Plug-in Hybrids Headed to Tokyo Auto Show

There was a long parade of plug-in cars at last month’s Frankfurt Auto Show. This month, it’s Japan’s turn to unveil a new crop of plug-in hybrids at the Tokyo Motor Show, which opens to the public on Oct. 24. Mitsubishi and Suzuki are the first two companies to announce plans to unveil plug-in hybrids.

The Mitsubishi Concept PX-MiEV plug-in crossover uses two electric motors to power front and rear wheels—and a 1.6-liter gasoline engine, which can power the front wheels or work as a generator. The company is claiming fuel economy around 120 miles per gallon—using Japan’s mixed-road test—but MPG numbers are becoming irrelevant in a world when cars increasingly run on electrons. The unveiling of the PX-MiEV follows the production launch in Japan of the company’s i-MiEV all-electric city car.

Flexibility is the theme for the PX-MiEV’s technology. Mitsubishi developed a new plug-in hybrid system, which analyzes power requirements and battery state of charge to choose one of three modes. At low and mid-range speeds, an EV mode employs the lithium ion battery pack to power the front motor for front-wheel drive. When the battery is depleted to a certain level, the system employs a series hybrid mode, using the gasoline engine to send power directly to both front and rear motors (although apparently not to recharge the batteries.) And at higher vehicle speeds, the gas engine also helps drive the wheels.

Mitsubishi Concept PX-MiEV plug-in crossover
Mitsubishi Concept PX-MiEV plug-in crossover

Under bad weather conditions, the system can engage both front and rear motors for four-wheel drive, regardless of vehicle speed.

Mitsubishi throws in lots of concept auto show goodies, including LED head- and rear-maps; an aerodynamic shell-like metal appearance; seat upholstery that deactivates allergens and kills bacteria; airplane cockpit instrumental panels; and wireless charging for programming charge times. Mitsubishi is also looking to the future when vehicle-to-grid becomes more feasible by creating a “power supply mode” to allow owners to use onboard stored energy to power home appliances—or in the short run to run campsite electricity via a 100-volt AC auxiliary socket.

The gadget list continues with a “multi-around monitor” system using cameras located around the car, and an on-board receiver to receive signals about vehicles or pedestrians in the driver’s path. Finally, the Mitsubishi Concept PX-MiEV is fitted with an electronically-controlled air suspension that gives the driver the choice of three ride height modes.

Bloomberg reports that Mitsubishi aims to introduce a similar vehicle around 2013. “Mitsubishi needs to have an eco-car in its mainstay SUV lineup, in addition to small electric cars,” said Masatoshi Nishimoto, a Tokyo-based analyst at auto consulting company CSM Worldwide. “Boosting SUV sales is critical for the company.”

Suzuki Plugs In

Suzuki Swift Plug-in Hybrid
Suzuki Swift Plug-in Hybrid

Suzuki Swift Plug-in Hybrid

Certainly, more plug-in hybrids will get added to the Tokyo schedule in the days leading up to the show’s media program. For example, Suzuki announced that it will show the Swift Plug-in Hybrid, a pure-play series hybrid mimicking the approach of the Chevy Volt. The Swift’s 660cc engine acts exclusively as a generator to recharge the car’s
lithium ion batteries, which in turn supply power to an electric motor to drive the wheels.

The battery placement runs down the center of the car. Designers generously provide a window through the center to give a view of the battery pack.

Suzuki gave the Swift concept re-worked headlights and re-styled wheels. The interior features a different trim and has lightweight front seats.

At the Tokyo show, Suzuki will also display the SX4-FCV fuel cell concept car, which combines a GM-built fuel cell stack and a Suzuki-developed hydrogen tank. The car is currently being tested on Japanese public roads. But the more immediate Suzuki hybrid is the Suzuki Kizashi Hybrid, which combines a 2.4 liter four-cylinder gas engine. According to Nikkei, Suzuki is planning to offer a hybrid version of the Kizashi in the United States in 2011.