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German Hybrids: Better on the Second Try

Slowly, surely, German automakers try making a hybrid we actually want.

By Clifford Atiyeh Feb 9, 2012 10:22AM

BMW ActiveHybrid 3, courtesy BMWWith failure after failure, we can reasonably conclude that German automakers and hybrid powertrains go together like sausage and whipped cream. While it might seem easy, even fun, to make a new dish from disparate ingredients, the end product is usually a giant, disgusting mess that few people will swallow.

In the past few years, BMW and Mercedes-Benz have made small batches of half-hearted hybrids that neither sipped fuel nor satisfied our guts. BMW canceled the ActiveHybrid 7 Series and X6 last year; not even wealthy people with upwards of $90,000 to spend could understand why they’d want to pay $20,000 more to receive a 3-mpg uptick in the city -- especially when the standard car was so quick. That was the ActiveHybrid X6, a vehicle that, in regular trim, already requires serious brain retooling to purchase.

Mercedes-Benz likewise canceled its ML450 Hybrid for 2011, partly since it couldn’t measure up against the lower cost and greater efficiency of the Lexus RX 450h. Of course, we shouldn’t blame just the Germans – the inefficient “2-mode” system used on the X6 and ML hybrids were co-developed with General Motors and Chrysler, which canceled its Durango Hybrid after just a few months in 2009. All the first Lexus hybrids acted just like BMWs, with big V8s and negligible efficiency gains. A savvier Volkswagen waited until later in 2010 to introduce its Touareg Hybrid, though there hasn’t been much interest there, either. These are heavy vehicles with little to save by adding more weight in batteries.

Why are the German automakers so behind on hybrid technology? Partly, they had little clue on how to match their fun-to-drive cars with ultracomplex, highly efficient powertrains like those in the Toyota Prius. The Mercedes-Benz S400, with its odd-feeling regenerative brakes and inability to drive on its small, lithium-ion battery, is a good example. The other reason, aside from Audi’s North American president calling the Chevrolet Volt a “car for idiots,”  had to do with diesel.

The Germans are good at diesel. Very, very good. Just ask a Jetta or Golf TDI owner how his car is running, and soon you’ll be talking 50-plus mpg scores and cheap conversion kits for running on used french-fry oil. Diesels are quicker around the city than comparable gasoline models, they get better highway mileage than hybrids, the engines are bulletproof and, thanks to advanced catalytic converters and filters, they don’t smell. But in America, diesel is still a dirty word. And despite how great a BMW 335d is, it might as well be sold on the moon.

We won’t see a new hybrid 7 Series or ML-Class soon. But we will see a hybrid version of the venerable Mercedes-Benz E-Class, which will be available as a diesel hybrid in Europe. The new BMW ActiveHybrid 5 drives well, according to initial reports, yet neither of these sedans do that well at the pump, with EPA-combined estimates of 27 mpg for the Benz and 28 mpg for the BMW. We can forgive Porsche, a true sports-car manufacturer, for not posting record numbers with its Cayenne S and Panamera Hybrid models -- but I do love how the engine shuts off while coasting at 90 mph. Audi, the last German automaker to tiptoe into the hybrid fold, is planning a hybrid A6 and Q5 later this year.

The real stars are the Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid and BMW ActiveHybrid 3, which boast respective 45 mpg and 36 mpg combined ratings. Both cars use more powerful lithium-ion batteries, and unlike the slogging, gearless soup in the Prius, their transmissions are normal and peppy (the BMW uses an 8-speed automatic, the VW a 7-speed dual-clutch). Their smaller engines and lighter weight mean even less emissions and greater mileage than their bigger hybrid siblings. So long as the prices are contained, these two will be standouts in the entire segment, not just among German hybrids.

We'll have to see how they perform in the real world, but the very idea of a German hybrid that doesn't leave a strange aftertaste is something we should all want to try.



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