Cigar Aficionado

There's electricity in the air as experimental technologies redefine high performance, both on and off the track

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.

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:

Acura: Honda, which introduced the first U.S. hybrid, the original Insight, has added a number of additional models, with a battery car also in the works. But oddly, its high-line Acura division has so far steered clear of battery power. That may soon change. The maker hints that the long-awaited replacement for the NSX supercar will use a hybrid drivetrain, and several more mainstream models may opt for gas-electric power, as well.

Aston Martin: No longer owned by Ford, the British maker has limited resources to move outside its performance luxury niche. Nevertheless expect to see either a hybrid or battery-electric version—or both—based on the maker’s Cygnet minicar. Cygnet comes as an unusual collaboration with Toyota, based on the pint-sized Scion iQ soon to reach U.S. shores.

Audi: Like most European makers, the Volkswagen subsidiary has emphasized diesel power with models like the A3 TDI, but it is finally charging into the battery world with the A6 Hybrid, a concept version that debuted at the Detroit Auto Show, last January. The maker also intends to introduce a production version of its e-tron, though final details are uncertain, with Audi having shown both BEV and plug-in versions of what is essentially a downsized version of the R8 supercar.

Bentley: The maker has promised a significant bump in fuel economy and sharply reduced emissions, though it is focusing on dual-fuel and other technologies. But don’t be surprised to see a hybrid in its future.

BMW: German makers in general are big diesel fans, and U.S. demand is slowly growing for models like the X5 xDrive35d. The BMW has pushed hard for hydrogen, but with support slipping it is turning to battery in a big way. It was scheduled to begin leasing the ActiveE sedan in mid-2011, but U.S. sales will be limited to 700 as the project is really a test for the upcoming introduction of an entirely new brand-within-a-brand debuting in 2013 with the launch of the i3 battery city car.

Buick: Brought back from the brink after parent General Motors’ 2009 bankruptcy, Buick is now one of America’s fastest-growing brands. GM hopes to keep that momentum building with the 2012 launch of the Buick LaCrosse eAssist, a “mild” hybrid that boosts fuel economy on the big sedan to 36 mpg highway. The hybrid will be the standard powertrain on the updated LaCrosse. Other Buick models should eventually share eAssist.

Cadillac: Caddy’s popular bling-mobile, the Escalade, is also the brand’s first to go hybrid. The battery-electric version of the big SUV may have helped give it just enough “green” tint to survive the recent spike in fuel prices relatively unscathed. General Motors killed plans to give Cadillac a more luxurious version of the Chevrolet Volt, but insiders hint another plug-in project could be in the works.

Fisker: Founded By Henrik Fisker, best known for his former life as Aston’s chief designer, this start-up will challenge established luxury brands with the Karma plug-in. Priced at $95,900, it will deliver 50 miles in battery mode before switching to gas power. Together, both power sources should push it from 0 to 60 in 5.9 seconds. Fisker is developing a second, more mainstream, model, code-named Model S, which will be produced at an old General Motors plant starting in late 2013.

Infiniti: Nissan’s luxury division introduced its first hybrid vehicle earlier this year based on its updated M line. Its next step is to roll out an all-new battery-electric vehicle based on the Nissan Leaf. Expect still more battery-based offerings in the years ahead.

Jaguar: The British maker made headlines at last year’s Paris Motor Show with the stunning C-X75 supercar. The plug-in hybrid concept was said to deliver 30 miles on battery power alone, but also used a pair of micro-turbines for backup power and to top 200 mph. Strong public acclaim convinced Jag to OK limited production, though the street version of C-X75 will have a conventional gas engine.

Lamborghini: The Italian maker best known for pushing performance extremes, cannot ignore the issue of what CEO Stefan Winkelmann calls “social acceptance.” For the moment, the focus is on trimming weight and reducing the fuel consumption of its big gas engine, but he reveals “we could imagine a hybrid,” particularly if the maker moves ahead on plans to add a third model line, likely under the current Gallardo.

Land Rover: Jaguar’s sibling brand aims at big improvement in fuel economy in coming years, and the 85-mpg Range_e plug-in diesel-hybrid revealed at the 2011 Geneva Motor Show hints at what’s coming. U.S. buyers should see a conventional gas-hybrid Range Rover in 2013, and a plug-in a year later. Don’t be surprised if Land Rover’s first crossover, the new Evoq, eventually adds a battery-based model to its mix.

Lexus: No other luxury automaker has had a greater commitment to hybrid power than Toyota’s high-line marque. The maker offers a wide range of gas-electric models, from the base CT 200h to the hybrid version of its flagship sedan, the LS 600h. Its RX 400h is the most popular hybrid crossover on the market. Next up? The LF-Gh, shorthand for the Lexus Future Grand touring Hybrid, aims to balance both performance and fuel economy.

Lincoln: Ford’s luxury subsidiary broke ground with the introduction of the MKZ Hybrid, the first gas-electric model to be offered at the same price option as its conventional, gas-powered version. Lincoln claims that at 41 mpg/city it is the most fuel-efficient luxury sedan on the market, delivering 6 mpg better mileage than the Lexus HS 250h.

Lotus: The British maker shocked the automotive world when, late last year, it announced plans to roll out five new sports cars, ranging from a replacement for the aging Lotus Elise to the top-of-the-line Eterne. Significantly, most are expected to offer a version of the racing-derived KERS hybrid system, though the emphasis will likely be as much on performance as mileage.

Mercedes-Benz: As noted earlier, Mercedes is heavily committed to battery power, with hybrid versions of the flagship S-Class sedan and ML SUV already on sale. It has a variety of other electrified offerings in the works, though none quite as outrageous as the SLS E-Cell, the battery version of its gull-winged supercar. Other BEVs will follow. The maker remains committed to fuel-cell technology and recently started leasing its F-Cell hydrogen car in limited volume in Southern California.
Mini: One of the first to test the market for battery power, Mini has gotten good feedback for the Mini E despite its limitations. The prototype could soon be followed by a battery-electric version of a concept vehicle revealed earlier this year, the Mini Rocketman.

Porsche: Porsche has a wide range of hybrids and plug-ins coming to market, all the way up to the $845,000 918 Spyder. Porsche also plans to campaign its hybrid technologies, with an emphasis on flybrids, or flywheel-based hybrids, on the racetrack.

Rolls-Royce: This marque delivered a shocker when it revealed its 102EX, a Phantom-based, all-electric concept designed to test owner response to battery power. So far, the response has been mixed, at best, but some form of battery propulsion, perhaps a hybrid, could follow.

Tesla: Tesla has made a name for itself as a proponent of pure battery-electric vehicles starting with the two-seat Roadster. Next up is a mid-range luxury sedan dubbed Model S that aims to overcome so-called “range anxiety” by offering buyers a choice of three battery packs.

Volvo: The Swedish automaker, now Chinese-owned, has long focused on safety, but is increasing its emphasis on environmentally friendly technology.  It recently launched a low-volume version of its small coupe, dubbed the C30 Electric, but it has particularly high hopes for the upcoming V60 plug-in launching in Europe. Expect similar technology in the U.S. but on what model and when is uncertain.

Paul A. Eisenstein is publisher of on the Internet.