Image: Michael Macht, President and CEO of Porsche
Michael Macht, President and CEO of Porsche, presents the Porsche 918 Spyder Concept car, which has hybrid and electric drive technology, in Geneva.
Image: Paul A. Eisenstein, contributor
By contributor
updated 3/31/2010 8:39:34 AM ET 2010-03-31T12:39:34

The crowds began swelling long before the news conference was set to begin at the Porsche stand earlier this month at the Geneva Motor Show. A few early birds were there simply to get a good seat, but most had been drawn by word of a top secret project the sports car maker was intending to unveil.

When all the covers were lifted, there sat the 918 Spyder Concept, an elegant, if aggressive-looking, 2-seat convertible supercar. True to form, the 918 prototype promised blisteringly fast performance, launching from 0 to 60 in 3.1 seconds and hitting a top speed of 198 mph.

There’s another number that’s equally impressive, if less in line with the Porsche image, however: the convertible concept, suggested CEO Michael Macht, could deliver an estimated 78 miles per gallon.

“This way, you can go very fast and it still would be socially acceptable,” Macht explained as he sat inside the 918 Spyder.

It was a sign, if you will, that European automakers are throwing some of their resources into electric-powered vehicles, after hitching most of their horsepower to diesel.

Under the skin, the sports car featured a 500-horsepower V8 mounted midship and mated to a 218-horsepower electric motor drawing power from a large lithium-ion battery pack. Like the more mundane Chevrolet Volt, the system can be plugged into an everyday electric socket — or a high-speed charger — permitting the 918 prototype to be used as a commuter car, running on batteries alone, or switched to high performance mode using battery and gas power combined.

While officially still a show car, Macht confirmed Porsche is actively working on the 918’s underlying technology. The Spyder itself could go into production as early as 2013, but even if it doesn’t make the cut, the plug-in hybrid powertrain is all but certain to show up in some other Porsche model, such as the classic 911 sports car or the Boxster roadster.

And if and when it does, it would become the second hybrid system from Porsche. Sitting alongside the 918 Spyder, on the Geneva stand, Porsche previewed a more conventional gas-electric version of its second-generation Cayenne sport-utility vehicle, which is due to market for the 2011 model-year.

While Porsche may have stolen the show with its various hybrid models, it had plenty of company at Geneva’s PALExpo convention center.

Until recently, European makers seemed oblivious of the push for electric propulsion. Seeing hybrids and other battery cars as a Japanese technology, makers like Mercedes-Benz and BMW were determined to fight back with their own high-mileage alternative, the diesel.

Suddenly, there’s a shift in strategy, and while European makers aren’t walking away from diesel, they’re determined to prove that they can dominate the battery car field too.

“The battery cars of the past weren’t sexy,” said Peter Schwarzenbauer, global marketing chief for Audi. “Nobody cared.”

Not unless your idea of the erotic was a 60 mpg sedan like the Toyota Prius. But even sports car aficionados are finding it hard to resist something like the Porsche 918 and the Audi etron, a 2-seat battery-electric sports car the Volkswagen AG subsidiary may put into production by mid-decade.

Meanwhile, Audi’s mainstream sibling, Volkswagen, is hoping to cover all the battery bases. Its own battery-electric vehicle, or BEV, the eUP, is also slated to debut in the next few years, while the maker’s first gasoline-electric hybrid will reach showrooms in 2011. The timing is less than coincidental, since VW and Porsche jointly developed both the Touareg and Cayenne SUVs, as well as the hybrid drivetrains they share.

The European push for electric propulsion underscores the breadth of potential for battery technology.

At one extreme, there’s the Start/Stop system, now being rolled out on a variety of BMW models. The system automatically shuts the engine off when idling, say at a stoplight, then quickly powers back up when the driver’s foot lifts off the brake pedal.

At the other is pure battery power, which will eventually propel a version of Mercedes’ new gull-winged SLS supercar.

In the middle is the hybrid, and with the launch of the VW Touareg, all the German makers will have at least one gas-electric model in their respective showrooms. Other European makers, even Ferrari, aren’t far behind.

There’s an ongoing industry debate over where electric propulsion makes the most sense, especially when it comes to BEVs.

Audi CEO Rupert Stadler contends high-line products, like the etron and Mercedes S500, are the best place to push electrification because, “This is where the customer is most willing to pay a premium for this type of technology.”

Others are focusing on the commuter segment, with products like VW’s eUP.

But one thing European makers have apparently come to agree on is that battery power, in all its various forms, will become a critical part of their individual lineups. Porsche’s Macht expects hybrids will eventually account for more than 20 percent of the maker’s models.

Why the switch in thinking? European executives insist they were simply waiting for the right technology to come along.

Joe Phillippi, chief analyst with AutoTrends Consulting, contends there’s another reason: the European Union has put in place tough new carbon dioxide emissions regulations that “will be very difficult to meet without using electric power.”

It will be difficult enough for even mainstream European brands such as General Motors’ Opel, which will launch a plug-in hybrid based on the Volt — the Ampera — in 2011. But the challenge is more difficult for luxury brands such as Ferrari or Mercedes, which have traditionally put an emphasis on performance, i.e., low mileage and plenty of CO2 spewing out the tailpipe.

One answer is to downsize, and Mercedes has come up with pint-sized models like the A-Class and its sibling division Smart’s 2-seat fortwo.

But “Does sustainability mean we have to build small cars? Not necessarily,” insists Dr. Thomas Weber, the Daimler AG board member in charge of technology for both Mercedes and Smart. Battery power makes it possible, he adds, to deliver the size, comfort and performance that buyers of high-line European products expect.

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