Green News from Frankfurt: Reality Check

Green is all the rage at this year’s Frankfurt International Motor Show, Sept. 13 – 23. The automakers are casting bright lights on their hybrids, plug-in hybrids, clean diesels, fuel cells, and other advanced vehicles. But the glare of publicity makes it difficult to distinguish between the vehicles headed to a showroom in the next few years—and those with delivery dates somewhere between 2015 and never. We look at the vehicle unveilings in Frankfurt and give our ratings: Coming Soon, Way Out, or Maybe Never.

Coming Soon

The first public glimpse of BMW’s X6 is the hybrid version. The X6 ActiveHybrid, labeled as a “sport activity coupe,” utilizes the two-mode hybrid system that BMW jointly-developed with General Motors and DaimlerChrysler. Fuel economy is estimated at roughly 30 mpg, which is 20 percent higher than the conventional version. Sales of the non-hybrid X6 will begin in the United States next summer. BMW didn’t comment on timing for the X6 ActiveHybrid. If released in 2009, the X6 Hybrid would become first full hybrid in the BMW lineup.

Mercedes-Benz revealed a full line of hybrids at the Frankfurt show. The two vehicles first set to launch are the S400 Hybrid—a mild-hybrid S Class—and the ML 450 Hybrid using the two-mode system. The vehicles, both targeted at about 30 mpg, will threaten Lexus’s exclusive position in the niche luxury hybrid market when they hit American showrooms sometime in 2009.

Way Out

Porsche purists cringed as the company showed off a hybrid version of the Cayenne SUV. The Cayenne will use a robust hybrid drivetrain—co-developed with Volkswagen—to increase fuel economy by 15 percent. Hybrid purists cringed as they learned that the 8-cylinder Cayenne Hybrid’s gas mileage would still be less than 20 mpg. Porsche’s hopeful estimate for launching the Cayenne Hybrid is 2010.

Mercedes-Benz is vying to become the first company to combine a hybrid powertrain with a diesel engine in a production vehicle. The new models include the E300 and S300 BLUETEC Hybrids, based on the E Class and S Class platforms respectively. Both are rated in the range of 45 mpg, and are expected to reach showrooms in approximately five years. The big question regarding diesel hybrids is the cost of doubling up on the two fuel efficiency systems.

Saturn showed a plug-in hybrid version of its redesigned Vue crossover. The plug-in Vue is General Motors’ first scheduled grid-rechargeable hybrid. The vehicle adds plug-in capabilities to the two-mode hybrid system—with the goal of roughly 10 miles of all-electric driving range. Saturn gives an uncertain timetable of “2009-ish” to release the plug-in Vue—but given the challenges of lithium ion batteries, the launch could easily slip to 2010 or 2011 or 2012…

Volve ReCharge

While Volvo says the ReCharge may be feasible to produce in five years, the company would need to make a major shift in direction to bring a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle this quickly to market. The ReCharge is more “me too” concept than reality.

Maybe Never

Attempting to export the buzz for the Chevrolet Volt concept across the pond, General Motors revealed the Opel Flextreme concept—a European version of GM’s E-Flex plug-in series hybrid. This variant uses a diesel engine instead of a gasoline powerplant. According to GM, the Flextreme can drive for roughly 35 miles on battery power alone or for almost 450 miles when electricity from its 1.3-liter diesel generator is used. As with the Volt, the future of the Flextreme depends on affordable, durable, and safe lithium ion batteries. We could all be ten years older and grayer before GM puts a plug-in diesel-hybrid on sale.

Volvo unveiled the ReCharge, its own version of a plug-in series hybrid. The car is based on the company’s compact C30 and promises 60 miles of all-electric range. While Volvo says the ReCharge may be feasible to produce in five years, the company would need to make a major shift in direction to bring a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle this quickly to market. The ReCharge is more “me too” concept than reality.

Mercedes-Benz announced its intentions to sell a limited number of fuel cell vehicles based on its compact B Class car. The big question is how limited is “limited?” While Mercedes-Benz gave 2010 as the ambitious launch date, the challenges with fuel cells and hydrogen infrastructure are well-documented. It could easily take 15 – 20 years for a vehicle like the B Class F-Cell to get produced and sold in quantities beyond a few thousand.

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  • ETM

    yet another GM bashing…

    You guys ever look at website?

  • kimv

    fabulous article!

  • marc

    Is the Peugeot 308 Hybrid going on the market before 2010?

  • Me

    Great reporting distinguishes events from press releases and promises. “Reality Check” does just that. Good job!

  • Byron Kistler

    What happened to the GM Geo and Honda CRX both capabale of 52 mpg which is better than any hybrid out there for a fraction of the cost????????

  • dave reiff

    these hybrids should be getting 80-100mpg, we have had cars getting 45-55mpg since 1979, vw rabbit diesel, crx, jetta diesel, come on we cant do better than that in 20 years of research… big oil rules.

  • GR

    I saw pics of the X6 hybrid the other day…very nice! I would definitely consider that car…that is, if I had the money of course.

  • sherwood

    Cars like the CRX and Geo Metro could reach 50mpg… with the A/C off, airbags left at the factory, and pack-of-cigarettes crumple resistance. Also, they did 0-60 in about 20 seconds. That’s just not acceptable these days, so as a result even something tiny like a Mini Cooper weighs about 1000 lbs more than any subcompact sold in the 80’s.

  • indigo

    Some of the reasons why the Fit/Yaris get upper-30s instead of 50 MPG like the Geo Metro of old are: power (12 seconds to 60 MPG instead of 20 seconds), safety (air bags, crumple zones, etc.), and durability (100k+ miles versus 60k-70- miles.)

  • Elmo

    How about the Toyota Matrix that gets over 30mpg and starts at $15k, plus has some get up and go, and crumple zones, etc.
    I agree, it is sad that so many hybrids are really Weapons of Mass Distraction
    Lets see more plug in technology combined with renewable sources.

  • jessica

    this car is frigg’n awesome and i would totally buy this but im not old enough… just doing a project on it and i just felt like leaving a comment!!

  • Steve

    Seems to me that Ive been reading about 50 mpg cars for about 20 years now. And im supposed to get excited about a “hybrid” car that gets 45 mpg! I dont think so.
    Electric cars are exciting to me. Although still a big dissapointment from the automakers. If as much money and R+D that went into the ICE went into the electric car the electric car would be a awesome car, with few if any drawbacks. The first electic car was built in 1902, in the 90’s we had a decent electric car in the EV1, with a 100 mile range and decent performance it was a good start. So your telling me that they can not come up with something better than the EV1? After almost 20yrs of battery improvements. BS! I think its obvious who is influencing these automakers to put out this half ass attempt at fuel conservation. And a small startup like Tesla Motors can produce an EV with 2x the range and supercar performance in just a few years! I cant wait till the Tesla luxury sedan comes out for around 45k, ill be first in line!

  • ADavis

    It got good mileage, but diesel became more costly that premium gas and the engin block cracked (had it replaced and it cracked agan). Sold the car at less than 80,000miles. We usually keep our cars much longer than that, and diesel is dirty, even as a biofuel.

  • Db

    I would like to see more crash/collision statistics on the Hybrids. No one ever discusses the safety of those batteries and what happens if they are impaled in an accident!