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Hybrid Cars Newsletter: Issue No. 033
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IN THIS ISSUE:
Battery Problem with First-Gen Hybrids
All cars face repair bills after hitting 100,000 miles or more. Did we think hybrids would be any different?
Green News from Frankfurt: Reality Check
Green was all the rage at this year’s Frankfurt International Motor Show, Sept. 13 – 23. We look at the vehicle unveilings in Frankfurt and give our ratings: Coming Soon, Way Out, or Maybe Never. Also: Daimler CEO in the Green Hot Seat.
Hybrid Press Releases from Chrysler and Volkswagen
Chrysler and Volkswagen, considered hybrid laggards, each issued press releases about their big plans to develop hybrid and electric-drive vehicles. Both are steps in the right direction, but neither includes much detail about products or launch timelines.
GM and Toyota Face Off on Future of Hybrids
The nuances of hybrid car technology are almost completely lost to the average car buyer. But those distinctions have led to an escalating battle of words between Toyota and General Motors regarding their competing visions for the next generation of hybrid cars.
Greetings, Hybrid Car Enthusiasts,
It’s a fascinating time in the evolution of the hybrid car industry. The product releases for new hybrid vehicles have ground to a near standstill, while the announcements about future hybrids and other ground-breaking technology have gone from 0-to-60 in a heartbeat. There are two schools of thought regarding this enormous gap between the buzz about green, and fuel-efficient cars and vehicles that can be purchased today: We could cast doubt on the sincerity of the announcements – and some skepticism is in order – or we could hail it as a great nascent period just before an unprecedented wave of innovation and expanding consumer choice. We don’t entirely know where we are going, but this newsletter takes a snapshot of where the industry is today. Enjoy.
From the first days when hybrids hit American roads in 2000, consumers have worried about expensive battery replacement costs. But reported cases of hybrid battery failure have been almost impossible to find. Suddenly, in the last couple of days, there were two posts in the HybridCars.com discussion forum from hybrid owners with battery woes.
Kayhud wrote, “I have 150,000 miles on my 2001 Prius and now need a new hybrid battery as well as the battery that controls the computer. The price is $4,000 – $5,000 in parts and $1,000 in labor.” Kayhud is considering the payment, if new batteries will buy another 150,000 miles for the six-year-old Prius.
StuckeyC37 wrote, “As I was driving home the other day, the IMA light came on my 2003 Civic Hybrid. I took it into my local Honda dealership. Of course, they said the battery pack needs to be replaced at a cost of $4,500.”
Most cars face some significant repair at the 100,000- or 150,000-mile mark. The real-world experiences of owners with first-generation hybrids—now clocking mileage into six figures—will be the real test of the longevity of hybrid batteries. It also will test to what degree carmakers and dealerships are committed to respond to any bonafide problems with cost-effective solutions.
Green was 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.
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 some time in 2009.
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…
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 all could be 10 years older and grayer before GM sells a plug-in diesel hybrid.
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.
Also, check out excerpts from Der Spiegel’s interview with Dieter Zetsche, CEO of Daimler, at the Frankfurt show. When Zetsche said, “We are no longer developing any cars without a hybrid option,” Der Spiegel asked the why question.
SPIEGEL: Out of conviction or because that’s what the market wants?
Zetsche: Out of conviction that it’s what the market wants. But I also have to say this: Some are currently touting the hybrid as our only salvation when it comes to automotive technology. It can’t be, partly because the higher price limits its marketability. We expect worldwide hybrid sales to increase to 1 million cars by 2010. That would be just under 2 percent of total automobile sales. Compare that to the worldwide production of clean diesel vehicles — about 13 million in 2010.
SPIEGEL: Everyone is calling for economical cars, and yet gas-guzzling SUVs are booming in Germany. Does the consumer have a split personality?
Zetsche: There simply is no typical consumer. But many of our customers, even those who buy SUVs, have long opted for the clean and economical diesel engines we offer for these models. Of course, there are also drivers who always want the sportiest and most powerful version, while at the same time insisting that cars should not be allowed to have any CO2 emissions anymore.
HYBRID PRESS RELEASES FROM CHRYSLER AND VOLKSWAGEN
Within days of the Zetsche telling Der Spiegel that all Daimler cars will be developed with a hybrid option, Chrysler—now owned by a private-equity firm—announced the creation of new division, called ENVI, to develop hybrid and electric vehicles. This news, and the story from the week before that Chrysler lured hybrid advocate Jim Press away from Toyota, indicates a new seriousness about fuel efficiency from Chrysler.
That’s welcome, considering that Chrysler’s 2007 lineup has the worst average fuel economy of the six top-selling automakers. Its only hybrid offering in the works is the chunky 2009 Dodge Durango/Chrysler Aspen SUV. A week later, auto industry pundits began frothing over Volkswagen’s promise to roll out hybrid technology across its entire vehicle lineup. In an interview with German auto industry weekly Automobilwoche, Ulrich Hackenberg, VW’s development head, explained that “future VW models will also be constructed with hybrid concepts.” Few details were provided about VW’s plans. VW has been a leader in diesel technology, but has fallen behind in the diesel-hybrid field as both Mercedes-Benz and Peugeot announce plans to sell diesel-hybrid cars in 2010.
The nuances of hybrid car technology—such as the difference between a series and parallel plug-in hybrid—are almost completely lost to the average car buyer. But those distinctions have led to an escalating battle of words between Toyota and General Motors regarding their competing visions for the next generation of hybrid cars.
Writing in Toyota’s “Open Road Blog,” Irv Miller, group vice president of corporate communications, took direct aim at GM’s Chevy Volt series hybrid concept. Miller accused GM of using “hyperbole” to overstate the benefits of the technology, and advised customers who want a series hybrid to “cross their fingers and wait.” In bold type, Miller wrote, “There are no automotive series hybrids in mass production that actually work. They simply don’t exist.”
In basic terms, a parallel hybrid uses power from the gasoline engine an electric motor, in combination or each separately, to drive the axle. In a series hybrid, the gasoline engine is used exclusively to power the electric motor and batteries, which in turn, drive the axle. (Technically, Toyota systems are series/parallel.) Many industry observers believe that a series hybrid design makes sense only in hybrids with plug-in capabilities and next-generation lithium ion batteries.
It’s entirely uncharacteristic for Toyota to publicly comment on future products—its own plans or those of its competitors. But GM’s vision of a plug-in electric vehicle that can travel 40 miles without using a drop of gasoline and a driving range of more than 500 miles—supported by ads for the Chevy Volt on television, on the sides of buildings, in print and on AM radio—has apparently provoked Toyota into a response.
Toyota began selling hybrids 10 years ago and has sold more than one million hybrid cars globally. General Motors only recently became convinced of the merits of hybrids, and has managed to sell only a few thousand hybrids. With virtually nothing to lose, GM has devised a more speculative series hybrid plug-in vehicle in the form of the Chevy Volt—and is running ads even before the underpinning technology has been proven, and at least a few years before the vehicle hits the market.
The success of the Volt’s engineering will take years to determine. But as long as Toyota feels compelled to contrast its existing hybrids with the stunning vision of the Volt, GM will continue to win the battle for the hearts and minds of consumers wanting the next great thing.
We delved pretty deep into the wilds of auto industry positioning on hybrids this issue. We look forward to turning our attention to more practical matters in the coming months, like the upcoming release of GM’s SUV hybrids. And as soon as those sizable vehicles roar into showrooms, it’ll be time to evaluate what’s ahead in the world of fuel efficiency and green transportation for 2008. Stay tuned.