So many green cars, so few buyers

Detroit – As is the norm, Cobo Hall, the home of the North American International Auto Show, was littered with hybrids of one stripe or another, along with a smattering of full-on electric cars. There was even an indoor arena where journalists and punters alike could take the electrified ride of their choice for a drive. That’s the good news. The bad news is that hybrids are simply not selling.

While the number of hybrid and/or pure electric vehicles has grown enormously of late, the number of buyers willing to put their cash on the barrel has not. Canadians have purchased almost 18 million vehicles over the past 11 years. Of that number, just 58,000 were hybrids. So, why the antipathy?

In the earlier days, the reason was likely the fact that this was emerging, untested technology. As such, many — wisely to my mind — applied that old axiom of not buying a new car in its first year.

That was then. To date, the modern hybrid has proven to be as reliable as anything on the road. There are many Toyota Prius taxis that have 300,000 and 400,000 kilometres on the odometer, and they still purr away as quietly and efficiently as ever. And many of them are still storing electric energy in the original battery.

The next step is the addition of plug-in capability to a regular hybrid. Ford will launch no fewer than three plug-in hybrids within the next year or so, including the next C-Max. The plug-in advantage is simple — the electric-only driving range rises enormously, which cuts fuel consumption and emissions. This is one part of the green solution. The better solution, however, is found with the extended-range electric vehicle. At this point, the only extended-range electric vehicle available — and, make no mistake, it is an electric vehicle and not a glorified hybrid — is the Chevrolet Volt.

The Volt’s strategy is very simple. Plug it in, recharge the main battery and, for the first 60 km of the drive, the car is powered electrically. When the battery is exhausted, a gasoline engine comes to life and begins to drive a generator that then powers the electric motor. At no time does the gasoline engine ever drive the vehicle — there is no physical connection.

The Volt also stores excess power produced by the engine as well as energy captured through regenerative braking. This allows it to run on electricity even after the battery’s driving range has been exhausted. It all sounds very complex, which it is, but it also works so seamlessly that, when tooling about town, the Volt drives like an electric vehicle, and that includes the time the gasoline engine is servicing the electric motor.

The proof of how well the whole lot comes together is found in the numbers of my Volt tester: It had consumed an average of 3.6 litres per 100 km over the first 4,353 km put on its odometer. That, by any standard, is exceptionally good. For the commuter who has a round trip of less than 60 km, the Volt could actually suffer from a problem, albeit a welcome one — bad gas!

The Volt is about to get some competition in the form of the Mercedes B-Class E-Cell Plus concept shown in Detroit, which will go into production in 2014. When the B-Class was totally redesigned (the next-generation model will hit Canadian roads later this year), it was designed to accommodate all powertrain forms. As such, the platform will accept anything from a conventional gasoline engine and gearbox to the fuel cell-powered version coming down the road. Between these two bookends sits the E-Cell Plus. In principle, it operates just like the Volt but with a twist — as well as driving a generator at speeds below 60 km an hour, the engine can be used to power the E-Cell at highway speeds. It uses both the electric motor and gasoline engine to drive the vehicle through a newly developed automatic transmission.

The E-Cell’s electric side comprises a 136-horsepower electric motor and a lithium ion battery. While Mercedes-Benz does not list the battery’s size at this point, the company says it will supply 100 km of electric-only driving, which is enough to satisfy the demands of 80% of all commuters. The gasoline side features a three-cylinder turbocharged engine that puts out 67 hp. While this may seem a little on the light side, Mercedes says the electric/gasoline combination delivers enough power to whisk the E-Cell Plus to 100 km/h in less than 11 seconds and on to a top speed of 150 km/h while returning an extended range of 600 km.

The extended-range electric vehicle is going to provide the bridge between the need to cut automotive pollution and the dawning of the hydrogen age. These vehicles are extremely frugal, which means they produce significantly fewer emission than the very best gasoline-only automobile and conventional hybrids. However, key to this technology’s success is found in the fact that it does not leave the driver with a bad dose of range anxiety after driving 80 km. That is the single biggest hurdle facing all pure electric rides such as the Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Nissan Leaf.

2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid at the 2012 North American International Auto Show.
Photograph by: Stan Honda, AFP/Getty Images