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European automakers charged up on electric, but buyers lag

The Audi Sport Quattro Concept features a 700-hp plug-in hybrid drivetrain. European automakers are jumping into the electric car game as their other sales lag.
The Audi Sport Quattro Concept features a 700-hp plug-in hybrid drivetrain. European automakers are jumping into the electric car game as their other sales lag.

The European automotive market has come unplugged recently – which may explain why brands as diverse as BMW, Volkswagen and Porsche are hoping to charge things up with the many hybrids, plug-ins and battery-electric vehicles making their debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show this week.

Manufacturers see potential benefits from electric propulsion, especially in a market where regular unleaded gasoline is going for the equivalent of more than $9 a gallon in some market. The technology also will prove critical if makers hope to meet Europe’s increasingly stringent restrictions on CO2 emissions – a tough challenge for high-line manufacturer like Mercedes-Benz, which will introduce a new plug-in version of its big S-Class sedan at the Frankfurt show.

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The range of new battery-based offerings will be “all over the map,” suggested Stephanie Brinley, an industry analyst with IHS Automotive – from the compact Volkswagen e-Golf to the plug-in diesel hybrid being introduced by Land Rover for its flagship Range Rover SUV.

Nonetheless, Brinley is among the many skeptics who question how much impact battery technology will have in Europe, where, despite sky-high fuel prices, electric propulsion has gained barely as much traction as in the U.S. – less than 4 percent of the total market.

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Price has been a barrier, as battery-based vehicles typically start at several thousand dollars above conventional gasoline systems. The gap is narrower when it comes to an alternative, high-mileage technology – but unlike American drivers, Europeans have fallen in love with diesel.

Equipped with turbochargers and high-pressure fuel injection systems, today’s diesels are quiet, clean and surprisingly peppy, while delivering near-hybrid highway mileage – factors that have helped so-called “oil-burners” garner roughly half of the European market.

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The Range Rover hybrid coming to Frankfurt is meant to deliver the best of both technologies, pairing a 288-horsepower turbodiesel with a 47-horsepower electric motor. While it will be able to launch the huge SUV from 0 to 100 kmh (62.5 mph) in just 6.9 seconds, it is expected to also yield 44.1 mpg – roughly what the Toyota Prius of a few years back delivered.

"We are extremely excited” by the benefits the new system will deliver, said John Edwards, Land Rover Global Brand Director. “The addition of a smooth electric drive enhances refinement, cuts CO2 emissions and delivers staggering performance,” he said.

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Combining the words, “performance” and “hybrid” might seem an oxymoron for those more familiar with the battery-based vehicles that have dominated the market in recent years. Models including the Prius and the Nissan Leaf battery-electric vehicle have put a premium on energy efficiency at the expense of spirited acceleration.

Electric motors generate their maximum, tire-smoking torque when they begin to spin. It’s a matter of picking the right batteries and motors.

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That’s important for high-line manufacturers for whom quick acceleration is as important as leather seats and high-line audio infotainment systems. Manufacturers like Porsche can’t afford to alienate their base even as they stare into the face of restrictive new European Union CO2 standards that could otherwise force them to produce “stone ponies” of their own.

One of the most significant introductions coming to Frankfurt – from a battery-based performance standpoint, anyway – is the new Porsche 918. The carbon-fiber plug-in hybrid is rated at 78 mpg – and will get about 18 miles per charge on its lithium-ion battery pack, but it will also launch from 0 to 60 in less than 2.8 seconds. A Chevrolet Volt it is not. Especially from a price standpoint, at $845,000

But Frankfurt’s battery fix won’t be limited to the moneyed classes. Makers also will be targeting those who actually have to worry about the cost of fuel. There’ll be two new pure battery-electric offerings from Volkswagen – which also owns Porsche and Audi, the latter introducing its own 700-horsepower performance hybrid.

For more mainstream markets, VW will be launching the e-Up!, an all-electric version of its microcar, and a battery-electric e-Golf. They’re expected to cut fuel costs by as much as two-thirds compared to the same models equipped with mid-range gasoline engine.

“We’re seeing a natural progression of battery technology as it’s applied to a wider spectrum of products,” suggests analyst Brinley.

Whether that will bring buyers back to showrooms in such a seriously distressed car market remains to be seen, but manufacturers are clearly plugging into battery power and hoping European motorists will be charged up, as well.