22 August 2013

Why hybrids are dying: Gas engines are good enough on mpg, plug-ins are excellent

The sporty five-passenger SUV that I’m whipping around country roads gets 35 mpg on the highway. And it’s not a hybrid. It’s the Mazda CX-5 Skyactiv with a host of high-efficiency technologies that gives the CX-5 hybrid-like fuel economy without the $2,000-$4,000 bump in price that comes with many hybrid vehicles. Between super-efficient traditional vehicles on one side, and battery or plug-in hybrid technologies on vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf or Chevrolet Volt on the other, it’s possible the traditional hybrid is being squeezed. Except Toyota, the 800 pound gorilla of hybrid nation.

Here’s the theory. See if you agree: Hybrid cars give a boost to fuel economy. They also give the owner the cachet of being a friend of the Earth. Until recently, hybrids allowed access to high-occupancy vehicle lanes at rush hour even when you’re driving solo (in order to jump-start hybrid sales). Most hybrids run silently for a mile or two on battery power; that impressed the neighbors five years ago. But traditional gasoline-engine cars are more efficient than ever, the HOV lane freebie for hybrid cars is going away, and the price premium remains.

There’s also concern that hybrids are costlier to maintain. Never mind that it’s probably not true. To make back the hybrid premium, you may have to drive 100,000 miles. As for cachet, now that some 2.5 million traditional hybrids have been sold in the US since 1999, the exclusivity and wow factors belong to the Leaf, Volt, and their nosebleed counterparts from Tesla and Fisker. Wow factor? Automobile magazine named the electric Tesla S its car of the year.

GM shifts focus away from traditonal hybrids

General Motors says the mainstream hybrid will not be its major focus. Instead, GM “needs to make educated bets on which technologies hold the most potential,” says Mary Barra, senior vice president for global product development. GM’s bets are currently on the ends of the alternative-fuel spectrum: plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles. GM also has a side bet on mild hybrids, which GM calls eAssist vehicles. They add a smallish battery pack and 15-hp electric motor to cars such as the Chevrolet Malibu or Buick LaCrosse. But even that smallish battery chews up some of the trunk space and prohibits full fold-down rear seats. GM says it can improve mileage by 25% but not everyone is seeing anywhere near that improvement.

For the first 10 months of the year, GM sold more than 19,000 Volt plug-ins (four times as many as in 2011) and more than 26,000 eAssist vehicles. GM projects selling 500,000 alternative energy vehicles per year by 2017. That’s even though it’s likely to dump some of its hybrids such as the full-size SUVs and pickup trucks.

Toyota’s success sucks the air out of the hybrid market

GM faces the same problem as the rest of the industry: There’s not much of a mainstream hybrid market once Toyota gets done. Of the 2.5 million hybrids sold since the very first Honda Insights arrived stateside in 1999, Toyota and sibling Lexus accounted for two-thirds of them. This year, it’s down to just under half. Still, once Toyota and Lexus step back from the dinner table, 16 other automakers are fighting over the remaining 175,000 hybrid sales opportunities in 2012.

If the bloom is off the hybrid rose, what else bears watching? Here are ways automakers can compete with high-mpg vehicles that aren’t traditional hybrids.

How Mazda does it: More engine compression, less weight

In the Skyactiv Mazda, what’s putting the squeeze on hybrids is gasoline that is also being squeezed. Literally. The compression ratio of the Mazda engine is 13:1, meaning once air in the cylinder is compressed and as gasoline is injected, it’s reduced to one-thirteenth the original volume. The more the fuel air mixture compresses, the more power you get when the spark plug lights off the mixture. Each one-point increase in compression ratio raises power by about 3%. Historically, gasoline engines were limited to 10:1 unless you switched to costlier premium fuel. Combined with other engine tweaks such as a special design to the piston that helps swirl the fuel-air mixture, it’s 15% more fuel-efficient, Mazda says.

For Mazda, Skyactiv is a building block strategy. It’s not just the engine. The engines and the chassis are each more than 10% lighter. A six-speed automatic transmission is 7% more efficient than the old five-speed. A Skyactiv diesel engine (coming) will be 20% more efficient than previous Mazda diesels. Some future gas engines will have a 14:1 compression ratio. The upshot: The biggest Skyactiv Mazda I drove, the CX-5, gets as much as 26 mpg city, 35 mpg highway, 29 mpg combined with a manual transmission or 26/32/29 with the new automatic. The compact Mazda3 Skyactiv sedan gets 40 mpg (highway) with an automatic transmission, 28 mpg city. On the highway, that and a 14.5 gallon gas tank give the Mazda3 a 540-mile cruising range.

How Ford does it: Turbocharge a riding-mower-size engine

Ford this week at the Los Angeles Auto Show is announcing a 1.0-liter EcoBoost (turbocharged) Ford Fiesta that still produces 123 hp. Mileage will be in excess of 40 mpg. While 50 mpg is an even better figure, the difference between 40 mpg and 50 mpg is $4 a week if you drive 12,000 miles a year. Not a big deal if you’re buying a $4 double mochachino on your way to work each day. By way of comparison: Hold up a quart carton of orange and that’s entire displacement of this new engine, divided among three cylinders. The biggest garden tractor/riding mowers can have engines up to 1.3 liters.

Ford also turbocharges bigger engines under the EcoBoost moniker. A V8 is replaced by a V6 turbo. A V6 engine is replaced by a four-cylinder turbo. And now a four-cylinder is being supplanted by a three-cylinder turbo. If you create a car from the ground up to not fit, say, the V8 as an option, you can make the engine compartment smaller and lighter. The same goes for a midsize car that uses only four cylinders, no sixes.

Ford had done well selling hybrids, but like GM it’s putting additional effort into plug-ins and electric vehicles. The 2013 Ford C-Max Energi plug-in crossover is positioned against the similar Toyota Prius V. Many testers found the Ford’s fit and finish and cockpit styling preferable. GE recently bought 2,000 C-Max Energi cars for its fleet.

How VW does it: hyper-efficient diesel engines

European automakers and buyers love diesel engine cars. The smelly sulfurous exhaust and hard starting of diesels are long gone. An increasing number of automakers, mostly German, are bringing diesels to the US. Take the Volkswagen Passat. It gets 43 mpg highway, 31 in the city, 35 combined. On the highway, that equates to a range of almost 800 miles. Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen sell more than a dozen models and only a handful get less than 30 mpg highway. The Escalade-size Mercedes-Benz GL SUV gets 26 mpg highway and actually costs less than gas-engine GL models.

Hybrids do better than diesels in city driving. Overall, in mixed driving a diesel may have the advantage. In 2008, The Times of London raced (well, drove) a Toyota Prius and a BMW 520d from London to Geneva, then added in 100 miles of city driving to benefit the Prius. The BMW came out ahead, 42 mpg to 40 mpg, and had a third of the tank left in reserve, while the Prius was bone dry. However, The Times noted of the Bimmer, ”You don’t get the same self-righteous glow when you are driving it.”

Next page: So, should you choose a hybrid, an EV, a diesel, or a gas-engine car?


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