With many manufacturers now releasing hybrid-equipped cars, the next wave of interest has been plug-in models spun off these products. GM leads the fray, with the Chevrolet Volt becoming an increasingly common sight on American roads. GM’s Cadillac luxury brand has made a significant splash with the announcement of the ELR Coupe based off the Volt’s powertrain. Not to be outdone, Toyota recently confirmed a 2012 Prius Plug-in Hybrid (PHEV). While not a series hybrid in the sense of the GM Voltec cars, it will still offer enough purely electric range that in certain conditions the gas engine may not switch on at all.
Crucially, the plug-in hybrid solution is appealing to both consumers and manufacturers as it offers gasoline range and electric silence and green options. The decisions automakers are arriving at with their respective plug-in hybrid solutions rests on their choice of either the parallel or series hybrid route.
In a parallel hybrid such as the Prius, the gasoline engine has a direct mechanical link to the transmission, with the hybrid motor either sandwiched between, or added elsewhere to the drivetrain. Manufacturers using this solution for their upcoming plug-in hybrids typically are building off expertise and technology developed for non-plug-in hybrids.
The Voltec powertrain on the other hand is an example of a series hybrid, where the gas engine has no, or limited mechanical connection to the transmission. The Fisker Karma luxury sedan is a better example of the series hybrid concept, with zero mechanical connection to the transmission from its 260hp GM-derived gas engine.
Why a plug-in hybrid at all? Range is the most commonly considered reason for the expense and complexity of developing the solution. While many of us drive only a handful of miles a day, there are plenty of instances (say on a weekend) where we might get a chance to stretch our wheels a bit – a limitation the Leaf or other EV doesn’t have a solution for.
So who is coming out with plug-in hybrids and when?
So far the confirmed list of manufacturers who currently offer a PHEV vehicle for 2012 is a short list that includes Chevrolet, Ford, Honda, Toyota, and Fisker. For 2013/2014 launches the list of offerings swells to include Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Hyundai, Porsche, Suzuki, Volkswagen, and Volvo.
Chevy will increase production of the ground-breaking Volt in 2012, and open sales to all markets nationally. Currently the Volt has only been offered in select cities that showed the most interest in being early adopters. Ford enters the PHEV fold with the C-Max Energi. While final specs have yet to be released, Ford is aiming for a 500 mile total driving range (150 miles greater than the Volt) and a full charge from a night spent with a 120V outlet. The C-Max is a new-for-2012 offering from Ford that is a blend of a compact hatchback and an upright minivan, similar to the Mazda5. The current C-Max has been on-sale in Europe for several years, and has been a resounding success. Fisker’s Karma sedan has been making the media tour for the past few months, and dealers are finally beginning to deliver the first production versions with the first allegedly going to actor Leonardo DiCaprio. Sales of the $100,000 PHEV are guaranteed from several thousand committed initial orders. The Karma sedan will be joined in 2013 with a coupe and convertible version, with the convertible attaining the distinction of being the first PHEV to drop its top.
Honda has offered few clues as to which model will offer its PHEV option, but has shown the powertrain in an Accord demonstrator. The powertrain is reported to be designed for mid-to-large size vehicles and offers 12 miles of purely electric driving. Toyota’s PHEV entrant is based on the popular Prius, and will also offer a purely electric range of 12-13 miles before the ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) kicks back in. Sales for this model start this fall.
Audi has announced it will offer a partially-electrified version of its A4 sedan beginning in 2014. While details are still scarce, it is understood that Audi will likely expand the use of a PHEV powertrain into other models in due course. BMW recently announced the i3 and i8 EVs. The i8 coupe comes standard with an ICE range extender, while the subcompact i3 will only offer a range extender as an option. Cadillac comes to the luxury PHEV market with its aforementioned ELR, which promises to marry the sharp lines of the CTS Coupe with the Volt powertrain.
Hyundai is a newcomer to hybrids, having only just launched the Sonata with a conventional hybrid mill. Nevertheless, aggressive Hyundai doesn’t wait to introduce enhancements to its product lines and has been testing a plug-in variant of its hybrid system for several years now. Which model will get the system remains to be seen, but Hyundai has confirmed it will be coming in 2013.
Porsche might seem an unlikely car maker to be introducing a PHEV, but having just launched a mild hybrid system in its Panamera sedan and Cayenne SUV, it is readying the world for a serious push into PHEVs. The first model is the 918 supercar, which will be the fastest PHEV road car on the market – and one of the fastest cars on the road, period, when it touches down in 2013. Too bad it will also easily be the most expensive hybrid car yet built. Suzuki on the other hand will be making its PHEV offering far more attainable, yet mostly for Japanese consumption. If sales are brisk, a VISA for American sale is likely.
In a push to get the public to reconsider what is possible in not just powertrains but overall footprint as well, Volkswagen confirmed that it will bring the radical XL1 hypermiler coupe to production with a diesel PHEV that promises mileage of 260 miles per gallon. With a body that seems to be the love child of an Audi R8 and a Isetta bubble car, the XL1 will herald a new way forward in better using the resources used to build a car as well as power it. Finally Volvo confirmed its â€œnaughtyâ€ V60 sport wagon will come to the United States, also with a diesel PHEV.
With these upcoming models offering plug-in motoring for a variety of lifestyles and pocketbooks, there might very well be something for everyone to consider by 2014. As our fuel prices continue to rise, and the public finally accepting that we have to change our lifestyles or else face the dire consequences of our inaction, the PHEV is one tiny piece of that puzzle. Hopefully auto makers will continue their aggressive push to remove weight and materials from every new car, as these technologically advanced engines are most effective when they have less weight to push around. Nevertheless, from compact to supercar, indications are that CEOs at the world’s automakers have seen the writing on the wall and are doing their part to curb our energy usage behind the wheel.