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LA Auto Show: Attack of the 3-Ton Hybrids

Automakers show off hybrids, hydrogen fuel-cell concepts, and their thriftiest vehicles at the "green auto show"

4 min read

Los Angeles—You know what a hybrid car looks like—the Toyota Prius, right? At least that was the prevailing wisdom before this year’s Los Angeles Auto Show in mid-November.

Now a ”hybrid electric vehicle” may well be a 2500-kilogram sport-utility vehicle with a huge V8 engine. General Motors and Chrysler together now have no fewer than five of them. But underscoring the cost of developing hybrid systems, all five—new versions of the Cadillac Escalade, Chevrolet Tahoe, Chrysler Aspen, Dodge Dakota, and GMC Yukon—use the same Two-Mode Hybrid transmission, jointly engineered by GM, Daimler and Chrysler, and BMW.

The Chevrolet Tahoe Two-Mode Hybrid even won the widely publicized Green Car of the Year award, presented annually by Green Car Journal . (Its jury included such luminaries as talk-show host Jay Leno.) Weighing in at about 2500 kg, the Tahoe Hybrid is the first of a long string of GM vehicles to be offered with the Two-Mode Hybrid system.

Using the same space as GM’s six-speed automatic transmission, the Two-Mode Hybrid system is made up of four fixed gears, two 40-kilowatt sustained electric motors, and three planetary gear sets. With a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack, it improves the Tahoe’s city fuel economy 50 percent, from 17 liters per 100 kilometers to 11 L/100 km (14 to 21 miles per gallon). As GM has noted frequently, that’s the same city mileage as a nonhybrid 4-cylinder Toyota Camry.

A test-drive in a hybrid Tahoe some weeks earlier showed that GM has achieved its goal for the truck—to improve mileage substantially while offering the same passenger- and load-carrying capacity as a full-size sport utility. Driving the Tahoe Hybrid feels familiar, except that the engine node is disconnected from the accelerator and speed: it decides for itself when to replace or supplement engine power with electric propulsion, so anticipated shift points arrive later, or not at all.

The Tahoe has many subtle changes to offset the added mass of the hybrid transmission and battery. Some body panels are aluminum, the roof rails have been removed for better aerodynamics, and an entirely new front grille and fascia assembly improves airflow, lowering front ground clearance to 15 centimeters (6 inches).

In contrast, said Glenn Denomme, Chrysler’s chief engineer for hybrid power-train systems, the Hemi Hybrid models of the Dodge Dakota and Chrysler Aspen add the Two-Mode system to an otherwise unchanged version of the standard SUV. ”Even with hybrid mileage, our customers want the full vehicle with the same capacities as the standard version,” he said.

Not discussed was the source of battery packs for these vehicles—Panasonic, a company most often associated with Toyota. When asked if he was confident that the Japanese company would and could supply as many battery packs as needed, an executive with one automaker said only, ”That’s an interesting question,” underscoring the complex battles among global carmakers as they ally and compete in a world of evolving motive power sources.

The LA Auto Show has worked hard to focus on environmentally friendly cars, so every exhibitor dutifully trotted out its greenest vehicles and research programs.

After hybrid trucks came cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells. The biggest news was the North American unveiling of Honda’s FCX Clarity, a stylish four-door sedan—with a 100-kW version of the company’s V Flow fuel cell—almost identical to the FCX Concept seen last summer.

The new vertical fuel-cell configuration, 65 percent smaller than the previous generation, is compact enough to fit in the center tunnel of this relatively low car. A lithium-ion battery pack sits under the rear seat; Honda says it is 40 percent lighter and 50 percent smaller than the ultracapacitor that stored regenerated energy in the previous FCX. The Clarity’s range is given as 435 km (270 miles).

Stressing that the car would be a ”standard retail product,” Honda said it would be offered to a limited number of customers next summer through Honda dealers—for a monthly lease payment of US $600. Preference will go to drivers who live near one of the few hydrogen refueling stations, in Southern California. Honda also said it was testing a fourth generation of its Home Energy Station, an electric ”garage appliance” that generates hydrogen from natural gas.

The Honda announcement neatly counters Chevrolet’s Project Driveway effort. In three influential markets—Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C.—more than 100 fuel-cell versions of Chevy’s Equinox midsize sport utility will be loaned to opinion leaders, media members, and environmentally active families for three-month stints. Chevy included an Equinox Fuel Cell in its array of green vehicles, with a new slogan: ”gas friendly to gas free.”

Amid smoke and lights, Volkswagen revealed its Space Up Blue concept, a small, boxy four-door van on a rear-midengine platform it plans to put into production. The earlier Up concepts shown at the Frankfurt and Tokyo auto shows ran on gasoline and diesel, but this one has VW’s proprietary high-temperature fuel cell. The 12-kWh lithium-ion battery pack can power the car up to 100 km (62 miles) on electric alone, through a 45-kW electric motor. A further 250 km (155 miles) of range comes from 3.3 kg of compressed hydrogen powering a 12-kW fuel cell.

With a higher average operating temperature—120 C versus 80 C for others—enabled by new membrane and electrode materials, VW says its fuel cell is 30 percent more compact and does not require humidification. But executive Ulrich Hackenberg admitted that the fuel-cell power train was ”a little bit pie-in-the-sky,” underlining VW’s strong belief (shared by other European carmakers) that modern diesels are far better at saving fuel and reducing carbon emissions.

Along with clamshell side doors and tailgate, VW’s concept has oblong windows at the roof edges, evoking the classic VW Microbus beloved of 1960s hippies and surfers. Judging from the constant crowds around it, the oddly named Space Up Blue concept was a hit. Rumormongers chuckled that it had been called the Blue Up until U.S. marketers pointed out to the German engineers the unfortunate connotations of that name in English, but the rumor was never confirmed.

Not to be left out, Toyota opened with a fuel cell�powered Highlander that had traveled 3700 km (2300 miles) in seven days along the Alcan Highway from Fairbanks, Ala., to Vancouver, B.C., Canada. Noting that Canada permits mobile high-pressure hydrogen refueling—the United States doesn’t—Toyota touted the sturdiness and cold-weather usability of its fuel cell. Then it introduced the latest Sequoia, a full-size sport-utility vehicle with a 5.7-L V8 engine producing 284 kW (381 horsepower).

Every auto show has striking concepts, but a 35-year-old Czechoslovakian car is pretty unusual in any venue. Global component maker Faurecia of Nanterre, France, needed to show off new concepts in interiors, lighting, seats, and other subsystems in a large car—but one with no connection to any existing maker. Its 1972 Tatra T603, originally fitted with an air-cooled aluminum V8 engine mounted at the rear, was startling even when it was new. Even amid fuel cells and huge hybrids, it may have been the show’s most unusual vehicle.

About the Author

John Voelcker has written about automotive technology and other topics for 20 years. He covered software and microprocessor design for IEEE Spectrum from 1985 to 1990.

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