The new breed of hybrids could revolutionize the electric car — and do so with style to spare
If gas prices are making you feel like you’re being charged up the arse to plug empty space in your tank, it might be time for a hybrid.
Before you stick your plug where it don’t belong, though, here’s a little science lesson. The Toyota Prius and all the rest of the hybrids available today are essentially gas-powered vehicles with batteries that provide extra power when needed. None of the hybrids from established automakers can currently be plugged in and run on battery power alone.
But that’s all going to change. Get a shock out of these, and start saving up.
2010 Chevy Volt
Unveiled at the 2007 Detroit auto show, the Chevy Volt is the first production model developed by General Motors since the notorious EV1 that was engineered from the ground up as an electric car. Its lithium ion batteries — essentially scaled-up laptop batteries — can be plugged into household current for a range of about 40 miles. After that, a small gas engine cycles on and off to charge the batteries, extending range to about 300 miles. Think of the Volt as a pure electric car with a back-up generator.
The cool part is that the back-up could someday be a diesel engine or hydrogen fuel cell, as in the Chevy Equinox test fleet currently being tested in Los Angeles, New York and D.C. Keep in mind: Electricity costs about one-sixth the price of gasoline.
Driving an electric car is pure ecstasy. Electric motors produce loads of torque instantly. Step on the joy pedal, and you feel a whoosh of acceleration with almost no noise. It’s an absolute delight. The Volt’s powertrain produces 150 horsepower and 273 lb.-ft. of torque, allowing the car to reach a top speed of 100 mph. The Volt is like a swift jet where all other cars are piston-driven cargo planes.
The blogosphere is ablaze with nasty-grams to GM because the original concept was a low-slung sedan with future Camaro looks, while actual production versions are as advanced as a Mars Lander, though taller and smoother to improve range-extending aerodynamics. A flush grille, sleek mirrors, ground hugging bodysides and integrated decklid spoiler greet and displace air with minimum turbulence.
If GM holds out, the Volt will arrive in 2010 and literally reinvent the automobile. It employs technology that has never before come together to give the benefits of a pure electric car without the limitations. Finally, an electric car with stamina.
Prices are expected to start around $40,000.
2010 Toyota Prius and Honda Insight
Competing with GM are Honda and Toyota, which will launch two stunning hybrids of their own. At October’s Paris auto show, Honda electrified audiences with its second-generation Insight.
Honda’s hybrid offers the convenience of a five-door sedan and futuristic styling that conveys class-leading fuel economy and performance. Honda will not stop its technology display with the Insight. Soon after the Insight launches, it will introduce a sporty hybrid based on the CR-Z Concept, like a modern-day CRX, from the 2007 Tokyo Motor Show. Honda has also become the first automaker to offer a fuel cell-powered vehicle — the Clarity — that was designed from the start to run on hydrogen. It is being test marketed in California, mostly to high-profile Hollywood types like Jamie Lee Curtis.
Meanwhile, Toyota is preparing its third-generation Prius for debut at January’s Detroit auto show. Spy shots are circulating on the Web and show the car will offer additional features and improved mileage, but won’t stray far from the current model’s profile and utility. Once Toyota locks onto a formula for success, it bites like a bitch on a broom. Toyota is also developing a plug-in version of the Prius, which will likely give drivers as much as 20 miles of pure electric power. It is no Volt, but will be a much cheaper date for those of us not endowed with huge bank accounts.
Honda Insights will start under $20,000; the new Prius will be under $24,000. Expect plug-in versions of the Prius to reach $30,000.
The entire catalogue
Sexy toys like the Chevy Volt, Honda Insight and Toyota Prius will stun drivers with their technology and are what most of us envision as hybrids. However, we’ve moved way beyond one flavor or form. Like other "appliances," there are hybrids for every budget and desire.
There are mid-size sedans like the Toyota Camry ($28,050), Chevy Malibu ($26,225), Saturn Aura ($26,685) and upcoming Ford Fusion/Mercury Milan hybrids.
Lexus has a limousine-sized LS600h ($105,885) and sport sedan GS430h ($56,400), as well as the RX400h crossover ($42,080). Toyota sells a hybrid version of the three-row Highlander crossover ($35,445), which competes with the Mercury Mariner ($29,750) Ford Escape ($29,305), and Saturn Vue ($28,625) hybrids. Saturn is developing a plug-in version of the Vue for 2011.
And how do we rectify full-size SUVs and pickups that can pull big trailers and get good fuel economy? General Motors, Daimler, Chrysler and BMW teamed to develop a two-mode hybrid system that can optimize power for towing or for fuel economy. The system can be found in the Chevy Tahoe ($51,405), GMC Yukon ($50,945), Cadillac Escalade ($72,865), Chevy Silverado/GMC Sierra (est. $45,000), Dodge Durango (est. $45,000), Chrysler Aspen (est. $48,000) and upcoming editions of larger BMW and Mercedes models. Large hybrids will never achieve 50 mpg fuel economy, but they get in-town fuel economy comparable to mid-size sedans.
If what you really want is a pure electric car, forget the GM EV1 â€“ it’s extinct. But the $109,000 Tesla Roadster, based on the Lotus Elite, has found favor with wealthy Californians. Mini and Smart are launching electrics in Europe with plans to test market them in the U.S. Chrysler recently showed electric versions of the Jeep Wrangler, Chrysler Town and Country mini-van and a Dodge sports car while announcing its intent to produce at least one. If a handcrafted exotic tempts you, the Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid is blow-me sexy and will sell for $80,000.
We are chasing electrically powered transportation that will get its juice from coal, wind, solar, gasoline, diesel, hydrogen, ethanol and many nuclear power plants that will likely be built over the next couple of decades. Tug your plug; the age of the electric automobile is near.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice Drive print edition Fall, 2008.