Luxury cars going green at Geneva Motor Show

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By Paul A. Eisenstein

If your idea of a hybrid looks a lot like the Toyota Prius, something more fuel-efficient than fun-to-drive, you may need an attitude readjustment after getting a look at the new LaFerrari, the long-awaited replacement for the Italian automaker’s former flagship, the Ferrari Enzo, making its debut at this month’s Geneva Motor Show.

This is definitely not your typical gas-electric drivetrain, though the maker insists it will substantially reduce emissions and fuel consumption compared to a conventional gasoline engine. It also can churn out nearly 1,000 horsepower, launch from 0 to 60 in under three seconds and nudge 220 mph.

Meanwhile, if your image of a pure battery-electric vehicle, or BEV, is something akin to the sedate little Nissan Leaf, you might want to visit the Mercedes-Benz stand, a quick walk from Ferrari, where the German automaker is showing off the production version of its SLS AMG Electric Drive. With its 1200-pound lithium-ion battery pack, the gull-winged supercar is just a wee bit slower than La Ferrari, taking 3.6 seconds to hit 60, with its top speed “just” 155 mph.

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In fact, if you visit virtually any upscale brand on display at this year’s Geneva Motor Show, you’ll either find a hybrid, plug-in or electric vehicle on display – or find out that the manufacturer is working on one or more. Luxury cars, it seems, are going green.

True, there are a number of battery-based models from mainstream manufacturers at Geneva’s PALExpo convention center. Hybrids are a big part of the Toyota display, the maker expecting them to generate 18% of its European sales this year, up from 13% in 2012. And then there’s Volkswagen AG which used the annual auto show to unveil its new XL1, a pint-sized two-seater that will deliver an astonishing 261 miles per gallon.

But there’s not the sort of high-voltage surge of interest in mainstream battery power one might have felt at the Geneva show in recent years, perhaps reflecting the relatively slow ramp-up of sales for products like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt.

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There are a number of reasons behind this slow adoption, lamented Carlos Ghosn, the CEO of Nissan and its French alliance partner Renault. They include the limited range of today’s batteries, the lack of a public charging infrastructure and high cost.

“People want environmentally friendly cars but they don’t want to pay for them,” Ghosn said, during a Geneva roundtable.

The lack of range is a factor that all manufacturers, mainstream or luxury, have to consider, said Heinz Hollerweger, the technical development chief at Audi AG. And it’s why the maker decided to scrub a program to produce a pure battery version of its own 2-seat supercar, the R8.

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But luxury buyers are, by nature, less worried about the price premium of battery technology, noted the executive. And there are other factors that may encourage them to spend the money for electrified offerings such as the new Audi A3 e-Tron, a plug-in hybrid also making its debut at the 2013 Motor Show – Hollerweger adding that, “We plan to add one more (plug-in) per year” to the Audi model mix.

Even luxury buyers are showing an interest in reducing emissions and improving fuel economy, industry planners note. And high-line vehicles such as the planned Bentley sport-utility vehicle due out in 2015 will have a tougher time meeting stricter mandates being passed in all key markets, from Berlin to Boston to Beijing.

There’s yet another reason to move ahead with the plug-in hybrid drivetrain Bentley confirmed this week that it is developing for its new sport-ute. Officials in a number of cities around the world are considering severe restrictions on conventionally powered vehicles, even outright bans in dense urban centers.

Based on the EXP 9F concept vehicle shown at the 2012 Geneva Motor Show, the Bentley plug-in will be able to switch to pure battery mode, if necessary, in the city. But unlike a pure BEV, it will offer the advantage of being able to switch back to gas or conventional hybrid modes for longer commutes or weekend journeys.

But for some high-end buyers, the biggest advantage for battery power is underscored by the LaFerrari and by the McLaren P1 supercar on display at the other end of the Geneva convention center. The two makers are fierce rivals both on the street and on the track, where they run traditional dominant Formula One teams.

Their new supercars borrow an F1 racing technology known as HY-KERS, or hybrid kinetic energy recovery systems. At its heart, the technology has a surprising amount in common with the Hybrid Synergy Drive in a Prius, recapturing energy normally lost during braking or coasting. And that can be used to reduce power demands during normal driving, boosting fuel economy and reducing emissions.

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But HY-KERS also can pour out tremendous bursts of power, combining with LaFerrari’s already impressive 800-horsepower V-12 gasoline engine to boost the vehicle’s overall output to 963 hp.

Better yet, noted Audi’s Hollerweger, electric motors reach maximum tire-spinning torque the moment they start to spin, even as a conventional gasoline engine is revving up.

So, for any and all of those reasons, expect to see more and more luxury automakers adopt various forms of green technology as they seek to boost performance, deliver better mileage, reduce emissions and maintain the right to drive anywhere they please.