The faux pas of fashionable cars

Cars are not shoes. Actually, what I meant to say is that cars should not be like shoes. Or, even more accurately, car technology should not be subject to the same whims of fashion and flair as footwear.

Ostensibly, the purpose of shoes is to protect one’s feet from the elements, be they mukluks to ward off freezing temperatures or mere sandals protecting our soles from the ravages of jagged rocks. But what once was the height of functionality quickly devolved into tassles and spiked heels as footwear became, for an incredibly large proportion of the world, the most important fashion statement one could make. And, as with all style statements, the first casualty of fashion always seems to be practicality.

I say hybrids are in danger of becoming the three-inch spiked heels of the automotive industry, so far has the movement strayed from the original concept of making everyday transport more economical and emissions-free. If it’s sometimes already difficult to make a cost/rewards argument for mainstream hybrid automobiles such as Toyota’s Prius and Honda’s Insight, then the news that Porsche is introducing a hybrid version of its 911 GT3 R and Ferrari a 599 is either the height of absurdity or the ultimate statement in outright cynicism.

I’ll go with the latter, actually, wondering how far the whole hybrid movement can devolve into a simple fashion statement. For let us be absolutely certain about this, nothing about a Porsche GT3 or a Ferrari 599 hybrid — no lessons learned from its engineering, no emissions reduction from their purportedly reduced fuel consumption — is going to save the planet’s ozone layer. Both are sold in such limited numbers and driven so sparingly that any reduction in gasoline consumed or CO2 emitted from their entire production runs would be trumped if we just shut down my local Timmy’s drive-thru lane for an half an hour. Furthermore, at least in the case of the Porsche, the technology being used, as phantasmagorically high-tech as it is, is unlikely to see widespread use for non-racing automobiles.

Similar in concept to the Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) pioneered by the Williams Formula One team, the GT3’s two 60-kilowatt motors drive the front wheels to augment the powerful 480-horsepower flat-six powering the rear wheels. As with all hybrids, it also uses a regenerative braking system to capture some of the energy normally wasted during braking. Where it breaks with convention, however, is that, instead of storing this recaptured energy in a now-almost-conventional lithium ion battery, the GT3 uses a tiny, enclosed flywheel to retain all this captured energy. Never mind that the system’s energy storage capacity is severely limited, only providing six to eight seconds of energy, but I wonder how a complex, precision-produced flywheel that spins up to 40,000 rpm is ever going to make everyday motoring more economical.

But therein lies the rub. Though they will almost assuredly never admit it in public, the Porsche and Ferrari hybrids are little more than public relations exercises, the price to be paid for mollifying their important North American audiences. Indeed, as the wonderfully engineered, but ultimately ineffective BMW X6 ActiveHybrid proves, it doesn’t so much matter whether your hybrid is actually comparatively frugal as long it sports a hybrid badge somewhere on its visage, we will be convinced that your are indeed a socially responsible company with your corporate heart in the right place. That the X6 ActiveHybrid performs on par with a conventionally powered V8 X6 — but barely saves two litres per 100 kilometres in comparison — yet costs as much as an X6M matters not; it sports a hybrid badge and never mind that any number of BMW diesel engines would not only reduce fuel consumption dramatically more but also cost considerably less.

Nor should we be blaming the car companies for this blatant cynicism; we North Americans fell for the wiles of the fashionable hybrid rather than the eminently more practical and far more cost-effective diesel. That hybrids were more effectively marketed in alluring heels rather than the diesel’s practical loafers doesn’t excuse the fact that we might be backing the wrong technology if we really want to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels (and, for those already writing to defend everything hybrid, know that while I think the common hybrid is a waste of time and money, the latest generation plug-in hybrid and Electric-Extended Range Vehicles are very promising).

Like the BMW, the Porsche and Ferrari hybrids will almost assuredly be technological tours de force, wowing the engineer in me with solutions to problems so complex they boggle the mind. No doubt, they will also perform beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Ultimately, however, they will prove meaningless.

Photograph by: Philippe Desmazes, AFP/Getty Images