European Carmakers Embrace Plug-in Cars

By · September 10, 2009

Mercedes Vision S500 Plug-in Hybrid

Mercedes Vision S500 Plug-in Hybrid

The growing list of part- or pure-electric cars to be displayed at next week’s Frankfurt Auto Show establishes a new litmus test for green cars at auto shows: Cars without plugs are behind the times.

It’s not enough that Mercedes-Benz announced that it might make the next generation of its S-Class sedans all hybrid. That would mark the first time that an entire model line is converted to gas-electric technology. The S-Class mild hybrid, which is already on sale in Europe and goes on sale later this year in the US, is equipped with a 3.5-liter gasoline engine and electric motor powered by lithium ion batteries. (Mercedes's use of lithium ion batteries in a mild hybrid is used to reduce size, not to increase power or electric drive.)

In the new reality, converting an entire line to hybrid is not enough to demonstrate a green commitment—so Mercedes will unveil the Vision S500 Plug-in Hybrid. (BMW also uses the word "vision" in the name of its new plug-in hybrid.) The S500 Plug-in will provide 18 miles of electric-only driving before the gas engine kicks in. Mercedes also will present the E-Cell Plus electric car concept that it showed in Detroit in January—but this time, the small car takes on a turbocharged, 1-liter, three-cylinder engine, to turn it into a plug-in hybrid with 60 or so miles of all-electric range. The two Mercedes plug-in cars—as well as plug-in hybrids and electric cars from other European carmakers—are pure auto show spectacle at this stage. But the creation and display of plug-in concept cars represents a shift of direction that could eventually yield production vehicles.

European Plug-in Car Debuts in Frankfurt

BMW Vision width="381" />
Mercedes E-Cell Plus width="224" height="174" />
Peugeot iON width="224" height="174" />

BMW Vision EfficientDynamics (left), Mercedes E-Cell Plus Plug-in Hybrid (top right), and Peugeot iON (bottom right).

  • Audi will showcase an electric R8 concept sports car with a range of about 100 miles
  • BMW will unveil the Vision EfficientDynamics, a plug-in diesel-electric supercar concept.
  • Volkswagen will display an electric version of its Up minicar, scheduled to go on sale after gasoline- and diesel-powered versions of the car are launched in 2011.
  • Peugeot's stand will showcase the iOn electric minicar. Peugeot hopes to annually sell 25,000 units of the small car, based on Mitsubishi i-MiEV.
  • Renault-Nissan will show an entire line of electric vehicles, called Renault Zero Emission. Its Nissan Leaf will begin to roll out in the US late next year.

Leading or Following

The introduction of European plug-in concept cars at the Frankfurt Auto Show comes at a time when the German government is stepping up its commitment to grid-connected vehicles. After pledging last month to spend $700 million on electric car infrastructure to help the country put 1 million electric cars on German roads by 2020, the government set up a new government agency yesterday to coordinate electric car research and development.

Forbes called the government step “an electric car PR stunt.” Gregor Claussen, an analyst with Commerzbank, told Forbes, "At a first glance this sounds rather like a nice PR story. But more will have to follow. Without the help and the right framework from the politics, it will not work.” Analysts also believe the push 1 million electric cars will be too small to be noticed.

After the Frankfurt Auto Show closes, German carmakers will either move forward on production of new plug-in hybrids and electric cars—disregarding the market as too small—or face the prospect of having foreign competition slowly coming into its own turf to sell plug-in vehicles. California-based luxury electric carmaker Tesla opens a new retail store in Munich today.

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