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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

Our ears pick up the first sign that things are not quite as expected as we blast through the winding canyon roads of the Austrian Alps. At 145 klicks (90 miles an hour) the Porsche’s roar has suddenly gone silent. A quick glance down reveals the reason for the initially unnerving surprise: the tachometer reads “0 rpm,” our Panamera’s 3.0-liter supercharged V-6 engine has automatically turned off, briefly shifting to battery-only mode.

The German automaker best known for the incredible performance of products like the classic 911 sports car is suddenly going green. In recent months, Porsche has unveiled an assortment of models that use a variety of alternative propulsion systems. Among them is the new gas-electric drivetrain in the $95,000 Panamera S Hybrid that we’ve come to Austria to test-drive.

And the company is not the only luxury maker exploring alternative powertrain technology, a segment previously reserved for vehicles saddled with low performance and few frills as the price for maintaining a clean ecological conscience. It’s difficult to find a high-line maker that isn’t looking at the potential of battery-drive systems that range from relatively conventional hybrids to plug-ins and pure battery-electric vehicles (BEVs). Mercedes-Benz already has several hybrids on the market, and is fleet testing BEV technology. Audi promises to put its battery-based e-tron on the market in the coming years, while Jaguar has unveiled the radical C-X75 plug-in supercar. BMW is launching an all-new battery car brand, and even Lamborghini is exploring its battery options.

But you might say that hybrids are in Porsche’s blood. In 1899, the young engineer Ferdinand Porsche, fresh to Vienna, designed the Lohner-Porsche Mixte for the Austrian coachbuilder Jacob Lohner. In some ways, the car, which ran off batteries and a small generator, might be considered advanced technology today, with its frictionless drivetrain. Porsche skipped the drive shafts, chains and belts of the day, instead placing small electric motors in the hub of each wheel.

At just a glance, it’s hard to tell the difference between the standard Panamera S and the S Hybrid, other than by the badge and some subtle changes on the instrument panel. But at the heart of the new driveline on the former vehicle is an asynchronous electric motor that pairs up with the Panamera’s V-6 through an eight-speed automatic gearbox to send power to the rear wheels. The gas engine develops 333 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque, but when you need it, the electric motor kicks in another 46 hp, with torque climbing to 428 lb-ft, enough to launch the Panamera S Hybrid from 0 to 60 mph in just 5.7 seconds on the way to a 167-mph top speed. At speeds up to 109 mph, the system’s controller will decouple the gas engine—effectively shutting it off—while coasting. The battery side of the driveline will also permit driving limited distances solely in electric mode—while boosting fuel economy to levels one simply wouldn’t expect from a Porsche. Preliminary numbers suggest around 35 miles per gallon using the European test system. So, the Hybrid not only gets nearly 11 miles more a gallon and more power than the normal Panamera S with a V-6 engine, its performance comes close to that of the Panamera V-8, which gets 12 fewer miles per gallon than the S Hybrid.

“This way, you can go very fast and it still would be socially acceptable,” explained former Porsche CEO Michael Macht at the Geneva Motor Show last year. The heavily attended news conference saw the German maker roll out an assortment of new hybrids, including the 918 Spyder, a limited-edition two-seater that it will produce for a staggering $845,000. For your money, you’ll get a 500-horsepower V-8 that’s paired with twin electric motors—one mounted at each axle—kicking in another 218 hp. Considering the price tag, it’s nice to know that the plug-in hybrid is expected to get about 78 mpg, and operate in battery mode for 16 miles—a dozen times farther than the Panamera S Hybrid. And when you throw gas-saving precautions to the wind, the Spyder is estimated to reach 60 in less than 3.2 seconds and has a 199-mph top speed.

It’s often remarked that advancements in motor sports have driven the development of passenger cars as new technology moves from track to street. These days, the migration seems to go two ways as the interest in alternative power in racing circles grows. Earlier this year Porsche revealed another motor-driven model, this one the 911 GT3 R Hybrid, a racecar that recently began track testing. It avoids hefty weight penalties associated with batteries by turning to an unusual energy-storage device, a low-weight flywheel that spins at speeds in excess of 40,000 rpm and can instantly pump out several hundred extra horsepower.

Moreover, Formula One has been pushing for the use of flywheel-based hybrid systems. “We want, as soon as possible, to have new categories with new energy,” Jean Todt, president of the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, or FIA, announced earlier this year. Though still a matter of much internal debate, the F1 governing body could have a series of electric car races going in the next few years, perhaps challenging Formula One itself someday.

Alternative power has already proven itself on the track. Audi routinely dominates the endurance race circuit with such diesel cars as the new R18, which swept to victory at this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. One reason is fuel economy. The Audi “oil burners” get significantly better mileage than conventional racers, which translates into fewer time-eating pit stops. Hybrid power can deliver a similar advantage.

That might not seem to matter to luxury car buyers. After all, does someone buy an $845,000 Porsche 918 Spyder and fret about $4 a gallon gas? But studies find that even the most affluent motorists are demanding better fuel efficiency, if for no other reason than social acceptance. “We are listening to the people,” suggests Audi CEO Rupert Stadler.

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