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High-Performance Hybrids

There's electricity in the air as experimental technologies redefine high performance, both on and off the track
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Saturday Night Live: How it Shapes Our Politics & Culture, September/October 2011

(continued from page 1)

The pressure to get greener is mounting on the industry overall, and not just from consumers. Fuel economy standards could hit 56 mpg by 2025 in the U.S., based on recent proposals from the Obama Administration, and perhaps 100 mpg in Europe. Such numbers would be all the more challenging for makers of big, fast, luxury cars.

That helps explain why many luxury makers are downsizing, adding models like the Audi A2, BMW 1 Series, the upcoming Cadillac ATS and the Mercedes A-Class, a dramatic redesign of which was unveiled at this year’s New York Auto Show.

But, “Does sustainability mean we have to build small cars? Not necessarily,” insists Dr. Thomas Weber, the technology chief for Mercedes’ parent, Daimler AG. And that’s where battery technology comes in, he contends. The maker now offers a hybrid version of its biggest sedan, the S400, and will soon launch the S500 BlueEFFICIENCY.

The good news is that battery power doesn’t have to mean sacrificing performance, as Mercedes is intent on demonstrating with its SLS AMG E-Cell, a pure battery, or BEV, version of its gull-winged two-seater. This is no Nissan Leaf, proclaimed Dieter Zetsche, CEO of Daimler AG, in a preview at the North American International Auto Show. “It’s like climbing out of an F4 Phantom jet and into an X-Wing fighter in Star Wars—except this is not science fiction.”

There’s a distinct performance advantage to battery power: unlike internal combustion engines, which need to rev up, electric motors develop maximum torque the moment they start spinning, so acceleration can be exhilarating. Of course, there is a trade-off in range. Even today’s most advanced lithium-ion cells can hold barely 1 percent of the energy of gasoline, pound-per-pound. And the faster you go the quicker you’ll be stranded on the side of the road. Nonetheless, batteries are improving. Costs are expected to drop sharply over the coming decade, while “energy density,” the amount of power they can store, is on the rise.

Tesla promises to offer three different battery packs when it launches its first sedan next year. The one that will come stock with the Model S will deliver 160 miles in driving range, and 230- and 300-mile packs will be optional. The Silicon Valley-based Tesla is just winding down production of its low-volume debut model, the Roadster, and the hard-charging CEO Elon Musk, a founder of PayPal, is intent on it becoming a viable challenger to the traditional automotive establishment.

Indeed, there are dozens of alternative power automotive wannabes. But while most target green-minded buyers who are willing to sacrifice size—and even comfort—to cut the oil umbilical, Fisker Automotive is aiming decidedly upscale with its sleek and elegant Karma. The four-seat sports car, which is expected to be on sale about when this story appears, uses a plug-in drive that might initially bring to mind the more plebian Chevrolet Volt, but it promises to deliver Porsche-level performance with Mercedes refinement.

Whether the new entries can unseat the established automotive order remains to be seen. Indeed, there are plenty of skeptics when it comes to battery power. A recent study by J.D. Power and Associates cautions that hybrids, plug-ins and BEVs combined will likely account for barely 7 percent of the market by decade’s end. Proponents like Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan—whose Infiniti luxury brand will soon launch its first battery car—remain more upbeat, but even that might mean only 10 to 20 percent, assuming no significant battery breakthroughs.

Some industry experts believe demand might be strongest in the luxury market. “Those buyers are more willing to accept the added cost,” contends Dr. David Cole, the chairman-emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research. He adds that they’re also seeking technology that can improve the social acceptance of luxury models, like the BMW 7 Series, and high-performance sports cars, such as the Porsche 918.

Who’s doing what? Here’s a quick look at the electrification efforts of the various luxury brands:

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