General Motors will take great pains to avoid using the H word when it unveils the gas-electric Buick LaCrosse this week at the Los Angeles Auto Show. Instead, it will call the system “eAssist,” to avoid any association with competing hybrids, and to dodge past complaints that its mild form of hybrid technology doesn’t deserve the hybrid name.
Whatever you call it, the new system is a definite step up for G.M. hybrids. The Buick LaCrosse Hybrid uses a 4-cylinder direct injection engine and a lithium-ion battery pack to provide a 25 to 30 percent improvement over the current 4-cylinder LaCrosse. The new model is expected to get 25 miles per gallon in the city and 37 on the highway—beating the outgoing model’s 19/30 mpg rating.
In another sign that hybrid technology will become increasingly commonplace in the auto market—as tougher efficiency and emissions standards take hold—the new 4-cylinder LaCrosse will only be offered as a hybrid. “Maybe this is the base powertrain of the future,” Steve Poulos, the chief engineer for eAssist, told Detroit Free Press. The base price for the LaCrosse eAssist will be $30,000, the same price as the 6-cylinder LaCrosse, the only other drivetrain option.
The use of the term “eAssist” is not the first time that G.M. is playing around with the technical name of its hybrids to supposedly improve market perception. The company refers to the Chevy Volt as an “extended-range electric vehicle,” even though the Society of Automotive Engineers (and nearly every official group) considers it a plug-in hybrid.
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The new mild hybrid system applies G.M. engineering advancements gained from production of multiple generations of hybrid technology—as well as development of the Chevy Volt—to deliver three times the assist power compared to G.M.’s previous mild hybrids. The system provides up to 15 kW of electricity from regenerative braking to charge the battery, and up to 15 horsepower of electric power assistance during acceleration. Apparently, the company is bundling mild hybrid technology into a suite of fuel efficiency strategies under the “eAssist” name. The list of strategies includes more efficient small engines, better aerodynamics, low rolling resistance tires, active control of front-end airflow, and an interactive “ecoguage” on the dashboard.
Ford uses the term “ecoBoost” for turbo and direct injection and other strategies, but separates hybrids into a higher level of efficiency improvement.
The new and improved hybrid system to be used in 2010 LaCrosse, due out in mid-2011, has been in the works since 2009, when G.M. discontinued the Chevy Malibu Hybrid, Saturn Vue Hybrid, and Saturn Aura Hybrid. In August 2010, we reported that Larry Nitz, engineering director for hybrid electric powertrain engineering for G.M. global product operations, said that mild hybrids are an important part of the company’s efficiency program. “After we’ve explored everything in a conventional system, the next logical step is in mild hybrids, then strong hybrids and electrics,” Nitz said.