Kia turning decidedly more green

Namyang, Korea: The push toward green transportation is beginning to gain momentum and — in one case — it is coming from an unlikely source: Kia. The South Korean automaker has typically keyed on affordable cars; however, its lineup has been expanded to include a hybrid and an advanced fuel cell-powered vehicle that’s being readied for limited production. The ambitious goal calls for commercialization by the end of 2012.

The Forte LPI Hybrid, a mild hybrid, goes farther than most in that it not only employs the usual electric motor and battery, the engine also runs on liquid petroleum gas (propane). The Hybrid’s powertrain consists of a 1.6-litre engine, an electric motor and a 180-volt lithium polymer battery.

The propane-powered engine dishes out 112 horsepower and 109 pound-feet of torque, while the electric motor chips in with another 20 hp and 77 lb-ft of torque. The result is a net system output of 124 hp.

The Forte Hybrid’s configuration mirrors that of the Honda Insight in that the electric motor is sandwiched between the engine and continuously variable transmission (CVT) — hence the mild hybrid designation. The electric motor only provides a power boost and does not drive the car.

It worked nicely, at least on a short two-kilometre run up and down Kia’s proving grounds. Yes, it follows the CVT’s operational norm in that it pegs the engine within a whisker of redline, which means it tends to get a little noisy, but because of the low-end punch delivered by the powertrain, the driver is allowed to lift off the throttle early, which makes noise less of an issue. In all, the Forte LPI Hybrid proved to be an entirely palatable proposition.

Of course, the Forte LPI Hybrid employs all of the usual tricks to extend its driving range. When coasting or braking, the electric motor reverses function (regenerative braking) to gather what would otherwise be wasted energy, and there is an idle stop function, which can cut fuel consumption by up to 15% on its own.

To put things in perspective, a regular non-hybrid Forte sedan, which is sold in Korea with a 1.6L engine, needs 12 seconds to accelerate to 100 kilometres an hour. The Hybrid accelerates to 100 km/h in 11.7 seconds and does so while consuming 60% less fuel. This means the driver can wring 850 km out of 53 litres of propane. The Forte LPI Hybrid is currently on sale in Korea and could go on sale in other markets, but don’t bank on Canada being one of them. A big part of the reason is the stigma attached to propane. As it is heavier than air, it pools like water and waits for a source of ignition. This has led to the ban on propane-powered vehicles in underground parking lots and the like. It is sad because taxis in many urban centres run on said fuel.

For the average motorist, the hassle is just not worth the savings. Based on a short drive around Kia’s Eco-Technology Research Institute in Mabuk, Korea, the fuel cell-powered Borrego is ready for production. Having driven the Sportage FCEV (Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle) about 18 months ago, I knew what to expect — the Hyundai Tucson version of this vehicle finished atop the FCEV ranking at the 2007 Bibendum Challenge held in Shanghai, China. The Borrego ramps things up, using Kia’s next-generation fuel cell system.

In 2005, the Sportage teamed an 80-kilowatt fuel cell stack with a lithium polymer battery. The combination yielded a 384-km driving range. In 2007, the stack was upsized to 100 kW and the battery made way for a bank of super-capacitors, which upped the range to 400-plus km. The Borrego features Kia’s latest 115-kW fuel cell stack, a 147-hp electric motor and a 450-volt bank of super-capacitors. The advantage to the super-capacitor is that it accepts a charge (through regenerative braking or from the fuel cell stack) and gives up its power faster than does a regular battery. This makes the powertrain so much more seamless in operation.

With a 202-litre hydrogen tank located underneath the vehicle (and ahead of the rear wheels, where it is protected in the event of a crash), the Borrego FCEV boasts a driving range of 754 km and a top speed of 160 km/h. The system also manages to hustle the big Borrego to 96 km/h in 12.8 seconds — hardly Earth- shattering, but more than up to the rigours of the daily commute.

Beyond this, the Borrego manages to do one other thing that will ease its passage into the real world. The fuel cell stack will start at -20C and it does so in 12 seconds (Kia has started the stack at temperatures as low as -30C in laboratory testing). The reason this is important is that cold temperatures slow the chemical reaction and can freeze the water (the residue from creating electricity) in the stack.

While the drive was short, it did include a substantial hill climb and a long downhill run. In both cases, the Borrego felt at home. It has the power to climb with ease and, on the down slope, has a brake pedal feel that’s remarkably natural (most regenerative braking systems tend to be rather mushy and with a less than linear feel under foot). While the goal of commercializing the Borrego by the end of 2012 is perhaps a little optimistic because of the lack of a refuelling infrastructure, the rest of it is ready to roll.

Photograph by: Kia, handout