As you could imagine, I follow a few blogs about sustainability. I also follow a few blogs about cars. For a while I noticed a trend: I’d read about an interesting new hybrid drive or EV concept on a sustainability website only to see the same concept jeered on the gearhead boards. But lately this trend is changing, as many major manufacturers are offering the fastest and most powerful cars they’ve ever built on hybrid or EV platforms.
Here are five reasons that every guy or gal who likes to drive fast, corner hard, and squeeze every last drop of horsepower out of their ride should be as excited about EV adoption as I am:
1) Faster off the line: instant access to full torque.
Here’s a Tesla Model S beating a $106,000, 560-hp BMW M5 in a 0–100-mph drag race. How does the Tesla do it? Electric motors give you instant access to the full power of the engine at every part of the power band. The BMW has an extra 140 hp and 47 lb-ft of torque over the Tesla, but all that torque isn’t available until you get to at least 1,500 rpm. The Tesla gives instant access to its full 443 lb-ft of torque at 0 rpm.
Say goodbye to constantly (and wastefully) trying to keep the engine at 3,500 rpms while at a stop with the clutch released so that you have access to power. Say good bye to turbo lag. To put it simply, the thrill that a driver gets when he or she punches it at a traffic light will be even more thrilling when behind the wheel of an electric sports car.
As a friend put it: “I recall being next to a Tesla at a stoplight a couple weeks ago. You couldn’t hear anything over the rumble of the V8 pony car in the next lane. The light turns green and the Mustang took off. The Tesla driver then decided it was time to enter the race. With the whir of the electric motor, it overtook the Mustang instantly in the first 100 feet in near silence and never looked back.”
2) Hot Lap Mode:
Hybrid owners love the simplicity of the “Econ” button on the Honda Civic hybrid. Push the button, and your mpg goes up. For entirely different reasons, BMW enthusiasts love the “M” button on the BMW M-series. At the push of a button, throttle response is increased giving you better acceleration.
The new Porsche 918 hybrid I wrote about in October gives us buttons both environmentalists and racecar drivers will rave about. An E mode offers 15 miles of all-electric range, with brisk acceleration up to about 90 mph. A Hybrid mode uses both the gas and electric drives with a view to maximize efficiency without compromising everyday performance, offering something on the order of 70 mpg … in a supercar. Then there are the Sport Hybrid, Race Hybrid, and Hot Lap modes, which run the gas engine 100 percent of the time, use regenerative braking and the V8 engine to recharge the battery, and which offer the full power of the gas and electric drives combined. We’re talking 60 mph from a standing start in less than 3 seconds.
Of course, Porsche’s plug-in 918 hybrid supercar isn’t cheap. Quite the opposite. It’s $845,000 price tag makes it unattainable for all but the richest sports car enthusiasts. But an exciting development in the Volkswagen Audi Group (VAG) is that the technology from Porsche’s PHEV supercar is already trickling down into their more affordable model, the Panamera S E-Hybrid. With an MSRP of $99,000, it’s still a more expensive car than I’ll ever afford, but we’re only a few steps away from models like the Passat and Jetta.
3) Extra power out of corners: KERS.
As all Prius owners know, regenerative braking allows the internal combustion engine to charge the batteries during deceleration instead of wasting that energy heating up the brake pads. Such regenerative braking is one form of Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS), which are a big reason batteries have been making a splash on the F1 circuit.
KERS uses regenerative braking to spin a flywheel or charge an electric engine battery for the specific reason of providing additional power on demand. This means that every time you slow down to enter a corner or stop at a red light, the energy used to slow down is turned into potential energy right when you need it most … coming out of the corner, accelerating from a stoplight, you name it! In other words: when I want to slow down into a turn, instead of wasting energy heating up my brakes, I can just lend speed to my future self (to the tune of an additional temporary 80 hp if you’re an F1 driver).
And you needn’t be a Formula 1 racer on the track to appreciate this technology. Earlier this year Volvo announced the impressive results of recent real-world testing on public roads of an F1-style KERS system on its four-cylinder S60 internal combustion engine auto. The result was a 25-percent improvement in fuel economy while coaxing six-cylinder performance out of the four-cylinder model. The KERS’s 80 additional hp allowed the four-cylinder S60 to go 0–60 mph a full 1.1 seconds faster than the non-KERS turbocharged six-cylinder version.
4) Torque vectoring:
Instant access to full torque is one thing, but torque vectoring is another. Meet the Mercedes AMG SLS E-Drive and the miracle that is torque vectoring. Like the Porsche 918 PHEV, the SLS E-Drive places its electric motors on the axle to power the wheels directly. The difference is that the all-electric SLS has a total of four motors, one for each wheel. As one Mercedes engineer put it, “At 750 hp it’s (both) the most powerful electric car and the most powerful AMG ever.” But that’s not even the coolest part.
With an independent electric motor powering each wheel, torque output on each wheel can be independent and instantly controlled to give you the best possible performance based on road conditions, adding safety above and beyond what is available from mechanical differentials available in internal combustion engine, all-wheel drive cars. Like the Audi Quattro I drive in the winter, AWD not only adds safety but performance. Unlike the Quattro, though, torque vectoring introduces a whole new kind of performance.
Typically, each E-Drive wheel provides 25 percent of the torque. However, when driving a computer is able to control each motor independently based on throttle position, steering angle, grip, and direction of vehicular momentum. For instance, when putting pedal to metal and turning left, the right wheels will increase torque to provide yaw and help turn the car in the direction of the steering. Meanwhile, the left wheels can provide negative torque (that’s right, negative torque!) to assist in steering the car even further. You might think of it like steering a canoe. To make a quick turn, the person on the right can increase paddling while the person on the left drags a paddle in the water.
Chris Harris of Drive takes us on an excellent tour of the car in this YouTube video. “If you told me 2–3 years ago that there would be an SLS for sale today that could perform like this, I wouldn’t have believed you,” he declared.
5) Boost Zones:
Here’s where life mimics video games. You might remember games like F-Zero or even Mario Kart where if you drive over a certain lit-up section of the course you’re given an immediate power boost. Groggy Saturday mornings in college always had my friend Brian screaming, “could you imagine if you could do this in real life?!” Crazy thing is, it’s not that far off.
Next generation Nissan LEAFs will come with wireless charging capability and a couple companies already make wireless chargers, including the Qualcomm Halo and Plugless Power, which offers an adapter to make any current LEAF compatible with wireless inductive charging. They work much like the charging pads for cell phones popularized 2 years ago though the electro-magnetic miracle known as inductive charging. The gapbus in South Korea takes this concept a step further, by continuously charging a bus via a power line embedded in the ground without making contact with the actual bus; the 12-inch gap between wires is the source of the name.
Wireless charging is a big topic among car-share services because EV operators in a car-share often forget to plug in the car, leaving a drained battery for the next user. Embedding inductive charging within roads could actually supplement EV range and reduce range anxiety. For instance, the Nissan LEAF is rated at 73 miles on a charge. A trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas can’t happen in a LEAF, but if inductive charging was available every 50 miles while you drive in a boost zone, today’s EVs could make the trip. And think of the possibilities on a racetrack. Boost zones embedded in the track could recharge electric engines without needed to rely on engine braking like we discussed earlier.
The point is that until recently hybrid/EV fans and racecar fans were largely mutually exclusive. But that no longer has to be the case. In my opinion, electric vehicles are the future. Period. Once you see the overwhelming sustainability and performance benefits (all the cars mentioned here are capable of both 70+ mpg and 700+ hp), the only things holding us back are familiar concerns such as upfront cost and range. And with prices dropping and a variety of stakeholders engaged on battery technology, charging infrastructure, and other solutions to the range issue, there are fewer and fewer reasons not to drive an EV. As we’ve seen, performance certainly isn’t one of them.
Updated June 5, 2013. An early version of this story claimed that all new Nissan LEAFs will offer wireless charging capability. We've clarified to note that next generation LEAFs in future model years—currently not for sale to the public—will offer the technology, though it's not available yet.
Image 1 courtesy of Shutterstock. Image 2 courtesy of Porsche. Image 3 courtesy of Volvo. Image 4 courtesy of Mercedes-AMG. Image 5 courtesy of Nissan, adapted by Rocky Mountain Institute.