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Posts filed under ‘Alternative Propulsion’

More E-Cars From Munich

August 9, 2011 by Matt

2011 BMW i8 Concept Front View

At least, so far, it’s a sub-brand.

That is, the BMW formula enthusiasts know and love hasn’t been completely revamped by integrating alternative propulsion seamlessly into the automaker’s lineup.

Following the recent unveiling of the BMW i3 Concept all-electric city car and the i8 Concept hybrid performance coupe (pictured at top), Left Lane News reports a model range-filling i4 and i5 may be in the works (emphasis added):

The i4 is said to be largely based on the i3, but will take the form of a mini sports car. It remains to be seen if the car will arrive as a coupe or roadster, but the two-seater is intended to act as an entry-level model for those that can’t afford the up-market i8. The i4 could borrow the electric drivetrain from the i3, but a version of the i8’s diesel-hybrid system isn’t completely off the table.

The i5 is rumored to be a mid-size sedan model with coupe-like design features. The i5 will reportedly borrow the i8’s drivetrain, which should translate into some decent performance figures. It remains to be seen how BMW plans to market the i5 – given it will be about the same size as the 3-Series – but the German automaker has plenty of time to iron out all the kinks – if given the green light, the i5 and i4 aren’t expected to launch until the end of the decade.

It’s no secret I don’t think terribly much of BMW’s latest foray into eco-correctness, but I should clarify the grounds on which I take exception to their direction: Branding. As with the FWD issue, I’ve no problem whatsoever with BMW making the best hybrid or pure electric cars in the world—just don’t stick a BMW roundel on the hood. Call me territorial, call me inflexible; there are some equations in this world that deserve to be left alone—they’ve earned the right to be. Fortunately, in this case, it seems BMW is at least attempting to distance the sub-brand somewhat from the “conventional” model range. I just wish they’d go farther and cloister the new cars altogether into a completely separate brand. But that’s obviously not going to happen.

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Battery Drain

August 3, 2011 by Matt

2011 Chevy Volt

The latest report in a long string of stumbles out of the starting blocks, Chevy moved exactly 125 of their new Volts last month, far below expectations.

With most technological vanguards, an initially slow rate of adoption is somewhat to be expected, but given that the Volt was barely visible through the cloud of hype surrounding it for the past year and a half, the recent sales figures are stunningly low—if not entirely unsurprising.

Legions of automotive journalists have addressed the myriad of possible angles to the Volt narrative, so I won’t attempt to cover it in any sort of comprehensive sense. That said, I do want to emphasize one aspect of the story in particular: The connection between the overambitious yet half-baked nature of the car’s technology and the subsidies that underpinned its development.

The problem here, as with most government-funded endeavors, is that the absence of “skin in the game” in the form of the company’s own capital means risk assessment and market analysis is much less rigorous than it would be otherwise. When a company isn’t constrained by a sober appraisal of the position of the their product vis-a-vis market demand weighed against the capital they’re investing, they’ll almost always want to push the specifications of their product beyond what the market is prepared to accept. If it’s not your money, why not go nuts and make the most sophisticated car you can? Gotta give the taxpayers their money’s worth, right?

So, in contrast to other companies (Toyota, Honda, Ford, etc) who have been doing their due diligence, easing alternative propulsion technology into the marketplace progressively and deliberately—their own investments at stake—and achieving a fair amount of success (see: Prius, Civic and Escape Hybrids), GM, flush with capital they’re less accountable for, made the financially-dubious attempt with the Volt to pass their rivals in one fell swoop. It’s evident that a more conservative rolling-out of hybrid technology into their model line probably wouldn’t captivate the automotive press, but it might lay a foundation for more long-lasting success.

Government subsidies almost invariably produce solutions miscalibrated to market demands, whether below or above the parameters requested by would-be buyers. The Chevy Volt carries the unfortunate distinction of having its feet in both camps: Too “advanced” compared to other hybrids, which mesh better with existing infrastructure, and less car for the money than most consumers are looking for (seating capacity for only 4, range restrictions, very expensive even with “incentives,” etc). Those obvious reasons for its lack of popularity seem to escape GM, at least publicly, who prefer to harp on about “supply problems” and so forth. I don’t relish the premonition, but as with the EV1, I fully expect the Volt story to end in ignominy.

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A Convergence of Extremes:
The Porsche 918 Spyder

July 21, 2011 by Matt

Porsche 918 Spyder

Porsche’s 918 Spyder has been wowing audiences on the auto show circuit for a little over a year now. By all accounts, it’s a technological showcase, and represents Porsche’s vision of their future, much the same way the 959 did in the mid-’80s.

Porsche 918 Spyder

And as befits such a forward-looking car, crammed chock full of innovations, its vital statistics peg several different scales. It’s equipped with a 3.4l V8 engine supplemented by three electric motors which, when working together, deliver a whopping 718 hp to all four wheels. Sixty mph is dispatched in 3.2 seconds, and fuel economy is an incredibly miserly 78 mpg. Amazingly, Porsche managed to stuff all this kit, including batteries and supporting hardware, into a car weighing only around 3,300 lb. But even more amazing is the price: The automaker has committed to build a limited run for $845,000 a pop. That’s an order of magnitude more expensive than anything else in the manufacturer’s lineup, doubling even the price of the vaunted, range-topping Carrera GT from a few years ago.

I’ll let that stand. The car is primarily a declaration of Porsche’s capabilities, and as such, it’s irrelevant what the price is, as long as they produce more than a single example to be trundled from show to show. They only need to prove that it works, and that they can make more than just one.

Porsche 918 Spyder

From an aesthetic standpoint, it’s a knockout. I’d venture to say its lines surpass even the aforementioned Carrera GT’s, widely considered to be among the best-looking cars ever to exit the factory at Stuttgart. The fender flares and overall proportions update the classic James Dean 550 Spyder look, and the tension and visual interest provided by the interaction of the surfaces on the car’s flanks perfectly relieve what would otherwise be a boring swath of sheetmetal. It’s a beautiful car.

Porsche 918 Spyder

Even though, as mentioned above, the 918 Spyder is a statement, it doesn’t just speak to Porsche’s ability to crank out a world-beater at a singular point in time. It’s also their take on the future of performance cars in general, and as the automaker is something of an authority on the subject, their statements really deserve the consideration of every performance buff.

That said, my feelings about the mechanicals of the car are somewhat ambivalent. The larger part of me knows that alternative propulsion technologies have a long way to go before they can match the character and tactile feedback of a traditional internal combustion engine. That part of me also craves the simplicity of one engine, one transmission and one set of throttle bodies controlled by my right foot. I can get my mind around that arrangement; it’s a known quantity. On the other hand, I’m well aware that there were times people craved the simplicity of an L-head, or pushrods (and still do), or carburetors, or non-variable valve timing, and yet all their replacements have been integrated, over time, into the performance scene. And also, it does seem inevitable that our cars’ means of locomotion will diversify, and it takes time for the sound and feel of whatever’s new to work itself into the preferences of those of us who relish the subjectives of a car. Looking at the situation from that angle, the present really is a compelling period of automotive evolution to be living through, analogous to the early part of last century, when it seemed like every company had its own ideas about the best way to propel a vehicle. It’ll be interesting to see if Porsche’s vision sticks.

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The Porsche 918 Spyder