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High-Dollar Hybrid

January 24th, 2010 Comments off
A few days ago, I found myself driving around Phoenix in Mercedes’ new S400 Hybrid.  (Indeed, I found myself behind the wheel of a large automobile.  …Wow, that’s funny stuff.)  The S400 is “the big Merc”, and the folks at Daimler have created a hybridized version to propel it while still maintaining somewhat sane levels of fuel efficiency.
So, what do you get when you buy a $90,000 hybrid?  Well, if it’s the Merc, you get luxury.  You get rich leather seats that are firm (it is German, after all) and that can contort your body in ways it was never meant to bend.  You get a consolidated multimedia interface (Mercedes calls it XXXX) that controls everything imaginable, from the stereo, A/C, and navigation system, to blue-tooth connectivity, rear-window sunshade, and ambient lighting color.  It was fairly intuitive, and I was able to figure out most features within a few minutes.  You also get that vault-like feeling of solidity that the Germans do so well.  (Jeremy Clarkson would say it feels as if it was carved from a single block of aluminum.)  And you get acres of leg-room in the rear – perhaps because that’s where some owners may sit when chauferred around.
And how is it to drive?  Again, “solid” and “luxury” are the words that come to mind.  With the suspension in the “normal” setting the ride is Buick-soft, and pot-holes pass by with hardly a thump.  Put the suspension in “sport” mode, however, and the dampers firm up significantly.  It’s still a big, heavy car, but driving is more rewarding in this setting – the ride is only slightly compromised while body roll in the turns is reduced substantially.  The steering is weighted just slightly on the heavy side – which is a good thing in my book.  The braking, while firm, feels a bit artificial – probably a result of the hybrid drivetrain.
Ah yes, I almost forgot – it’s a hybrid!  Well, it’s a mild-hybrid.  The XXX hp, V6 engine does all of the work most of the time.  The Li-ion battery – the first ever in a production hybrid from a major OEM – spends most of its time being rechared during idling, braking, and coasting events.  (The artificial braking feel likely comes from the fact that the load of the generator charging the battery is additive to the actual braking system.  There’s a little “sticky” feel when releasing the brakes, probably due to the delay of the regen turning off.)  Under normal driving and acceleration, the electric motor doesn’t really participate.  But mash the pedal to the floor, and watch the the energy flow on the dash-mounted screen as the battery discharges and the electric motor complements the engine in moving this XXXX lb car 0-60 mph in X.X seconds.  While quick for a car this size, the performance certainly isn’t blistering.  However, the system – which also turns the engine off while sitting at stop lights – achieves XX mpg in the city and XX mpg on the highway, a XX% improvement over the regular S400.  (Unlike what BMW did with the X6 hybrid, Merc’s goal was to improve fuel economy without sacrificing performance.  Plus, the Merc is actually appealing to look at.)
Really, the only thing that alerts the driver to the fact that this is a hybrid is the tach needle that drops to zero when the car stops moving, and the slight shudder of the engine when it restarts – an event that happens when the brake is released.  Admittedly, this shudder is probably only noticeable because the Mercedes V6 is so perfectly balanced and silky smooth otherwise.

A few days ago, I found myself driving around Phoenix in Mercedes’ new S400 BlueHybrid.  (Indeed, I found myself behind the wheel of a large automobile.  …Wow, that’s funny stuff!…)  The S-class is “the big Merc” (well, excluding their SUVs), and the folks at Daimler have created a hybridized version to propel it while still maintaining somewhat sane levels of fuel efficiency.

So, what do you get when you buy a $90,000 hybrid?  Well, if it’s the Merc, you get luxury.  You get lots of burled walnut, and rich leather seats that are firm (it is German, after all) and that can contort your body in ways it was never meant to bend.  You get a consolidated multimedia interface with an 8″ screen (Mercedes calls it the COMAND system) that controls everything imaginable, from the stereo, A/C, and navigation system, to blue-tooth connectivity, rear-window sunshade, and ambient lighting color.  The system is reasonably intuitive, and I was able to figure out most features within a few minutes.  You also get that vault-like feeling of solidity that the Germans do so well.  (Jeremy Clarkson would say it feels as if it was carved from a single block of aluminum.)  And you get acres of leg-room in the rear – perhaps because that’s where some owners may sit when chauferred around.

And how is it to drive?  Again, “solid” and “luxury” are the words that come to mind.  With the suspension in the “normal” setting the ride is Buick-soft, and pot-holes pass by with hardly a thump.  Put the suspension in “sport” mode, however, and the dampers firm up significantly.  It’s still a big, heavy car, but driving is more rewarding in this setting – the ride is only slightly compromised while body roll in the turns is reduced substantially.  The steering is weighted just slightly on the heavy side – which is a good thing in my book.  The braking, while firm, feels a bit artificial – probably a result of the hybrid drivetrain.

2010 Mercedes Benz S400 BlueHybrid

2010 Mercedes Benz S400 BlueHybrid

Ah yes, I almost forgot – it’s a hybrid! Well, it’s basically a mild-hybrid, but with some drive assist.  The 275 hp, 3.5 liter V6 engine does all of the work most of the time.  The Li-ion battery – the first ever in a production hybrid from a major OEM – spends most of its time being rechared during idling, braking, and coasting events.  (The artificial braking feel likely comes from the fact that the load of the generator charging the battery is additive to the actual braking system.  There’s a bit of a “sticky” sensation when releasing the brakes, probably due to the delay of the regen turning off.)  Under normal driving and acceleration, the electric motor doesn’t really participate.  But mash the pedal to the floor, and watch the the energy flow reverse directions on the dash-mounted screen as the battery discharges and the electric motor complements the engine in moving this more-than-2-ton car 0-60 mph in 7.2 seconds.  While reasonably quick for a car this size, the performance certainly isn’t blistering.  However, the system – which also turns the engine off while sitting at stop lights – achieves 19 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway, a 26% improvement over the conventional S550, which uses a 382 hp, 5.5 liter V8 to propel it to 60 mph nearly 2 seconds quicker than the hybrid.  (Unlike what BMW did with the X6 hybrid, Merc’s goal was to improve fuel economy without sacrificing performance.  Plus, the Merc is actually appealing to look at.)

Really, the only thing that alerts the driver to the fact that this is a hybrid is the tach needle that drops to zero when the car stops moving, and the slight shudder of the engine when it restarts – an event that happens when the brake is released.  Admittedly, this vibration is probably only noticeable because the Mercedes V6 is so perfectly balanced and silky smooth otherwise.  Nonetheless, it’s worth mentioning.

In hybrid terms, the car doesn’t really do anything that other, cheaper hybrids don’t.  So what good is its Li-ion battery pack?  Well, it’s a lot smaller than the NiMH batteries used in every other conventional hybrid (although its capacity is about the same), so passenger and cargo space is completely unaffected.  (Same as it ever was…  Same as it ever was…)  But it does represent another step in Lithium-ion technology moving into the mass-market.

Stay-tuned!  If all goes as planned, I’ll be test-driving a much more radical and exciting alternative vehicle in the next few weeks.  One might say it’s an opportunity that comes once in a lifetime!

Religion

January 22nd, 2010 Comments off

To some, cars are a religion.  And to many of them, the Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction is the sacred center of their automotive universe.  It’s like Mecca is to Islam.  Or like Roswell is to UFO believers. …Or like Disney World to masochists…

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Barrett-Jackson car show and auction in Scottsdale, Arizona.  And I have to admit – it was a little like attending someone else’s church.  You know the feeling:  things are done a little differently than they are in your own denomination, and you’re not sure what to expect next.  See, I’m more a practitioner of European Sports cars, while Barrett-Jackson is geared more towards the followers of classic American muscle.  And while I tend to develop more of a functional relationship with the object of my praise, interpreting the peppering of rock-chips and sand-blasting on the front fascia of a race car as evidence of one’s degree of faith, the Barrett-Jackson crowd depends on the gleam of light reflecting off perfectly polished paint and buffed chrome as an outward symbol of their devotion.

1941 Ford Pickup

1941 Ford Pickup

Still, as in religion, that which we have in common unites us more than any differences that may divide us.  The passion and zeal displayed by the owners in the preparation of these cars is every bit as real as the dedication and commitment demonstrated by track junkies and weekend warriors in pursuit of the perfect lap.  Barrett-Jackson is a pageant for those who subscribe to the collector car creed, putting on display the finest examples of meticulously restored – and often uniquely customized – American iron from the 1930s through present day.  Staring in awe at the beautifully built oak wood bed in a 1941 Ford pickup, the massive chrome bumper and grill on a 1949 Buick station wagon, and the LS6 crate engine implanted in the clean-enough-for-surgical-use engine bay of a 1956 Corvette, I began to feel the call to explore the doctrines of this other faith.

1949 Buick Woody Wagon

1949 Buick Woody Wagon

Sure, Barrett-Jackson isn’t exclusive to American classics.  There were a smattering of well-prepared VW Buses and Beetles, a few examples of Porsches from various decades, and several interesting Jaguars, Aston Martins, Austin Healeys, and BMWs.  (Given the sheer number of vehicles on display, it would be hard not to have some variety!)  But it was clear what the focus of this revival was – especially given the amount of money that was changing hands!

And you know what?  I didn’t mind at all.  I’ve been around/in/under enough cars of my own automotive creed that it was refreshing to see things from another point of view.  So whether you tend to annoint your hands in Mobil 1, or tithe with Polishing Compound Number 4, remember:  we’re all motoring towards the same big garage in the sky.

To some, cars are a religiAnd to many of them, the Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction is the sacred center of their automotive universe.  It’s like Mecca is to Islam.  Or like Roswell is to UFO believers. …Or like Disney World to masochists…
I recently had the opportunity to attend the Barrett-Jackson car show and auction in Scottsdale, Arizona.  And I have to admit – it was a bit like attending someone else’s church.  You know the feeling:  things are done a little differently than they are in your own denomination, and you’re not sure what to expect next.  See, I’m more a practitioner of European Sports cars, while Barrett-Jackson is geared more towards the followers of classic American muscle.  And while I tend to develop more of a functional relationship with the object of my praise, interpreting the peppering of rock-chips and sand-blasting on the front fascia of a Porsche as evidence of one’s degree of faith, the Barrett-Jackson crowd depends on the gleam of light reflecting off perfectly polished paint and buffed chrome as an outward symbol of their commitment.
Still, as in religion, that which we have in common unites us more than any differences that may divide us.\
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Missing the Point

January 7th, 2010 Comments off

The fuel-economy of our nation’s light-duty vehicle fleet has been roughly stagnant for the past three decades, following a significant (but unsustained) improvement just after the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules were enacted in 1975.  And although our cars’ fuel-economy hasn’t really improved, their efficiency certainly has.  We’re certainly moving around a lot more mass, a lot faster, on the same amount of fuel (per car) we were using 30 years ago. The problem is, all this technology packed into our automobiles has been engineered almost entirely to give us more performance (a 1980 Honda Accord had less than 80 hp; today’s base-model is approaching 200) and move us around in a lot more luxury (with a resulting heft of 3200 lbs for today’s Accord, a gain of a half-ton over the 1980 version) than we ever thought possible, at the complete expense of fuel-economy.  (I know, it’s a result of market demand…  But the best marketers are experts at selling us what we don’t need.)

These days, hybrid technology seems to be the solution to significant increases in fuel-economy, as it becomes ever more difficult to squeeze further efficiency improvements from conventional powertrains.  But BMW has taken a different tack with their ActiveHybrid X6.  Touted as “the world’s most powerful hybrid,” BMW starts with a 4.4-liter, 400 hp V8 internal combustion engine – which, until recent years, would have been enough of a beast to power anything but vehicles of near-supercar status – and integrates it with not one, but TWO electric motors totaling an additional 174 hp.  And sure, the combined 574 horses will be enough to provide incredible acceleration in this nearly 3-ton mammoth, but … what’s the point?

2010 BMW X6 ActiveHybrid

2010 BMW X6 ActiveHybrid

The X6 ActiveHybrid starts at a base price of nearly $90k.  At that price-level, you could almost have a Tesla Roadster, or one of the other upcoming EVs or PHEVs with phenomenal performance and actual environmental benefits.  Granted, the X6 will carry a little more gear than a Roadster.  But, it’s ugly – no matter what powertrain is under the skin.  The X6 looks like the answer to a question that nobody asked.  And while I’m sure it, like all BMWs, offers a driving experience more exhilarating than the majority of other cars on the road, I can’t help but think of it as a caricature of a Honda CRX.

I hope automakers don’t repeat the trend of the past 3 decades, by following BMW’s example of continuing to utilize efficiency-improving technology to increase performance while sacrificing potential fuel-economy benefits. Fortunately, due to the recent and long-overdue increase in CAFE standards, this trend may be thwarted.  At least, as it was in the 1980s, temporarily.

Utilitarian

January 3rd, 2010 Comments off

I love utilitarian vehicles – cars that are built for a purpose, in which every part has a function.  (Fake hood scoops, on the other hand, piss me off.)

Mahindra TR20

Mahindra TR20

Mahindra is probably the largest car company that you (here in the U.S.) haven’t heard of.  But you will soon.  …Or, at least eventually. They plan to begin selling a line of pick-up trucks in the U.S. in 2010: the TR20 two-door, the TR40 four-door, and a similarly styled SUV.  These large-compact pick-ups have some interesting specs, such as a 2.2-liter diesel engine that gets 30 mpg, and a large bed that can haul an impressive 2,765 pounds – more than most full-size U.S.-built trucks of the 1500/F-150 variety.  And it looks utilitarian – no expanses of chrome or other useless adornment here.  If a piece is there, it’s for a reason.  For example, the truck has built-in tie-down hooks along the outer edge of the cargo area – a simple and more elegant solution than Utili-trak system on Nissan‘s Titan.

I like this truck. I hope it does well, when it finally arrives.  (The introduction has been repeatedly delayed – the current prediction is this coming Spring).  But American truck-buyers are a fickle (and loyal) bunch.  Getting consumers to embrace a not-quite-Ford-tough-looking truck made in India, with an engine that sacrifices a little power for efficiency, may be a tough sell.