increasing sales is concerned is the practice in China to pay the manufacturer for every EV sold. It smacks of another attempt to prep up growth figures in the economy and not a well-planned scheme to raise the numbers of cleaner cars.

Still no one can say that politicians are not interested. Cynics might question their reasons but the political support is now a global phenomenon and not the exception. Environmental muscle-flexing as part of the political routine has survived the past four years despite the concentration on economic themes and ubiquitous austerity measures. That shows the low-carbon crusade has developed a momentum strong enough to sustain itself.

Where next?

Right now the picture is mixed and it is somewhat tricky to ascertain what that will mean for you, as someone interested in EVs. Many experts agree, until hydrogen technology, which is predicted to be the actual future of personal transport, is developed enough and an infrastructure in place the hybrid set-up will dominate. But while American specialist website Hybridcars.com reports above average rises in sales of EVs, Chevrolet is stopping production of the Volt for five weeks – remember, that’s the one with the award - because of a stockpile of cars they don’t want to let become any larger. In complete contrast, manufacturers fall over themselves to get new models to the market. The best proof was the recent 2012 Geneva Auto Salon. So there seems to be confidence among those most dependent on carbon-conscious buyers parting with their cash. Also, because recharging, especially for the favoured plug-in models, has been a real concern with potential and existing owners the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) is pushing with all its might for a harmonisation of charging methods on an international level. There are hopes that uniform standards will be established by 2017. A bit ambitious perhaps but if you don’t try you won’t get, of course, and this is no marginal interest group but a powerful organisation that commands attention.

Therefore, it seems to me the hybrid is here to stay. Fair enough, economic uncertainty + temporarily falling crude oil prices + more frugal and affordable conventional cars add up to a toxic concoction for electric concepts. Only, fossil fuel prices will see further rises, especially with the continued sabre rattling in the Middle East, political will to support EVs financially is also not waning as yet, and the industry itself is investing heavily. Furthermore, diesel hybrids have arrived at last, with the prospect of even better fuel economy and range. It might never be a cheap choice but for the customer that has become wider and more tempting than ever before.

Show me the goods

Below you will find the hybrid models available in 2012. I have done my best to present a complete list. If you detect one that is missing, please tell me so I can add it. However, cars have never been just about getting around, have they?! So, as something for the soul have a look at these two beauties. The first is the Infiniti Emerg-e, unveiled at the show in Geneva. In case the name is unfamiliar to you, it is the upmarket brand of Nissan (like Lexus is for Toyota). To raise its profile in Europe, where it is hardly recognised, and to create a fully working test bed for new technology the company created this mid-engined showstopper. The figures? 400 bhp, 0-60 mph (96 km/h) in 4 seconds, 30 miles (48 km) on an electric charge alone or 300 miles (480 km) in range-extender mode.

  Infiniti Emerge-eInfiniti Emerg-e © www.topgear.com

Not to be outdone, famous Italian design house Pininfarina (responsible for most post-war Ferraris, Alfa Romeo Spider, Peugeot 504 – to name but a few) exhibited its own concept car. In the words of the Geneva Auto Salon website “[propelled] by an electric motor at each wheel, the Cambiano is powered by batteries, a diesel-fuelled turbine or both, giving the car a maximum output equivalent to 816 horsepower. It can sprint from 0-100 km/h (62 mph) in just 4.2 seconds, on its way to a top sustained speed of 155 mph [250 km/h], and boasts a combined range of nearly 500 miles. Despite supercar levels of performance, it was designed to be as environmentally friendly as possible, with the diesel-powered turbine emitting just 45 grams of CO2 per km” That is only 5 grams more than the family oriented Vauxhall Ampera. Their environmental credentials aside, these two make even a dyed-in-the-wool classic car fan like myself go ‘Whoa’.

  Pininfarina Cambiano ConceptPininfarina Cambiano Concept - © www.motorauthority.com

OK, back to a more sober reality. As promised, here is the list of hybrids currently available in alphabetical order. Please note that not all models are sold in every country.

Hybrids 2012_List

As seen on a front bumper sticker: If you can read this, I didn't hit you hard enough.


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