Carmakers rush to jump on green bandwagon



GENEVA, Switzerland -- There was a distinctly green theme at this year's Geneva motor show, as manufacturers battled to prove their environmental credentials in a world that is increasingly concerned with the environment and man's effect on it.

(Picture Left: Honda's Small Hybrid Sports Concept shows it's possible to eco-aware will having fun.)

Although petrol-electric hybrid vehicles are seen as the interim technology to reduce fossil fuel use and emissions of carbon dioxide, the hydrogen fuel cell is still likely to represent the future of motoring.

Plenty of the former were on display at Geneva as the industry realizes that so-called "green" cars can sell.

Honda and Toyota are the mass-market pioneers of petrol-electric hybrids, and although their offerings might be constructed at a loss it is worth it in terms of marketing and a perception of being at the vanguard of planet-saving technologies.

Yet it is Honda that stole the march with the presentation at Geneva of a driveable fuel cell-powered vehicle -- until now, such things had been confined to test beds and highly experimental prototypes.

Although still officially a concept, this vehicle is fully functional and a development of it could be production as soon as the end of this year, with Honda committed to selling this model in Japan and the U.S. next year.

It features a newly-developed compact, high-efficient Honda fuel-cell (FC) stack in a spacious saloon body. It offers a large, comfortable cabin and futuristic styling along with significant improvements in power output and environmental performance. It has a range of 354 miles (570 kilometers) and a top speed limited to 100 mph.

One of the biggest surprises was the announcement by Morgan, purveyor of quintessentially British sports cars, that it intends to develop a hydrogen fuel cell-powered machine. The company is famous for its traditional production methods, but managing director Charles Morgan announced a hydrogen-fueled, zero-emissions car -- using Morgan's traditional ash-framed body -- would be launched at Geneva next year. The goal is a lightweight car with a range of 200 miles.

(Picture Right: Lexus hopes LS600h will set standards in environmentally-conscious luxury cars)

The application of fuel-cell technology in smaller cars was investigated by Peugeot, with its Epure version of the 207CC. The existing small coupe-cabriolet (an open-top car with electrically operated folding steel roof) has a fuel cell developed in conjunction with the French atomic energy commission, which powers an electric motor to supply drive.

The investment in petrol-electric hybrids is massive.

Kia Motors of Korea demonstrated its intent to become a major player with the unveiling of its Rio Hybrid saloon at Geneva.

The European premiere of the hybrid celebrates the recent announcement that Kia, together with fellow Korean manufacturer Hyundai, will supply the Korean environment ministry with almost 4,000 hybrid vehicles over the next two years as part of the country's program of 'real-world' testing to develop this type of car propulsion. The existing Korean test fleet numbers 780.

The Kia Rio Hybrid saloon used in these tests has a 1.4-liter petrol engine, mated to a 12kW, 95 Nm AC synchronized electric motor and a continuously variable transmission (CVT) gearbox.

The high-torque permanent magnet electric motor is mounted between the flywheel and the gearbox and "assists" the petrol engine during starting, accelerating and hill-climbing, switching off during steady cruising when the petrol engine is at its most efficient. During deceleration it employs regenerative braking to recharge the battery.

The computer-controlled system also allows stop/start motoring which switches both engine and motor off whenever the car comes to a standstill for more than a few seconds. Restarting is automatic.

Compared to the standard petrol Rio, air pollutants are reduced by 37 per cent and fuel efficiency is improved by 44 per cent. The hybrid's CO2 figure is 126 g/km. There's little price to pay in terms of performance, with a top speed of 112 mph and 0-62 mph in 12.2 seconds, aided considerably by the inherent surge of torque from zero revs provided by the electric motor. Overall fuel consumption is 53.4 mpg.

To reduce fuel and power demands, the Rio Hybrid has an aluminum bonnet, boot lid and front seat frames, as well as lightweight wheels, low-friction tires and electric (rather than hydraulic) power steering.

Glimpse of future
Already to hit the streets is the latest petrol-electric hybrid from Lexus, the LS600h, which aims to set new standards in environmentally-conscious performance among luxury cars. It has a 5.0-liter V8 petrol engine, with two fuel injectors per cylinder and VVTi-E intelligent valve timing on the intake to boost performance and reduce emissions, noise and vibration.

What separates the Lexus from other luxury saloons is the inclusion of an electric motor, which enables the car to have the performance of a conventional V12-engined car with much lower fuel consumption and emissions. Its EC Combined economy is 29.7 mpg, with carbon dioxide emissions of 220 g/km, figures which compare well with the levels achieved by the cleanest diesels in the segment.

Honda unveiled its Small Hybrid Sports Concept at Geneva. This is a sports car that features a development of the company's existing hybrid technology in an effort to demonstrate that stylish design and driving enjoyment can be combined with low environmental impact. It was designed by Honda R&D Europe, based in Germany.

Meanwhile, Honda UK has announced that it plans to sell more than three times as many Civic Hybrids this year than in 2006, up to about 3,000 units.

Arch-rival Toyota revealed a new hybrid concept model, the Hybrid X. Designed by Toyota's European Design center, it gives a glimpse of the future for Toyota's hybrid synergy drive system, according to Toyota Motor Europe's executive vice-president, Thierry Dombreval.

"Over the next few years, we plan to double our global hybrid vehicle offering, anticipating annual sales of over a million hybrid vehicles by early in the next decade," Dombreval said. Including the compact Prius, Toyota and Lexus have 11 hybrid models on sale, and have sold 900,000 hybrids worldwide, of which 650,000 are the Prius.

Toyota also showed the FT-HS hybrid sports car shown at Detroit in January, which has a hybrid system capable of developing 400 bhp, providing a 0-60 mph acceleration time of about four seconds.

"Hybrd X and FT-HS represent two poles of the hybrid spectrum, which define the frontiers for an array of hybrids in the future," Dombreval added.

Biofuels -- those produced from naturally occurring products such as sugar cane -- are seen by some manufacturers as a way of reducing reliance of petrol while reducing harmful emissions. The fact that most cars also produce more power when running on bioethanol fuel is a bonus.

Saab already has a full range of flex-fuel (capable of running on petrol and biofuel) cars, and at Geneva launched a new, 1.8-liter flex-fuel engine for its 9-3 range of saloon, estate and convertible. The new engine 50-70 per cent less carbon dioxide (CO2) than its 1.8 t petrol engine equivalent, yet produces 17 per cent more power (to 175 bhp) and 10 per cent more torque (to 265 Nm) on bioethanol E85.

For comparison with standard petrol engine, the flex-fuel 9-3 sprints from 0-62 mph in 8.4 seconds and 50-70 mph in fifth gear -- a crucial test of real-world flexibility -- in 13.9 seconds, compared with 9.5 seconds and 15.0 seconds respectively.

Until the widespread availability of petrol-electric hybrids, there is still plenty of investment in cleaner internal combustion engines, both petrol and diesel. There is a genuine desire to achieve this, although the specter of even tougher Euro V emissions legislation is obviously an incentive.

Volkswagen has a range, called BlueMotion, designed to reduce fuel consumption. A Polo supermini has already gone on sale, and at Geneva the company announced BlueMotion versions of its Passat mid-size car and Touareg SUV.

The Passat BlueMotion saloon returns 55.4 mpg and produces just 136 g/km of CO2. Both saloon and estate models have a range of up to 838 miles (1,350 km).

Performance is barely compromised, with a top speed of 120 mph.

The Touareg SUV also has a turbodiesel engine, a 3.0-liter V6 developing 223bhp, with a Selective Catalytic Reduction system (SCR) reducing NOx emissions by up to 90 per cent. Current Euro IV emissions regulations dictate a NOx limit of 0.25 g/km -- the SCR-equipped Touareg meets the 0.043 g/km US limit.

The system sprays a film of ammonia-rich solution stored in an auxiliary tank into the exhaust stream before it reaches the new catalytic converter. A reaction occurs within the exhaust system to split the nitrogen oxide into harmless nitrogen and water. The SCR system works in conjunction with a diesel particulate filter and a conventional catalytic converter to further reduce emissions.

Although there are no plans to introduce the system in Europe, VW says that the SCR-equipped Touareg will go on sale in the US next year.

After being a late arrival on the diesel front, Honda produced a highly acclaimed 2.2-liter unit. Its next-generation diesel engine is claimed to reduce emissions to the same level of a petrol engine. A catalytic converter reduces nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions to a level that enables the engine to meet stringent US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requirements.

The catalytic converter uses the reductive reaction of ammonia to "detoxify" oxides of nitrogen by converting them into harmless nitrogen (N2). However, unlike the VW SCR system which uses an injection of liquid containing ammonia, the Honda system uses ammonia generated within the catalytic converter. Honda plans to introduce its next-generation diesel engine within three years.

Lack of a credible diesel engine severely hampers sales potential in prime European markets -- just ask Jaguar, which saw a sales slump due to its line-up of large-capacity petrol engines only.

Cadillac, part of General Motors, introduced a new V6 diesel at Geneva, a 2.9-liter unit developing 250 bhp and 550 Nm of torque. Its first production application is scheduled for 2009 in the next Cadillac CTS.

Off-road specialist Land Rover has a novel approach to woo car buyers who are concerned about the environmental impact of their purchase. Its CO2 Offset Program enables buyers of all new Land Rover vehicles sold in the UK pay to offset the CO2 emissions produced by their vehicle, calculated on the certified CO2 emissions level for each model up to 45,000 miles, or about three years of use. The cost is from £85 to £165 depending on model.

The ultimate goal is CO2 neutrality, with investments being made in renewable energy projects such as wind and solar, technology change and energy efficiency.


By Paul Hudson for CNN