Electrifying – for some

Posted on Sep 18, 2009 by


Low carbon is the key issue at the Frankfurt Auto Show. This biennial event lacks some of the big players (Honda, Nissan and Mitsubishi are notable absentees) but is still the world’s biggest car show, occupying all 11 halls of the Frankfurt Messe show ground.

The emphasis on low and zero-emissions models was hardly surprising given the environmental agenda that covers most of Europe and the EU law requiring car manufacturers to achieve lower levels of carbon dioxide from 2012.

The variety of solutions is intriguing. There are pure electric cars on most manufacturers’ stands but clearly some car makers are more convinced than others. The champion of the plug-ins is Renault which presents four EVs, two of which are based on production models – the new Fluence sedan and the Kangoo van – and will be available in early 2011 and two are prototypes of purpose-built electric cars for launch in the following year.

Renault has bet the farm on electrics. Its 4 billion Euro programme has no hybrids and Renault does not believe that the hydrogen fuel cell has a near-term future. It predicts that by 2020, 10 percent of the global new car market will be electric and that, as the pioneer among mass-producers, its own sales could be more than 20 percent EVs.

2011 Nissan LEAF electric carRenault shares the electrical hardware – motors, batteries and control systems – with alliance partner Nissan, which has a somewhat different launch strategy, using a dedicated EV platform for its Leaf hatchback. The Nissan-Renault lithium-ion battery packs are designed to give 160km before needing recharging.

All the talk in Frankfurt is of range anxiety (customers concerned about being stranded with flat batteries) and charging infrastructure but the truth is that, for most people in most circumstances, the pure EV is a supplementary car for short journeys in and around towns.

In some ways the most significant of the Renault EVs is the Twizy, a tandem two-seater with a canopy that is a kind of four-wheeled city scooter. The production version, due in late 2011, will not be very different from the concept. It will be classified as a quadricycle and will not have to meet the full panoply of safety regulations

Renault says that leasing companies are proposing deals whereby the EV customers can have easy access to a larger car (with a combustion engine) for venturing further afield. Increasing the number of cars in use may not be what the environmentalists had in mind…

Renault’s French rival Peugeot has plenty of electric vehicle experience (it produced an  electric 106 between 1995 and 2003) but has only recently returned to the idea along with its long-anticipated but much delayed diesel-hybrid system. That will appear first in the new 3008 crossover and also offers four-wheel drive as a result of a separating the electric drive motors at the rear from the front-wheel drive diesel powertrain. Peugeot Citroen’s new chairman Philippe Varin said: ‘We don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket, especially since we don’t know how big the basket is’.

Peugeot has taken a short cut to pure electrics by buying the Mitsubishi i-MiEV and renaming it the iOn; there will also be a Citroen version as yet unnamed (and not shown in Frankfurt).

Interesting that Peugeot should link with Mitsubishi for this venture as the i-Car on which the i-MiEV is based is, in effect, a four-door, four-seat Smart ForTwo using the same rear-mounted Mitsubishi engine. Mercedes announced its own Smart ED last year and has used its 10 per cent investment in the American Tesla company to develop its battery and control system.

The Smart ED will be out and about next year.  Whilst the little Smart is an obvious candidate for electrification, for Mercedes models the company is taking a broader approach. It presents a series of technical solutions under the banner Concept BlueZero, the latest of which is E-Cell Plus which is an electric car with a small three-cylinder petrol engine as a range extender.

The current Mercedes A- and B-class are ideal for alternative drive systems as they are tall and have a double ‘sandwich’ floor which can accommodate batteries, fuel cell or hydrogen tanks. The Blue Zero cars are based the next generation B-class which continues with the sandwich architecture; the replacement for the A-class will be a conventional transverse-engine front-wheel drive car.

Unveiling the Mercedes S500 Plug-in Hybrid, which can run for 30 km on electric power alone and has an official fuel consumption figure of  3.2 litres/100 km (lower than the Smart diesel), Daimler chief executive Dieter Zetsche said: ‘We have developed a modular system that allows us to use these new technologies in various combinations. At this time of uncertainty it is risky to forget any of the possible directions’.

2009 Audi e-tron conceptVolkswagen, the largest European car company, had looked as if it was running behind in this race to go electric. The Audi e-tron, a kind of electric R8 to challenge the Telsa Roadster, isn’t very convincing and the little e-up! EV isn’t slated for production before 2013. CEO Martin Winterkorn forecasts only 1.5% EVs by 2020.

But then on the first preview day of the show Volkswagen trumped everyone with the L1 concept.

L1 is a development of the ‘1 litre’ technology demonstrator that VW wheeled out seven years ago. The 1 litre didn’t refer to the engine displacement but to the fuel consumption of 1 litre/100 km. VW chairman Ferdinand Piech drove the original from Wolfsburg to Hamburg for Volkswagen’s Annual general meeting.

2009 Volkswagen L1 ConceptL1 is a tandem two-seater like Renault’s Twizy but way more sophisticated. It has a moulded carbon-fibre chassis like a race car with a hybrid power train installed behind the passenger. The 800 cc twin-cylinder TDI diesel engine, an electric motor, a clutch system and a seven-speed DSG transmission are installed in a transverse unit that is about the size of a Formula 1 gearbox. The cigar-shaped L1, which weighs only 380 kg, has a record-breaking drag coefficient of 0.195.

Volkswagen claims that the L1 is the world’s most fuel-efficient car. It will do 160km/h and has a combined fuel consumption of 1.38 litres/100 km. The 10 kW electric motor plays a relatively minor role in this exceptional ratio of performance and fuel economy and one senses that is VW’s message: electric cars are coming but don’t forget that the combustion engine still has a long life ahead of it.

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