Diesel and Hybrid SUV Comparison

By dancurranjr On May 13th, 2009

chevy-tahoeMany of you have probably read our Diesel and Hybrid SUV Comparison wondering where the GM representative is. After deciding on a 4WD/AWD diesel versus hybrid comparison test, we then had to make sure the SUVs we included would be similarly equipped. Therefore, the Tahoe, Yukon, and Escalade hybrids were eliminated as contenders because they all come standard with a third row. That alone could’ve made this an unfair comparison. But despite that, some of you still may wonder how one of these vehicles would’ve lined up against the BMW (which charges $1700 for the optional third row), Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, and Lexus. Here’s a general overview.

The base prices for the vehicles in this comparison vary from an estimated $42,000 for the RX 450h to $51,200 for the X5. The 4WD Tahoe Hybrid starts at $54,210 ($54,680 for the Yukon) and the AWD Escalade hybrid is $76,635 before adding accessories. The Tahoe Hybrid’s price is about $12,000 over a base 4WD and $9000 more than an LT2 trim level; Hybrid content falls between the LT2 and LTZ grades. An Escalade Hybrid is roughly $11,000 more than an Escalade AWD, and the Platinum trim package adds another $11,750.

The GM hybrids all use the same powertrain: a 6.0-liter gasoline V-8 and dual electric motor units sandwiched in the four-speed automatic transmission, rated at 332 horsepower and 367 pound-feet total output. This betters the comparison-test fleet’s horsepower by at least 67, but it’s the second-worst torque. (Those with more torque are diesels. What else would you expect?) While they have some weight-saving features to limit the hybrid penalty to roughly 350 pounds–similar to adding 4WD to a rear-drive SUV–they still have 5850-6050 pounds (empty) to haul around.

The GMs’ wheelbase, at 116.0 inches, is longer than the longest wheelbase tested here, the 115.5-inch X5. Track is widest front and rear, and its 202.0-inch length is significantly longer than anything else here. The next-longest vehicle, the X5, is 11 inches shorter. The GMs have the most front-row headroom and overall shoulder room, yet interior dimensions are midpack otherwise. It stomps the rest in cargo volume, though–108.9 cubic feet of storage behind the front row as opposed to 75.2 for the X5, 72.4 for the ML, and 71.0 for the Touareg.

On the road, the big GM hybrid ‘utes feel much like the standard versions when friends are on board. The brake pedal is touchier, and sidling into a tight garage or parking spot might not be as smooth as you’re used to. Golf buddies and lanky families of four or five will be more comfortable in the hybrid GMs than their conventional counterparts. The hybrids use unique front seats for weight savings and they seem as comfortable as the regular seats, but they aren’t as thick so there’s a significant increase in second-row knee space. The GM hybrids all use a bench-seat second row because of the battery pack beneath it, and as the widest SUVs around, they do well at three-across seating on that middle bench. The Tahoe/Yukon/Escalade use a three-person bench with two headrests and a 50/50 split to remove them for a flat cargo floor.

When we tested a 2WD GMC Yukon Hybrid, it did the 0-to-60 sprint in 8.3 seconds and the quarter mile in 16.2 at 88 mph. A nearly identical-weight 4WD Tahoe LT non-hybrid posted 8.3 seconds to 60 and 16.1 at 86 mph in the quarter mile; these and the 45-65 times are all in the same spectrum as the ML and Touareg diesels.

We have no directly com- parative fuel economy data. However, on 70-mile loops that included Interstate, urban, and winding roads all between 100 and 1500 feet above sea level, a Tahoe Hybrid delivered 19.8 mpg, right on its 20 city/20 highway mpg rating; a Yukon 5.3 brought 17.7 (14/20).

In the two-mode hybrids, when you mash the pedal from a stop, as you might to cross a highway, there’s a momentary delay before the gas engine is lit and full thrust comes on, and while the reasons are different, the effect is very similar to the from-rest turbo lag in some diesels. The Escalade Hybrid’s mileage is likely to be slightly lower than that of the Tahoe and Yukon, maybe 1.0 mpg, because it doesn’t have the same aero tweaks, adds 100-200 pounds, and in most instances will be optioned with 22-inch wheels.

Despite the torque from electric drive, the GM hybrids are limited to 12,000 pounds gross combined, so maximum tow rating is 6200 pounds (2WD Tahoe/Yukon). That’s better than that of the RX (3500) and X5 (6000), but falls short of the ML’s (7200) and Touareg’s (7716). For towing on open highways, we’d probably recommend a standard 5.3-liter Tahoe/Yukon, rated at 8400/8200 (RWD/4WD).

The Tahoe and Yukon Hybrids come as 2WD or 4WD vehicles; the Hybrid is the only Escalade with low-range gearing–though apart from scaling a slimy launch ramp, we can’t imagine anyone will ever use it. Ground clearance matches that of non-hybrid models’ and the Hybrids’ cleaner side steps might last longer in the rough stuff, but the bits modified for aero and weight benefits–deeper front air dam, 18-inch wheels, and higher-pressure, low-rolling-resistance tires–all work against off-highway performance. GM does not list fording depth for any of these utilities, hybrid or otherwise.

Would it have been unfair to include the Tahoe or Yukon in this comparison story? Probably, considering that they’re much larger vehicles than those tested here and come standard with three rows of seats. However, when you think about the capability you get for a comparable price, putting the GM SUVs in this context does make for some interesting conversations.

SOURCE: Truck Trend

Can Uncle Sam Sell Hybrids?

By dancurranjr On May 11th, 2009

Washington Prius PHEVThe government’s rescue plan for General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC has focused on financial engineering. Soon, the Obama administration and whoever is running GM and Chrysler will have to confront a more-challenging problem: how to sell the cars they want America to buy.

President Barack Obama said during his press conference last week that just because the government could hold shares in GM and Chrysler doesn’t meanh e intends to micromanage their affairs. Then he added, “I’m not an auto engineer, I don’t know how to create [an] affordable, well-designed plug-in hybrid. But I know that if the Japanese can design [an] affordable, well-designed hybrid, then doggone it, the American people should be able to do the same. So my job is to ask the auto industry: Why is it you guys can’t do this?”

GM and Chrysler’s new management teams will likely treat this question as something more than a suggestion. What’s worth watching is whether they will deliver a complete answer.

This Fiat 500 minicar would cost the equivalent of $17,900 in the U.K.

It’s not as if American consumers won’t buy efficient vehicles. Seven of the top-10-selling vehicles in April were cars that average 29 miles per gallon on the highway or better. The top seller was the Honda Accord, which gets 30 mpg on the highway in its four-cylinder version.

But this must be kept in perspective. Total small-car sales are down 33% for the year, and small cars from domestic brands in the segment that includes the Toyota Corolla, Chevy Cobalt and Dodge Caliber are down 51%, according to AutoData Corp.

Demand for hybrid vehicles is in the doldrums. Toyota Prius sales are down 49.5% for the Jan. 1 to April 30 period, and Toyota has been offering discounts on the model to clear inventory ahead of the launch this month of a redesigned 2010 Prius. Honda sold just 2,096 of its new Insight hybrids in April, the first full month after its formal launch. Honda Civic hybrid sales are down 26% for the year, and at the current pace will struggle to crack 30,000 vehicles for the year — a pittance even in today’s depressed market.

At $2 a gallon for regular unleaded, the most-enthusiastic purchasers of hybrids are governments and corporations eager to wear green.

As for plug-in hybrids, the costs remain daunting for major car makers on both sides of the Pacific. Toyota Motor Corp. has said it plans to offer a test fleet of about 150 plug-in versions of its Prius model to certain fleet customers next year. It’s a tentative, toe-in-the-water approach that reflects Toyota management’s uncertainty about the technology — and about the robustness of demand.

The Chevy Volt, GM’s plug-in, won’t go on sale until late 2010. But whether that car will be “affordable” at an estimated $40,000 depends on who you are. The Obama administration’s automotive task force delivered its opinion of the Volt in blunt terms in a March 30 report: “… while the Chevy Volt holds promise, it will likely be too expensive to be commercially successful in the short-term.”

Around the world, other governments aren’t shy about pushing consumers toward certain choices. China has encouraged consumers to buy more-efficient cars by recently halving the purchase taxes levied on vehicles equipped with engines smaller than 1.6 liters displacement, while sharply increasing taxes assessed on cars with engine displacements larger than 3.0 liters. The result has been a surge in sales of smaller cars with smaller engines — just what the government wanted.

Europe uses high fuel taxes and other means to push consumers to pay higher prices for smaller vehicles. Fiat SpA, Chrysler’s new industrial partner, sells a cuddly little minicar called the Fiat 500. I went to a U.K. Web site and configured a red one with a 1.20-liter “stop start” gasoline engine, an Italian flag stripe down the side and an electric sunroof. Fiat will throw in access to software that I can download and use to get readouts on the mileage and greenhouse-gas emissions of my car.

Asking price for my little red “green” car: £11,950, or about $17,900. That’s what I’d expect to pay for a midsize car in the U.S., after discounts. But in the U.K., higher fuel costs make buying a Fiat 500 more sensible — though not necessarily one with a stripe.

U.S. car makers have lobbied for higher gas taxes as the simplest way to push consumers into high-mileage cars. The Obama administration is betting on a different approach: Leave gas taxes alone, and instead invest government money in advanced battery development, offer tax breaks of up to $7,500 on hybrids and mandate tougher mileage standards to force car makers to use new fuel-saving technology. Washington now has a big financial stake in getting this right, or billions in public money plowed into Chrysler and GM could be vulnerable to energy markets.

This is probably why Mr. Obama sounded so sincere when he said, “I don’t want to run auto companies.”

SOURCE: Wall Street Journal

Electric-Car Fans Rally Around the Volt

By dancurranjr On April 22nd, 2009

phev-voltElectric car supporters are rising to defend General Motors’ development of the Chevy Volt after the Obama Administration’s automotive task force proclaimed that the car was probably too expensive to be commercially successful in the near future.

G.M. is hoping to launch the Volt in late 2010 with a price tag of about $40,000.

“While the Volt holds promise, it is currently projected to be much more expensive than its gasoline-fueled peers and will likely need substantial reductions in manufacturing cost in order to become commercially viable,” the task force noted in its recent assessment of GM’s restructuring plans. About $750 million is needed for near-term Volt development, according to the company.

Advocacy groups argue the task force’s assessment is shortsighted and worry that the Volt project may land in the scrap heap as G.M. rolls toward bankruptcy. Financial aid for such projects has been put on hold as G.M. and Chrysler struggle to come up with business plans that regulators will embrace.

“Any new technology like the Chevy Volt takes time to become profitable,” said Jay Friedland, the legislative director for Plug-In America, an electric-car advocacy group. “The Toyota Prius took over five years to reach break-even and has gone on to be a wild success.”

Electric car proponents at The California Cars Initiative believe the task force was unduly influenced by “plug-in skeptics” at the Boston Consulting Group, which is under government contract to provide input on the prospects for G.M. and Chrysler.

“Whatever B.C.G.’s expertise on the auto industry in general, we are concerned that in its understanding of future pathways, it offers a flawed analysis and predictions based on business-as-usual,” notes a posting on the California Car Initiative’s Web site.

The group pointed to a B.C.G. report titled, “The Comeback of the Electric Car? How Real, How Soon, and What Must Happen Next,” which concludes the costs of creating an automotive market dominated by electric and hybrid cars are prohibitively high for the foreseeable future – as high as $49 billion for Europe alone (along with another $21 billion for battery-charging infrastructure).

Still, the word from on high is that the Volt will make it to the finish line.

“Volt will survive and prosper,” G.M.’s vice chairman of product development, Robert Lutz, reportedly told Volt enthusiasts at the Web site GM-Volt.com. “We know the numbers better than the Government … we furnished them! First-generation technology is expensive, but you can’t have a second generation without a first generation.”

During his campaign, President Obama said he would work to put one million plug-in hybrids on American roads by 2015. Currently there are only about 1,500 500 plug-in hybrids and 500 1,500 pure electric cars, according to Plug-In America.

SOURCE: New York Times

Chevy Tahoe Hybrid SUV Breaks New Ground

By dancurranjr On April 20th, 2009

chevy-tahoeAmidst all the criticism of General Motors and the perception that it trails in the development and production of technologies and vehicles that meet current needs one fact has gone unnoticed.

GM produces the only volume-production, full-size hybrid light truck available anywhere in the world — state-of-the-art technology where it matters. It makes for good press to brag about 5-litre/100 km fuel economy in a class and size of vehicle where 6-litres/100 is the average.

While that 20 per cent improvement is worthy, the argument could be made that in a market where half of the vehicles purchased and driven are fuel-thirsty trucks, a similar reduction would save a great deal more fuel.

Put more directly, if you drive a compact hybrid 20,000 km a year you might save 200 litres of fuel. If on the other hand you drive a full-size SUV that savings would be in the order of 800 litres, conservatively. And there are more of these large vehicles on the road — making the impact even more significant.

I speak from personal experience with a 2009 Chevrolet Tahoe equipped with GM’s new Two-Mode Hybrid system. Conventional big SUVs powered by V8 engines, including both a Tahoe and a Yukon, driven over a particular 350-km test route involving both city and highway driving have averaged 16.3 litres/100 km. No attempt was made to save fuel. The vehicles were driven at legal speeds and the route included dozens of hills and long inclines.

I think of it as ‘real world’ mileage as compared to numbers generated in the laboratory of Saskatchewan-flat roads. The 2009 Yukon Hybrid averaged 12.1 litres/100 km over this same route despite string winds and cold temperatures. That is a real world saving of more than 25 per cent.

GM claims the two-mode Hybrid system can improve urban fuel consumption by as much as 50 per cent. While this may be possible under certain circumstances where the electric motors are used more often, the constant elevation changes in our area make that all but impossible.

But the 25 per cent improvement I witnessed is likely a worst-case scenario and if driven primarily and conservatively in the city, this big truck — and its GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade siblings would do much better than that. Like any hybrid, the big gains come in urban driving, with much of that from shutting the engine off when sitting at a light or stopped in traffic.

The Tahoe is the first vehicle to offer this new system, developed by GM in conjunction with BMW and Daimler-Benz. This cutting-edge two-mode hybrid system lets the Tahoe run on a big 6.0-litre V8 engine, electric motors or both. The V8 boasts variable valve timing and the ability to shut down four cylinders under low-load conditions. It also shuts down completely when the Tahoe comes to rest for more than a few seconds, restarted instantly and seamlessly by the 300-volt battery pack beneath the rear seats. Two electric motors inside the casing house the four-speed automatic transmission allowing the big truck to operate in two different modes — thus the Two-Mode Hybrid moniker.

In low-speed, gentle driving around town the Tahoe acts like other hybrids, shutting down at lights and drawing power from the battery pack and initial motivation from the electric motors, when crawling along in traffic or in the initial stages of accelerating away from a stop. The engine then kicks into life and, at higher speed or when more oomph is required, one or both electric motors go to work as well.

The Tahoe Hybrid gets a power-conserving air conditioning system and a deep front valance which may restrict off-road activity but it also cleans up airflow around the vehicle for improved aerodynamics. The 332-horse- power V8 and rugged chassis allow it to tow up to 6,000 pounds — well beyond the capability of any other hybrid on the planet.

While the Tahoe Two-Mode Hybrid offers welcome and measurable improvements in fuel consumption and exhaust emissions, it is restricted to a high-trim level putting it out of reach of the average buyer at a base price of $70,000.

The standard equipment list is extensive: heated seats, power adjustable pedals, power windows, seats and locks, OnStar, rear-view back-up system, navigation system, Bose audio, tri-zone climate control, on-demand four-wheel-drive and three rows of seats. The third row is best left for little or athletic people and there isn’t much room for cargo with all seats in position.

The Tahoe Hybrid breaks new ground. It is a big truck capable of towing heavy loads or carrying up to eight people. And it does this with technology that offers a considerable reduction in fuel consumption and exhaust emissions.

SOURCE: Chronicle Herald

GM Says Volt Isn’t Dead Yet, Despite Panel’s Bleak Report

By dancurranjr On April 8th, 2009

phev-voltThe White House may have sounded a bit bleak on the Chevrolet Volt last week, but both the company and the Obama administration say don’t read that as early news of the much-advertised electric car’s demise.

President Barack Obama’s auto task force last week said in an assessment of General Motors’ viability that it was a full generation behind Toyota in “green powertrain development” and that “while the Volt holds promise, it is currently projected to be much more expensive than its gasoline-fueled peers and will likely need substantial reductions in manufacturing cost in order to become commercially viable.”

A White House official who worked on the assessment said Wednesday, however, that the statements had been simply another way of saying what GM has said all along – it will be a challenge to bring the new technology up to scale and make it cost-competitive.

GM will have to make its own decisions about the pace of its advanced technology, said the official, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.

“You should not expect the task force will say GM should discontinue the Volt,” he said.

GM spokesman Dave Darovitz said there was nothing new in the government statement on high costs. New technology is always expensive, he said.

The company has added money to building the Volt, and it’s still the “No. 1 product development program here at GM,” he said.

“We will make it happen,” Darovitz said. “There is no deviation in our focus and intent to bring the car to market in late 2010.”

Darovitz said the government report made an unfair comparison with Toyota because it was dealing with two different technologies – the Prius gas-electric hybrid and the battery-powered, plug-in electric Volt.

Obama last week rejected GM’s restructuring plan and gave the automaker until June 1 to explain how it would reshape itself as a healthy company. GM seeks more than $16 billion in additional taxpayer funds.

GM reported in its five-year restructuring plan that it’s investing in hybrid and plug-in cars and trucks, including the Volt and two other models that will use its technology.

“With a majority of Americans driving their vehicles less than 40 miles per day, the Chevrolet Volt – providing up to 40 miles on a single electrical charge – should be attractive to those seeking to use little if any gasoline,” the GM plan said. “The development costs of high-technology vehicles like the Volt are significant, but so are the long-term benefits that come from increased energy efficiency and independence.”

Darovitz said the company expects state and federal incentives will help boost demand for the Volt, particularly a $7,500 federal tax credit. The Volt is expected to sell for around $40,000 because of the high cost of its batteries. The Energy Department has been helping with battery research to bring costs down.

SOURCE: Miami Herald