BEST OF BOTH WORLDS - JSE MAGAZINE

BEST OF BOTH WORLDS

With hybrid vehicles continuing to impress SA consumers, there’s much excitement on the alternative motoring horizon

BEST OF BOTH WORLDS

Elon Musk – the ever youthful-looking poster boy of alternative motoring and Tesla Motors CEO – has been in a very good mood of late. So much so that he is considering letting the world have his company’s hybrid technology for free. It may be a marketing ploy (he is nothing if not a master of the grand gesture) but he can afford to be so magnanimous. Tesla is doing very nicely and has just delivered its first right-hand-drive models to the UK. This is a company on the up.

Sadly the same cannot be said for the rest of the alternative-drive arena. Sales of hybrid cars in the biggest market, the US, are down significantly this year (Tesla and Honda being the exceptions) and continue to perform below par as traditional engines become ever more efficient.

In SA, hybrid-related drawbacks such as reduced boot space, high initial outlay and the fact that you cannot tow anything with a hybrid for fear of risking a nullified warranty, mean sales are slow. But progress is being made in pure technology terms, and hybrids are now better than ever.

Mercedes-Benz S 400 and E 300
Hybrid makes more sense at the top of the food chain, where initial cost is less critical. Mercedes-Benz has two offerings, the S 400 Hybrid and the E 300 BlueTec Hybrid.

The new S-Class is touted by Mercedes as being ‘the best car in the world’. While that may be up for debate (the astonishing new Audi A8 could justifiably claim that title), it is stacked with new technology, such as full LED lighting and, in the case of the S 400, a very efficient hybrid system. It is also a compact system – both the E- and S-Class boast boot space that is on par with their regular combustion-engined stable mates.

The Mercedes approach to hybrid is that it should in no way diminish the owning or driving experience. Hence the regular boot and powerful 3.5l V6 engine that manages a 0–100 km/h time of 6.8 seconds in the S-Class. All the benefits – kinetic energy recuperation, fuel consumption reduction and low CO2 emissions (159g/km), are there to be admired.

Hybrid makes more sense at the top of the food chain, where initial cost is less critical

The primary focus, however, is luxury and exclusivity. On the road, the S 400 is all S-Class: serene and graceful, a magic carpet, the hybrid system unobtrusive until full throttle acceleration is required from a coasting situation. Then the system can be caught out, the engine ‘coming online’ with a thunk as both electric motor and combustion engine combine forces. In ordinary situations, however, there is no perceptible switch effect, making it one of the most fluid systems on the market.

Owners can keep an eye on their car’s energy flows via the screen on the dashboard. Choose energy monitoring and a graphic shows whether energy is flowing to the engine from the electric motor, back into the electric motor, or if both units are being called upon. Fun though it is, there is little point to it – driving styles are less likely to be influenced by the individual than by surroundings.

The E 300 BlueTec adds another level of efficiency to the hybrid system. The four-cylinder diesel engine uses BlueTec technology, effectively bringing small car consumption and emissions to a large luxury limousine. The car produces 150 kW from the diesel engine and 20 kW from the electric motor, yet manages a combined consumption of just 4.2l/100 km and emits just 119g/km of CO2. BlueTec is a targeted attack on particles in the exhaust waste system. A liquid called AdBlue is dripped into passing exhaust gases, turning potentially harmful nitrogen oxide particulates into benign water and nitrogen.

On the road, the E 300 makes more sense than the S 400. The hybrid system works well with the less powerful but more tractable diesel engine, and fuel consumption numbers have to be experienced to be believed.

The nature of a modern diesel engine adds to the experience too. The E 300 has an elastic tautness about it that is very satisfying; it feels a great deal faster than figures on paper suggest.

BMW 7 Series
Competing with Mercedes’ new S-Class hybrid is the BMW 7 Series hybrid. The fact that the company calls their system ActiveHybrid says a great deal about their intention, which is to remain sports-orientated, despite its green ambitions. There are 3 and 5 Series hybrid options but this is the flagship 7 Series – a twin turbo, straight six-cylinder petrol engine with 235 kW and 450 Nm of torque. The 40 kW electric motor helps the car reach 100 km/h in 5.7 seconds, yet the beast only produces 158g/km of CO2 and uses just 6.8l/100 km in Eco Pro drive mode.

There are downsides though. The boot is compromised to accommodate the batteries – 360l, down from 500l for the conventional 7 Series. That’s a small boot for a luxury car. On the road BMW’s heavy, planted feel is exactly the same and in-gear acceleration is as impressive as ever, despite the weight (the car carries more than an extra 200 kg).

The Lexus range
Fresh out of the starting blocks from Lexus is the small, all-new SUV – the NX – with a hybrid version in the line-up, which will also feature the first turbocharged 2l petrol engine from the company.

The car, with looks that are likely to polarise buyers (that huge, gaping version of the Lexus spindle grill up front will not appeal to everyone), will more than likely feature the company’s 2.5l, four-cylinder cycle engine with an electric motor and lithium-ion battery.

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It will be Lexus’ second SUV, the other being the popular RX, which is a best-seller in the country. The RX hybrid is unusual in that it has two electric motors that produce enough power to drive the car in full electric mode around town for sustained periods. On the highway the 3.5l, V6 petrol engine delivers a 0–100 km/h time of 7.8 seconds, and uses 6.3l/100 km of fuel.

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The SUVs join other members of the family. The revised CT200h premium hatchback and the luxury GS450h saloon, which has the same engine as the RX. Crucially, the Lexus battery pack is very compact, and the boot capacity is an acceptable 443l.

Porsche Cayenne and Panamera
The Lexus NX will have to compete with Porsche’s new small SUV, the Macan but – initially at least – there will be no hybrid of the shrunken Cayenne. As it stands, Porsche offers the full-sized SUV Cayenne and the GT four-door Panamera in hybrid form. If a hybrid Porsche sounds odd, bear in mind that on the track Porsche is doing big things with the technology in the 918 GT.

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If a hybrid Porsche sounds odd, bear in mind that on the track Porsche is doing big things with technology

Both the Panamera and Cayenne models feature a supercharged 3l engine and a powerful electric motor, good for 100 km/h in around six seconds and top speeds of over 250 km/h. New tweaks to the system have improved cold starting, and the hybrid system is now usable from start up – a common hybrid flaw.

Hybrid and alternative-drive technologies have not had an easy run in recent years but the latest charm offensive has begun in earnest. With Tesla at the helm and Honda announcing that the iconic S2000 will be resurrected as a hybrid, things are looking up.

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Hybrid has not had an easy run in recent years but the latest charm offensive has begun

It helps that motor sport is getting involved too – F1 now has fully-hybridised Mercedes-Benz cars, the gorgeous Toyota TS040 will compete in the World Endurance Championship this year and Audi’s diesel hybrid R18 e-tron Quattro has become a podium regular at France’s Le Mans 24 Hours race. Hybrid’s popularist day in the sun may yet be attainable.

By Peter Frost
Images: Mercedes-Benz, Press.Porsche.com, Pressroom.Lexus.com