Luxury cars go green
Luxury cars are are turning over a new, greener leaf.
Sep 8, 2011 - William Loeffler - pittsburghlive.com
Mercedes, Porsche and BMW -- brands that are synonymous with affluence -- are producing vehicles that use electricity, ethanol and even hydrogen.
The trend is driven by higher gasoline prices, the recession and stricter government fuel-efficiency standards.
"Buyers are going to start demanding more fuel efficiency even from luxury cars," says Bill Visnic, analyst and senior editor at Edmunds.com, an automotive research and review website. "Even if they can afford (higher gasoline prices), it still works on their psychology."
The green option also can serve as a counterweight to the conspicuous consumption many associate with luxury vehicles.
"We really saw that take a turn when the recession hit," Visnic says. "People that still had money through the recession, they still want to purchase these kind of cars -- but you still don't want to look like you're one of those dinosaurs from the pre-recession, where you're wasting resources."
Most Americans associate "green" vehicles with hybrids, which use an electric motor in concert with a gasoline-powered internal-combustion engine. While there are more than 50 hybrid cars on the market, including the top-selling Toyota Prius, they account for about 2 percent of total sales in the United States, Visnic says.
In May, Mercedes sold 51 hybrid cars in the United States, he says, while BMW sold 20 and Porsche sold 114.
Federally mandated fuel-economy regulations present a challenge for luxury automakers, Visnic says. Last month, the Obama administration struck an agreement with major auto manufacturers that would raise efficiency standards for cars and light trucks between 2017 and 2025. It would require a company's fleet of vehicles to average 54.5 miles per gallon.
"With them, it's a little tougher because almost everything that they make is skewed to the more consumption end of the scale," Visnic says. "They're powerful and heavy."
Luxury automakers are responding in different ways:
â€¢ Last month, BMW announced the launch of its BMW i brand, which includes the i3 Concept, a compact all-electric car intended for urban driving, and the i8 Concept, a plug-in hybrid sports car. They will be available in 2013 and 2014, respectively. The passenger compartments of both vehicles will be made of lightweight but strong carbon fiber, as well as some recycled plastic and aluminum.
"The i vehicles are not just vehicles to be done with alternative power plans." says Tom Kowaleski, vice president of corporate communications for BMW North America. "They're new vehicles that use new material in new ways."
â€¢ In December, Mercedes-Benz began a test program that allowed people in the United States to lease its B-Class F-Cell, which uses hydrogen-powered fuel cell technology.
"You combine the hydrogen with the oxygen, and out comes the water molecule and electricity," says Sascha Simon, head of advance product planning at Mercedes-Benz. "The electricity powers the engine. ... The only by-product that this car actually generates is water."
However, there are very few hydrogen filling stations in the United States, which makes mass production impractical, he says.
Mercedes-Benz also makes the S400 Hybrid and the Smart for Two Electric Drive that can get up to 98 miles on a single charge of its lithium-ion battery. Other Mercedes use a BlueTec "clean diesel" technology in which nitrogen oxide, a pollutant, is converted into nitrogen and water when combined with an additive called AdBlue in the catalytic converter.
â€¢ Bentley Motors now makes its entire Continental range, including the new Supersports Convertible, with FlexFuel technology, which means the autos may be powered by gasoline, E85 biofuel, or any mixture of the two. This model year, all Continentals are available in North America as FlexFuel vehicles.
â€¢ Porsche is taking orders for its limited-edition 918 Spyder, a plug-in hybrid sports car that won't be put into production until 2013. It will feature a 500 horsepower plus V-8 engine and two electric motors, and can reach speeds of 199 mph. Porsche is test driving three electric car prototypes called the Boxter E.
In the meantime, Porsche's 2012 Panamera S Hybrid features a supercharged V-6 engine that works in tandem with a 47-horsepower electric motor.
"We expect them to be a really hot seller," says Quemarce Khaiatzadeh, internet sales manager at Auto Palace Porsche in Shadyside.
Dave Engelman, media relations manager at Porsche Cars North America, says the challenge is to maintain the performance and mystique of the Porsche brand while improving the fuel efficiency.
"Porsche has to be Porsche," he says. "In other words, just 'greenwashing' and labeling a car a hybrid isn't enough. A Porsche hybrid still has to perform like any other Porsche, while being even more efficient. "
But, he says, "it's all moving tin the right direction."
"I don't believe that hybrids are going to be the ultimate answer. It's the middle step between what we have now and what's coming next. What that next is, who knows?"