Das Hybrid

The Volkswagen L1 concept is an important car not so much for what it is than what it represents: a dramatic change in how the German auto maker views the midterm future of the automobile. VW, the largest auto maker in Europe, with aspirations to be No.1 globally, introduced the L1 at the recent Frankfurt auto show. It is a sleek carbon-fiber concept that has an astonishing combined fuel-economy rating of 170 mpg (1.38 L/100 km) and carbon-dioxide emissions of a mere 36 g/km.

The Volkswagen L1 concept is an important car not so much for what it is than what it represents: a dramatic change in how the German auto maker views the midterm future of the automobile.

VW, the largest auto maker in Europe, with aspirations to be No.1 globally, introduced the L1 at the recent Frankfurt auto show. It is a sleek carbon-fiber concept that has an astonishing combined fuel-economy rating of 170 mpg (1.38 L/100 km) and carbon-dioxide emissions of a mere 36 g/km.

Not surprisingly, the primary power source is an ultra-efficient direct-injection 0.8L 2-cyl. turbodiesel. What raises eyebrows is the fact the L1 is a hybrid-electric vehicle, with a 13-hp electric motor that can supply 40% additional torque over the entire engine operating range.

It was not long ago the VW, Audi, Mercedes, BMW and Porsche brands seemed to unilaterally dismiss HEVs as little more than a fad.

“On normal distances, hybrid is nonsense,” said former VW CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder in 2005, complaining about the cost of combining two powertrains when a single diesel is more consistently efficient and provides more spirited performance.

“Hybrids, in our summation, are in the end the worst compromise, because you put everything in the car that has to be prepared for all situations. You add weight and you deteriorate performance,” former BMW Chairman Helmut Panke said in 2003.

The Germans insisted improved versions of the diesel engine, in which they already were heavily invested, were the best means of hitting new fuel-efficiency and CO2-reduction targets.

Now VW says it might even put the L1 into production by 2013.

In other words, VW's ‘Das Auto’ (The Car) slogan used in much of its global advertising now includes hybrids.

The German brands have been long-time proponents of electric cars powered by hydrogen fuel-cells as the ultimate goal for pollution-free transportation, but the idea of using electric motors connected to internal-combustion gasoline or diesel engines as an interim step is a relatively new development.

In the past several years, the alternative powertrain landscape has changed dramatically. The outlook for fuel cells has dimmed while interest in plug-in HEVs and pure-electric powertrains has surged.

Other European auto makers such as PSA Peugeot Citroen and Renault SA-Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. have pounced on the opportunity to tout diesel-electric HEVs and pure-electric vehicles.

The Germans steadily have been softening their positions against HEVs, forming hybrid technology-development partnerships among themselves and including General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC.

In part, it reflects the realization that many U.S. consumers won't accept diesels, no matter how clean they become.

“The German OEMs reluctantly jumped on the hybrid bandwagon starting with the Mercedes S-Class mild hybrid. They have tried to convince Americans that diesels are the way to go but have had limited success,” says Michael Omotoso, senior manager-Global Powertrain at J.D. Power & Associates Inc.

“Meanwhile, Toyota (Motor Corp.) has been successfully selling the Prius (HEV) here for nine years and selling over 100,000 units per year since 2005. So if you can't beat 'em, join 'em,” he says.

The larger-displacement diesel engines currently powering big luxury sedans and trucks, such as the BMW 7-Series and Mercedes G- and M-Class, also could prove problematic down the road with toughening oxides-of-nitrogen emissions regulations coming in the U.S. and Europe.

“The present era of the automobile would be inconceivable without highly efficient gasoline and diesel engines. But the future will most certainly belong to the electric motors refueled at the electrical outlet,” VW Chairman Martin Winterkorn says last year during the introduction of a small test fleet of “TwinDrive” plug-in HEV Golfs.

“On the way to this future, our TDI (diesel) and TSI (direct-injection gasoline) engines are now being merged with electric motors and extremely efficient battery systems to form a new drive system,” he says.

German auto makers certainly are not giving up on diesels, but the Frankfurt show underscores a change of heart about how important a role HEVs — incorporating diesels or gasoline engines — will play in the next 10 years.

In addition to the L1 and TwinDrive PHEVs, VW and its Audi AG unit also soon will offer cross/utility vehicles with hybrid powertrains similar to the Porsche Cayenne hybrid. Mercedes-Benz and BMW are introducing a flurry of new HEV concepts and products.

At Frankfurt, Mercedes showed off the Vision S500 PHEV, a plug-in hybrid S-Class that can drive up to 18 miles (29 km) solely under electric power. The auto maker claims the big car will achieve 74 mpg (3.2 L/100 km) in the new European driving cycle.

The drive system in the concept car consists of three main components: a gas V-6 with a next-generation direct fuel-injection system, a 60-hp electric motor and a lithium-ion battery. With this package, Mercedes says the car will accelerate to 60 mph (97 km/h) in 5.5 seconds.

Mercedes is vague about when it might introduce the S500 PHEV, but it will offer two other HEVs in the U.S. as '10 models, the S400 hybrid sedan and ML450 Hybrid CUV.

The S400 is a mild HEV, with only a 20-hp electric motor that behaves mostly as a stop/start system. Even so, Mercedes claims with a 275-hp, 3.5L gas V-6, the S400 will deliver 19/26 mpg (12-9 L/100 km) city/highway, 26% better than the V-8 S550 sedan.

However, the ML450 Hybrid is a full hybrid, using the dual-mode technology co-developed with GM, BMW and Daimler. It features a 3.5L gas V-6 and two magneto-electric motors to produce 30% better fuel economy than a comparable V-8-powered ML550.

BMW also will launch an X6 HEV at the end of the year and a 7-Series hybrid next April. The auto maker is focusing on high-end HEVs because they can achieve greater relative fuel savings, compared with their conventional counterparts, and “because (high-end) customers can afford them better,” says Jim O'Donnell, president of BMW North America LLC.

BMW calls the new ActiveHybrid X6 “the world's fastest all-wheel-drive hybrid.” It combines a twin-turbo V-8 with two electric motors. Compared with the conventional X6, it is 20% more fuel-efficient, the auto maker says.

BMW claims the ActiveHybrid 7-Series is “the first car in the world to combine a gasoline V-8, 8-speed automatic transmission and an electric motor as a mild-hybrid concept. The electric motor basically serves as an “electric turbo” and means the HEV's acceleration is even better than that of the standard V-8-powered 750i, even though it delivers 15% better fuel economy.

Despite hedging their bets with HEVs, all the major German auto makers still adamantly support diesel sales in the U.S.

J.D. Power's Omotoso points out VW is selling all the Jetta Sportwagen TDIs it can build, and Audi sells a diesel version of the Q7 CUV and A3 hatchback.

“I think if we do it properly, and the price of diesel (fuel) remains at a small premium above regular gas (in the U.S.), we could get 10% or 20% of our mix with diesel,” BMW's O'Donnell says. “That will help us in terms of (corporate average fuel economy).”

O'Donnell says the auto maker, which began offering oil-burners for the first time in the U.S. late last year with the performance-oriented 335d sedan and X5 xDrive 35d CUV, initially struggled with how to position the powertrain option for the market.

However, O'Donnell says the auto maker “is coming closer to achieving that sweet spot,” which likely will place more emphasis on economy and pairing diesels with AWD to make the powertrain more appealing to key markets in the snowy Northeast.

“I think the message is the X5 diesel is a very sensible car to have and easily could rise up to 30% (diesel) or maybe even above that,” he says.

Still, Omotoso says Audi's Q5 CUV will get a hybrid powertrain in late 2010, and Porsche will add Cayenne CUV and Panamera sedan HEVs by 2011.

HEV versions of the VW Jetta and Touareg CUV can be expected “within two years,” Omotoso says, but the only true non-luxury, low-cost model coming from the Germans anytime soon likely will be a Jetta HEV, Omotoso says.

The Jetta HEV is likely to be a mild hybrid in the $20,000-$26,000 range.

“VW's lower-cost fuel economy solutions will continue to be the Jetta TDI and possibly the Polo, Golf and Up minicar with small gasoline engines,” he says.

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