Posts Tagged ‘electric motor’


Electric Flash: Green Cars are Getting Stylish

April 3, 2015
BMW i8

BMW i8 – Style and Eco-friendly

 By Roger Witherspoon

            A car doesn’t have to be dull and plodding to be green.

One wouldn’t know that from the proficient, but uninspiring plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles that crawled off the drawing boards of the major auto companies. But that seems about to change.

“We call ourselves the ultimate driving machine,” said Matt Russell of BMW North America. “Preserving that driving experience is everything to us. We sell to those who really love driving, and we needed a way to build a sports car that was also energy efficient.

“We needed a sports car that can go from 0-60 miles per hour in 3.6 seconds, top out at 155 miles an hour and has a fuel efficiency rating of 72 miles per gallon. And that’s the BMW i8.”

The i8, unveiled at the New York International Auto Show, is a stealth fighter of a car built to flow through the air rather than punch through it. There are grooves in the body designed to channel onrushing air through a narrow opening in the rear, not unlike the combustion chamber of the average jet. The result, at high speed, is you ride on a cushion of air and hear nothing from the world outside.

Porsche Cayenne Plug-in: Fast and family friendly

Porsche Cayenne Plug-in: Fast and family friendly

Not to be outdone Porsche has taken its Cayenne, the 150-miles per hour SUV, and retooled a plug-in hybrid version as a family-friendly companion to its hybrid Panamera sports car.

“It’s our feeling that electric motors are the wave of the future,” said Porsche spokesman Thomas Hagg. “But the technology isn’t quite there yet and the infrastructure and market aren’t ready for completely electric vehicles. But we feel it is certainly coming, so we have begun moving in that direction with the plug-in hybrid.  The Panamera proved that we can have an electric hybrid that meets the quality demands of Porsche in terms of performance and handling.

“But to really move our brand into the electric future we needed to develop a plug-in hybrid for the Cayenne, which is our best-selling model.”

The combined Porsche power plant was on display at the New York exhibit, which lasts till April 12, but is definitely not just for show. The Cayenne has a 95 horsepower electric motor combined with a 333 horsepower, three-liter V6 engine. One can drive the Cayenne about 20 miles on purely electric power – which is ample for many commutes – and the combined power plant gets about 50 miles per gallon.

While BMW and Porsche may have had the plug-in hybrid showstoppers, they were certainly not alone among auto makers who see an increasingly electric future. Ford’s popular Fusion has a plug-in electric model and Mitsubishi, which introduced a newly designed Outlander SUV, is also bringing out a part-electric hybrid version.

Mitsubishi iMiEV:

Mitsubishi iMiEV

The company tentatively entered the all-electric market with its iMiEV, an awkwardly named vehicle that most resembled an ostrich egg on wheels. It was comfortable and efficient. But cars are a form of sculpture defined by how they make a person stop, look, and feel when standing close and then sitting inside. For many families, it is the largest form of kinetic art they will buy. As art works, the iMiEV or BMW’s i3 would never draw a crowd.

Hence the change. “The Outlander plug-in hybrid,” said Mitsubishi Executive Vice President Don Swearingen, “is a bigger vehicle and clearly one that will appeal to more consumers than the fully electric ones with their more limited range.

“We actually developed it a few years ago and started selling it in Japan and then in Europe. The demand was so high that the plant that makes our batteries is at full capacity. We still are offering all electric cars, but our growth opportunity is in the plug-in space. I drive a fully electric car, but I live 40 miles from work. As long as I can charge each night and again at the office it works fine.  But if I want to make a longer trip, a decision has to be made as to what car to use.

Outlander Plug-in Hybrid

Outlander Plug-in Hybrid

“With the plug-in hybrid, all those considerations go away. We felt it important to offer a plug-in, five-passenger vehicle, which has 4-wheel drive capabilities and is a great opportunity for families. Since we were redesigning the Outlander, it made sense to design a version for the electric motor and batteries.”

While the regular Outlander is a seven passenger SUV, the hybrid version will seat five people, and the added space will be taken up by the battery pack. The Outlander will have two 60-horsepower electric motors – one assigned to each axle – as well as a 121-horsepower, 4-cylinder gasoline engine. The combination delivers about 44 miles per gallon.

Electric cars dominated American roadways for the first 20 years of the 20th Century, but quickly lost out to gasoline-powered vehicles which could go a lot further without worrying about a dead battery.

“Electric cars were initially the best sellers,” said Bob Casey, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. “The assumption was that if there is going to be any widespread use of horseless carriages, electricity has a lot of advantages. You could start it easily and you didn’t need to shift any gears because of the torque characteristics of electric motors.

“In the 1890s people were making electric cars and steam-powered cars and then there was a newcomer in the lot – a smoky, noisy, dirty, internal combustion engine.  In those early days, it wasn’t clear what these things were good for.  If you lived in a city, public transportation was very good and the cities were very walkable.

“If you had a car, you used it to drive into the country at what was then considered the astonishing speeds of 15 miles per hour. But you couldn’t go far into the country because the roads were bad and there was no electricity and no place to recharge. The gas cars were much better suited to that use. By 1909 the electric car and steam car were both sold at the margins, and the market was dominated by cars powered by the internal combustion engine.”

The second coming of electric cars hasn’t changed that equation much.

“Right now,” said Orth Hedrick, Kia’s vice president for product planning, “electric vehicles are just three to five percent of the market, and the driving range is the biggest factor holding them back.

“Most people are used to a gas tank with 250 to 300 miles of driving range. But you can’t use an EV to go take a trip to see Grandma.  A lot of people view driving EVs like leaving the driveway with the gas empty light on and wondering how far they can go before the car stops.”

The technical fix to that anxiety was the plug-in hybrid.

Chevy Volt

Chevy Volt

When Chevrolet came out with its 2011 Volt plug-in hybrid it stressed the fact that the compact could get more than 300 miles to a tank of gas. Having the electric motors directly on the axle provided instant torque, enabling the small car to take off like a turbocharged roadster.  The Volt definitively proved the concept of the plug-in hybrid, even if its looks didn’t wow the consumers.

Which is why Kia is banking on an all-electric version of its youth-oriented Soul, a car marketed with hip-hop hamsters to lure a younger generation to its environmentally friendly wheels.  Basketball star Lebron James may lure buyers into Kia showrooms to see their high-performing sports car, the K-900. But once they are in the showroom, Kia is banking on the Now Generation driving off in an urban-oriented Soul.

“We designed the electric and the gas versions at the same time, rather than take an existing car and modify it so you lose space to the batteries,” explained Hedrick. “The Soul will get 93 miles before you need to recharge, which is the best range in the electric car market except for the $80,000 Tesla, which costs three times as much.

“The Soul is our best-selling vehicle. It has a cool, funky design that is perfect for the urban buyer and it will be the cornerstone of our clean mobility program.”

And Kia’s hamsters will bounce merrily to the quieter beat.

Kia Soul : Electric Hip-Hop

Kia Soul : Electric Hip-Hop



Two for the Road:The Hybrid and the Sports Sedan

May 9, 2010



By Roger Witherspoon


            There are some songs which seem made for road trips.

            The sun was high, the road was dry and, at 120 miles per hour, the Connecticut landscape was a kaleidoscope of spring floral prints which seemed to throb in time with the bass line of the Temptations’ Runaway Child pounding from the 15 speakers in the Harmon-Kardon sound system.

            It was warm enough to have the windows down and the panoramic sunroof fully open, yet the air flow around the sleek silhouette of the Mercedes S-550 kept enough of the wind noise out of the car that I could pretend I was a teenager again and sing loudly off key along with the storied Motown group.

            Back in the mid-60s, of course, I was driving a Nash Rambler with red bucket seats. Forty-five years later I could hardly fit into trim seats like that and, fortunately, I didn’t have to. The 2010 S-550 has the ultimate in adjustable seating. Drivers and front passenger have a choice of massage settings, heating or cooling, seat lengths, lumbar supports, and side supports, all at the touch of door-mounted buttons. In addition, every time the car goes into a turn, the side of the chair opposite the turn inflates to keep you firmly in your seat like a parent cradling a child. It is surprising at first, as if there is an unseen presence in the car reaching out to you. But you get used to it really fast.

            The passengers in the back seats don’t have all those bells and whistles. But their seats can be heated or air cooled and recline. And to make up for the lack of personal massagers, each rear passenger has a personal DVD screen built into the back of the front seats and wireless headsets and controls for personal viewing. And if it’s a really sunny day the driver, at the push of a button, rolls a sunscreen across the back windshield. Each of the rear passengers controls their own window screen.

            The S-550 is near the top of the Mercedes luxury line, offering modest speed – it tops out at 130 miles per hour – with its trademark sleek styling and handling. It looks and feels like a car costing $120,000.

            It’s propelled by a V-8 engine cranking out a respectable 382 horsepower, and is mated to a seven-speed transmission which shifts seamlessly in automatic mode or manual utilizing the paddle shifts behind the steering wheel. As you might expect, a car like this comes with a $1,000 gas guzzler tax. The EPA estimates the car gets just 14 miles per gallon in city driving and 21 MPG on the highway. The test car had a mixed average of 15 MPG – which means in mostly city driving the sedan was hanging close to single digits.

            If you want the same car with better mileage and no sacrifice in amenities or performance, Mercedes has the S-400H, its first luxury hybrid.  According to the EPA, the S-400H gets 19 city, and 26 highway miles per gallon – which is respectable for a large sedan. In addition, the hybrid costs $10,000 less than the standard model, the S-550. That is an unusual price switch which earned the S-400H plaudits from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

            The UCS (  rates hybrids from the standpoint of their greenhouse gas reductions, and their value in terms of the amount of “forced features” they may have. Don Anair, the UCS engineer who maintains the Hybrid Center Scorecard (  ), explained that “when you purchase a hybrid, they often come with features which are otherwise options. The value score we created looked at the cost of the hybrid system vs. the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and determined how much you are paying for a percentage in reductions.

            “The Ford Escape’s base model has three trim levels. But you only get the hybrid at the mid trim level – you’re forced to buy the features which are optional on the standard Escape.  It can run to a lot of money: on the Lexus 600 the difference was about $20,000.”

            The UCS gave Mercedes high marks putting the same amenities in both the S-400H and the standard S-550, and the price is lower because the gasoline engine on the hybrid is a V-6 producing 275 horsepower – about 100 less than in the all gasoline version.

            But its ecological improvement was just marginal because the S-400H has what is called a “mild” rather than full hybrid. “You can’t drive on the electric motor alone,” Anair said. “You get a 14% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but you benefit from the idle-off feature which shuts down the gasoline engine whenever you stop.

            “Mercedes has talked about developing a full hybrid, and we hope they move in that direction.  What you get with the S-400H is beneficial but not powerful enough to propel the vehicle.”

            The major cost difference between the S-550 and its hybrid sibling stems from the larger engine and a $6,000 facelift. The all gasoline model has a sleeker silhouette and 19-inch, five-spoke AMG sport wheels.

            Inside they are the same. Both vehicles feature six-disc CD players, XM satellite radio, Bluetooth cell phone interface and iPod and USB port connections. There is also a 40-gigabyte hard drive to store your own tunes or movies. Whatever your musical tastes, the 15-speaker Harman/Kardon LOGIC-7 system bathes you in smooth waves of sound without overwhelming and battering you with noise.

            If there is a downside to the technology in these luxury liners, it’s that the computerized command system is not user friendly and there is a steep learning curve for functions which should be intuitive, such as the radio or navigation system. One should not have to read a manual to locate the FM radio. But once learned, the technological innovations can be impressive.

            On the safety side the cars are equipped with a small camera on the dashboard facing the driver and connecting to the side radar used in monitoring lane control and the adaptive cruise command. During the first 20 minutes of driving above 35 miles per hour, the camera records eye motions and the safety system’s computer monitors how the driver responds to lane changes and sudden swerves and turns. Using that as a baseline, the system then monitors the driver’s attention span.

            If you are drifting outside your lane or the camera’s computer notices what appears to be inattention and your eyes closing, a warning sound is produced and a message pops up in the midst of the speedometer asking is it “time for a  rest?” accompanied by the image of a steaming coffee cup. It is not quite the computer system governing the automated, interactive Audi driven by Will Smith in I Robot – but it’s heading in that direction

            The driver monitoring system is augmented with an infrared night vision camera which pops a thermal image of the road ahead in the middle of the dash in place of the speedometer – which becomes a digital readout at the bottom of the screen. The infrared screen can see images 500 feet in front of the car and pedestrians are bracketed to make sure the driver notices them. The ability to detect body heat is a serious advantage in places like upstate New York, where Bambi and her cousins run into more than 1,200 cars each week. And while Mercedes doesn’t advertise this, the infrared beam can spot the heated engine of a police car waiting behind bushes with its lights out long before the car is in range of a radar gun.

            Slowing down, staying awake and avoiding tickets are very good things.




2010 Mercedes Benz S-550

MSRP:                                                                       $116,995

EPA Mileage:                        14 MPG City                          21 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   15 MPG Mixed

Performance / Safety:       

            0 – 60 MPH                                                    5.4 Seconds

            Top Speed:                                                     130 MPH

5.5-Liter, 32-valve, aluminum V-8 engine producing 382 horsepower and 391 pound-feet of torque; 7-speed transmission with automatic and  manual mode with paddle shift; all wheel drive; electronic traction control;  rack-and-pinion steering;  air suspension; internally ventilated disc brakes; 19-inch AMG 5-spoke wheels; dual chrome exhausts; active bi-xenon headlights and cornering lights; driver safety system; night vision;  dual stage front airbags;  front and rear side airbags; head curtain airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM/XM satellite and HD radio; 6-disc CD player; iPod and USB port; 40-gigabyte hard drive; 15-speaker Harman/Kardon Logic-7 surround sound; power sunroof; power sunscreens; leather, adjustable seats with massager; wood trim; rear DVD players.

2010 Mercedes Benz S-400H

 MSRP:                                                                       $105,230

EPA Mileage:                        19 MPG City                          26 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   21 MPG Mixed

Performance / Safety: 

            0 – 60 MPH                                                    7.2 Seconds

            Top Speed:                                                     130 MPH

 3.5-Liter, 24-valve, aluminum V-6 gasoline engine producing 295 horsepower and 284 pound-feet of torque; 3-phase, mild hybrid, 120-volt electric motor producing 20 horsepower and 118 pound-feet of torque.


Toyota Prius: Leading the Hybrid Pack

January 4, 2010

By Roger Witherspoon

            There are few cars which have come along over the years and defined a change in the industry as much as the compact Toyota Prius. This was the car that showed what the potential of a hybrid could be, and it met with predictable scorn from its American and foreign competitors.

            It was small, the rear seats were uncomfortable, and there was the nagging fear – partly because it was new and partly because of whispers spread by competitors – that those battery packs were going to blow up. The criticism of the interior space had some validity; the rest was just jealousy.

            But the Toyota had something going for it: advanced technology which set it apart form all the rest of the car makers, and word of mouth advertising about that persistent 50 miles per gallon. And it didn’t hurt that while Prius owners have driven into car accidents, there haven’t been any reports of battery fires and explosions – putting to rest the more colorful of the lies.

            But all things get old and Toyota, never one to sit on its laurels, has now updated its premier hybrid with the intention of eliminating the few complaints which had some basis in fact. And with the new 2010 Prius, they have engineered another trendsetter.

            This Prius still has a 50 miles per gallon rating and, with careful driving, that figure can be pushed up considerably closer to the 100 MPG mark. Without really trying hard, the test car produced 65 MPG, some of it during snow conditions which tend to drag the averages down.

            The new Prius is a mid-sized four-seater which will be able to compete in terms of comfort and appointments with the more established, standard brands in the field. It still has the iconic oval shape, but Toyota’s designers have widened the glass on the sides and extended the glass to include the trunk area. The effect is to feel as if you are driving in a glass bubble with comfortable leather seats. And those seats can be heated which, on snowy northeastern days, is appreciated. The pair in the rear have enough leg and head room for a pair of small NBA forwards, about six-foot four- inches – which means there is plenty of room for the rest of us. These seats also fold flat to enlarge a surprisingly ample trunk area.

            In addition, the Prius’ hatchback look is deceptive. There is a lot more room inside than is readily apparent. Teresa Doherty, who teaches earth science and information technology at Corcoran High School in Syracuse, N.Y., knew she wanted a car with low emissions and low gas mileage. But Doherty is the outdoors type, and her car had to have room for her nine-foot-long kayak, her mountain bike, and a week’s worth of camping gear – including the air mattress and tent.

            “I’m 5-foot 5,” she said, “And I wanted to make sure that when everything was folded down flat, there was room enough to sleep comfortably. The tent is fine, but when the weather doesn’t cooperate it’s nice to be able to sleep in the back of a car. I just put down the air mattress and stretch out.”

            So she took her bike and backpack to a showroom, folded the rear and front passenger seat of the Prius, and stretched out.  When she got home with her new Prius, she packed her bike and kayak.

            “I’ve camped out kin Main, the Adirondacks, and gone all across the country with my kayak, bike and gear,” Doherty said. “On warm nights I just use the air mattress and crack the windows and go to sleep.  It all fits just fine.”

            Under the hood is the combination 1.8 liter, four-cylinder, 98-horsepower gasoline engine and the 80-horsepower hybrid motors connected to each axel. The latter are capable of driving the car up to about 30 miles per hour on just the battery, which pretty much obviates the need for gas in city driving. The gasoline engine is not the strongest; it takes nearly 10 seconds to go from 0 – 60 miles per hour. By that time, mid-sized competitors like the Audi A-4 or Nissan Altima are long gone. But you pay a lot more than the Prius’ $32,000 sticker for the difference in speed. On the road, however, the Prius power package provides enough combined power to easily earn a speeding ticket if you want one.  More importantly, it handles as well on snow and ice as its more established competitors.

            Inside, the front seats are divided by an elevated console that is sort of an extended arm rest for the driver with a storage area underneath that easily handles pocket books or brief cases. It’s a design lifted from the Buick Rendezvous, but having the console serve as an arm rest actually works and feels better on the Prius. It is a design change from the earlier editions of the Prius, in which there was a traditional console and you could slide over it and change from the drivers’ seat to the front passenger seat. The raised center blocks that maneuver, though it is ergonomically easier on the right arm and hand, and the storage area under the console is more accessible to the driver.

            The major gauges are set into the center of the dash, hidden from the glare of the sun by a low, sloping roof, providing a peek-a-boo effect which, in this car, is appealing. Electronically, the Prius offers the types of gadgets you would demand in a car of this price range.

            It has a full navigation system with a touch screen and traffic and weather updates, an item borrowed from the Lexus line. For entertainment, the car has AM/FM and XM satellite radio, as well as a 4-disc, CD changer with the music brought to you through eight JBL speakers. There are also MP3 and iPod connections, as well as a Bluetooth system which is easy to set up.

            Toyota also added technology to its safety systems. Its cruise control is now radar guided, allowing you to maintain a set distance from the car in front, slowing down automatically when there is a slower car in front, and speeding up when it gets out of the way. The system also sounds an alert if the car drifts out of its lane – a useful system if one is tired and driving at night, or in really bad rain or snow when it is difficult to see the dotted lane lines on the road. If the system senses that a collision is about to occur, it automatically applies to brakes and tightens the seat belts to lessen the shock.

            As a car designed to maximize the potential of hybrid technology, the Prius is in a class of its own. The newest edition of the Prius continues setting standards which will be hard to match.


2010 Toyota Prius


MSRP:                                                                       $32,771

EPA Mileage:                        51 MPG City                          48 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   65 MPG Mixed


Performance / Safety:


1.8-Liter, 4-cylinder, DOHC aluminum engine producing 98 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque; 650-volt electric motor producing 80 horsepower and 153 pound-feet of torque; hybrid system net power 134 horsepower; electronic continuously variable transmission;  independent MacPherson front suspension; torsion beam rear suspension; power rack and pinion steering;  stability and traction control; front and passenger side curtain and knee airbags; dynamic radar controlled cruise system; pre-collision system; lane change warning; 17-inch allow wheels; 4-wheel disc brakes.

Interior / Comfort:


AM/FM/ XM satellite radio; voice activated navigation system with touch screen and XM traffic and weather; 4-disc CD player with 8 JBL speakers; Bluetooth; backup camera; MP3 and iPod connection; heated front seats; leather seats and steering wheel; tilt & telescope steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls.

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