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Hybrid & Electric Evolution or Revolution

Hybrid & Electric Evolution or Revolution


Motoring journalist, Johns Swift, gives his opinion of the rise of hybrid and electric cars.

Hybrid & Electric Cars, Evolution or Revolution?

Motoring writer John Swift looks back at some of the earlier hybrids and electric cars and asks if lessons have been learned by manufacturers and indeed, drivers who profess to want eco-friendly models.

Hybrids and electric cars are the fastest growing thing in motoring, but looking back over some of the early models, and the experimental designs, I can think of one that was miles ahead of its time, another which ranks as one of the worst cars I’ve ever driven, and a third which was a viable and practical little car and a delight to drive. The annoying thing is that all three contained lessons that many manufacturers – and buyers – have yet to learn.

Volkswagen XL1

The first is the staggering Volkswagen XL1 diesel/electric plug-in hybrid. Just 200 were hand- made and it went on sale here in 2014 with a price tag of £98,515, but its significance lay way beyond its production numbers.

White Volkswagen XL driving on the road round a corner with lots of greenery

The XL1 was built with just a single goal in mind which was to be a one litre car, a car that used 1.0 litre of fuel per 100 km, which in real money translates into 282 miles per gallon. As it happens, the XL1 smashed that and is officially rated as being capable of 313 mpg and has a CO2 output of just 21 g/km.

Lightness and aerodynamic efficiency lay at the heart of this quite extraordinary performance.

When I first saw it at a press event I was blown away by the concept and its engineering beauty. Hand crafted using carbon-fibre reinforced polymer, may not have been the most economical production method, making it unsuitable for a large volume manufacturer, but it made the VW XL1 very strong and very light, tipping the scales at just 795 kgs.

Of the many factors reducing the goal of energy efficiency, (using as much of the power generated by the engine as possible, into pushing the car forward), the two most important areas are the weight of the car and the drag it has cutting through the air. Once weight was the addressed, VW then took a more radical route with the aerodynamics.

The XL1 is a two seater, low like as sports car, but also fairly narrow with the seats slightly staggered to give the requisite shoulder space This slashed the frontal area and the long, elegant, teardrop shaped body kept the airflow as smooth and free as possible as it moved over the car’s surfaces and made for a clean departure at the tail where there’s normally a lot of turbulence.

Volkswagen XL1 on display at Wolfsburg Headquarters

The car has to drag that turbulence through the air which eats away at energy efficiency. Even the rear wheels were faired-in, because a rotating wheel generates a lot of turbulence.

So slippery is the car through the air that the XL1 needs just 8.4 PS of power to maintain 66 mph on a level road…

For power there is an 800 cc TDI two-cylinder diesel engine linked to an electric motor which has a plug-in facility. The diesel can run independently or in tandem when accelerating (0 to 60 takes 12 seconds and top speed is 99 mph) and it can do 30 miles in electric-only mode.

So far ahead of anything else on the road was the VW XL1 that a new term had to be coined to describe it – an SEV, or Super Efficient Vehicle.

Renault Fluence

In the starkest of contrasts was an early all-electric car I once tested, the Renault Fluence.

This was several years ago when electric technology was normally only found in golf buggies. The press launch event was held at a country hotel where the car was unveiled amid much fanfare. The thing was that by the time we got to the main gate at the end of the drive there was already a noticeable drop in the amount of charge left and it struck me and everyone else there that manufacturers had a lot of development to do to persuade anyone that this was the future!

The very short-lievd electric car the Renault Fluence

Let me make just one point which kinds of sums up this car’s appeal. As of May 23 this year, of the 431,158 cars advertised for sale with Auto Trader only one was a Renault Fluence; here were five times as many Bugatti Veyrons...

Honda Insight Hybrid

And then the third was the lovely little Honda Insight hybrid I drove in the early 2000s. This was a super two seater hatchback which was of a practical size, had a decent cabin and boot space. Power came from a 1.0 litre petrol engine and an electric motor working as a hybrid.

Like a smaller and cheaper XL1, it was very light (less than half as heavy as the then current Honda Civic three door) and being a few inches narrower at the back than the front gave it the aerodynamically efficient teardrop shape and the result was an average and easily achievable mpg figure well into the 70s. In those days’ only smoky and rattly diesels could get anywhere near that.

Economy aside, it was also a hoot to drive because it was light, nimble and agile.

Citrus metallic electric Honda Insight on a red background

So what is there to learn from these three cars as we go forward into the hybrid and electric era?

The two that are glaringly obvious to me are that there are enormous gains to be had from taking weight out and changing the shape to reduce the power needed to drag them through the air.

Which is why I think it’s a fallacy when people talk about `eco-friendly SUVs’; as far as aerodynamics and weight are concerned, they're heavy and not what you'd call sleek. If you’re really serious about reducing harmful emissions and saving the planet, then you probably don’t buy an SUV. Obviously that's just opinion, so, rant over!

We need a revolution and someone has to be brave enough to design a completely new and fundamentally different looking range of cars, from luxury ones to average family ones, that have wind cheating shapes. We need materials which are lighter, affordable to use in construction, strong, recyclable and the industry needs to explain to people that lightness is a virtue.

Three silver and white Volkswagen XL1 on display at VW headquarters in Wolfsburg

The XL1 is not a serious car for production, it was never meant to be; but, you must agree that a vehicle capable of more than 300 miles per gallon and CO2 emissions so low the air is almost cleaner when it comes out than when it goes in has something to tell us all.

The earlier Honda Insight gave us insight too (pardon the pun), a practical, viable little two seater which taught us lessons on lightness and aerodynamics, but perhaps more importantly, what can be achieved if you ask searching questions about how often the back seats in small cars are used.

If the answer is `not often’, then why make the vehicle bigger, heavier and draggier than it needs be? With the better hybrid electrics of today, who knows what an equivalent Insight could do.

Citrus yellow metallic electric Honda Insight driving on the road

We need a major manufacturer to ask these questions, be brave enough to go radical and heed the lessons these cars offer and explain them to car buyers. Who knows, as we move into a cleaner era they might find their message falling on very receptive ears.

And as for the Renault Fluence; well, the lesson it presented is very clear; if a design doesn’t work, don’t build it!