In the late 19th century, urban areas were facing a crisis. People needed to move from one place to another, quickly and efficiently. Their primary mode of transportation was the horse. As the population grew, so did the number of horses. In his article, “From Horse Power to Horsepower“, Eric Morris sets the scene for us:
“In 1894, the Times of London estimated that by 1950 every street in the city would be buried nine feet deep in horse manure. One New York prognosticator of the 1890s concluded that by 1930 the horse droppings would rise to Manhattan’s third-story windows. A public health and sanitation crisis of almost unimaginable dimensions loomed.”
Something had to change to ward off the effects of the horse on the urban landscape. That change, of course, was the invention of the car, and along with it, the rise of the internal combustion engine to power it.
Today, we are looking at a crisis of unimaginable dimensions due to global warming. The production of greenhouse gases is contributing to a rise in the temperature on the planet, melting the polar ice caps, and creating storms of the century every year. We are more than three stories covered in warm air, and we will drown ourselves in more than nine feet of water if we maintain the status quo.
The writing is on the wall. Fossil fuels are expensive, contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, dangerous to transport (the tragedy in Lac Megantic brought this home at tremendous cost) and impact the environment to acquire (fracking and oil spills notwithstanding). I imagine that if the internal combustion engine was invented today, it wouldn’t be approved for manufacturing, let alone put on sale. I can picture the product meeting where the engineer explains his concept to his manager, and the manager reacts, something as follows:
“Let me understand this. You want to build a device that turns at thousands of revolutions per minute, has explosions in each of the ‘cylinders’ you describe, that uses only a fraction of the highly flammable fuel that it burns to actually generate power, and emits a poisonous gas? Are you out of your mind?”
However, over the last 100 years or so, auto manufacturers have continuously refined the internal combustion engine, making it extremely reliable, a low emitter of pollution, increasingly fuel-efficient, and quiet. It will be around for some time to come. In the meantime, manufacturers are working hard on improving the fuel economy of their vehicles to meet government regulations, demonstrating that they are as concerned about the environment as John Q. Public.
Big increases in fuel economy are difficult with existing technology. Auto manufacturers have had their ‘Back to the Future’ moment, looking to a technology that was pioneered some 100 years ago. Back then, cars ran on steam, kerosene, gasoline and electricity. Electric cars were slow, had short ranges and were very heavy. You could argue that not much progress has been made. Whoever comes up with a battery that is light weight and will give a vehicle a 500 kilometre range will take the world by storm.
In the meantime, what is to be done? Combine the two. Put a battery pack in a vehicle that can be recharged from a fairly clean source (if you view coal-fired or nuclear power plants as ‘clean’ sources) and supplement with a gasoline-fuelled powertrain to be used when the battery runs out. Two examples of this are available to purchase now, with more on the way.
The Toyota Prius is synonymous with hybrid electric vehicles. The Prius name is so strong, it is now a sub-brand within the Toyota family. With more than one million Prius’ sold, Toyota is the acknowledged market leader in hybrid vehicle technology. The next logical step was to create a plug-in version of this incredibly successful vehicle.
Ford is no slouch in the hybrid department. Just look at the ruckus created by New York cab drivers who can’t replace their Ford Escape hybrids with a new model, especially since Ford decided not to have a hybrid version of the newest Escape. Instead, they can look to the hybrid and plug-in versions of the all new C-MAX.
The C-MAX is a tidy-looking five door hatchback. It borrows heavily from the familial Ford styling cues of a fairly wide grille (the inverted Aston Martin), an attractive cut line extending from the rear tail lights and fading into the front fender, cat’s eyes rear tail lights and a tapering roof line.
The interior is reminiscent of Focus, and the tried and true centre stack with Sync and MyFord Touch will be familiar to existing Blue Oval drivers.
We’ll take a run at our first comparison of plug-in hybrid vehicles. A few notes before we get started.
There are two powertrains in each vehicle, one electric, and one internal combustion. Each powertrain has a horsepower rating and a torque rating. When the two powertrains are working together, a third set of horsepower and torque ratings can be found by combining the two together. The combined ratings are not created, for example, by simply adding the horsepower figure for the internal combustion engine (ICE) to the horsepower figure for the electric motor. They are calculated based on the peak horsepower rating for each engine. Better men than I are employed for this calculation.
For our purpose, we look at values based on the horsepower and torque ratings combined between the two modes. This way, we don’t stack the deck against electric only vehicles. When we can, we will show the separate ratings for the individual electric and ICE horsepower and torque numbers in our Measurement graphic, or as I like to call it, the rest of the story. This way, you’ll still have a feel for how much power is available in ICE or electric only mode.
If you are running in EV mode, you’ll want to know how much horsepower you have at your disposal. If you have to pass someone, and have 98 horsepower to drive a 2,000+ kilogram vehicle, you’re not going to make it on a two-lane road. That’s where the ICE comes in, to supplement the power needs of the electric motor.
Consider the Chevrolet Volt. It has an internal combustion engine to charge its on-board battery system. No power from Volt’s ICE ever sees the powertrain itself (with the exception of its ‘Mountain Mode’, which will on rare occasions send power to the wheels from the ICE). As far as we’re concerned, it’s of no value in terms of performance. It may be invaluable in terms of relieving range anxiety though, and that’s a value judgement we leave to you.
If we compare a pure electric, such as Nissan’s LEAF with a plug-in hybrid such as Prius, the Leaf could be at a value disadvantage if we were to account for the horsepower and torque of the two powertrains in Prius versus the one electric powertrain in LEAF. A better comparison vehicle for LEAF would be Volt, since we consider them both to be electric vehicles in terms of powertrain.
If we can’t source a number for the torque of the combined powertrain, that value will be left blank for comparison purposes. However, since torque is such a juicy portion of the electric driving experience, we will give value to electric motor horsepower in the absence of a listed combined powertrain torque rating.
Now that I’ve totally confused everyone, let’s get to the meat of the sandwich. First, the Common Equipment.
At first blush, the common equipment looks pretty much like any well-equipped, upper level vehicle. With the exception of brake energy recovery, lithium-ion battery and auto start-stop features, there’s no indication of the electric powerplant under the hood. Even BMWs feature brake energy recovery in most of their lineup. Volkswagen is rolling out auto start-stop on their Diesel and gasoline-fuelled vehicles.
Note the trend, however. These are small vehicles, priced at near-luxury levels owing to their hybrid/electric powertrains, with amenities befitting their cost. Manufacturers will have a tougher time in North America than in Europe persuading the purchasing public that luxury can come in a small package.
The value story:
We couldn’t source a figure for the combined hybrid torque rating for C-MAX or Prius, so we have used the electric motor torque rating in the value story. Does the C-MAX need a tachometer? I expect this engine measurement will disappear over time. A continuously variable transmissions keeps the engine operating in its optimum range for the best combination of fuel economy and performance. There are no shift points. No one is revving their vehicle to a red line on a tach and then shifting from first to second gear with these vehicles. We could have added the Technology Package to the Prius to even up the equipment list, but this would have pushed the Prius MSRP to more than $40,000.
Consider where Ford is coming from. Toyota owns the hybrid space in the market. Ford has had success with the Escape Hybrid, but that model is no more. To carve out their own niche, Ford has brought a very strong entrant to the segment. Well equipped, powerful, and fuel-efficient, C-MAX trumps the Prius in EV range. Meanwhile, the C-MAX is also a real car:
On a shorter wheelbase, and a trimmer overall length, Ford has created a vehicle that has more interior room, more head and leg room, and beats Prius in almost every interior measurement. C-MAX takes longer to charge, but it has 50% more range in EV mode than Prius. Market leader or not, Prius will have some stiff competition from new entrants in a space Toyota has pretty much had to itself.
We are now facing our ‘horse’ moment. These two vehicles won’t save the planet. But they are a great first step in reducing the greenhouse gases that are rapidly changing our environment.