Can The Hypercar Add Legitimacy to Hybrid Technology?

Can The Hypercar Add Legitimacy to Hybrid Technology?
Photo Courtesy of Car and Driver

 

Hybrid Layout- Image Courtesy of Fueleconomy.gov

Hybrid Layout- Image Courtesy of Fueleconomy.gov

For years, I refused to buy into the concept of hybrid vehicle technology. To be frank, I always thought the whole hybrid technology was ill conceived, provided little real-world benefits and was nothing more than a marketing gimmick. Just think about the engineering layout of a hybrid for a moment. You are basically taking a low output, gasoline engine; mate it with an even lower output electric motor; shoehorn everything (including the required batteries) into an econobox body; charge thousands over a similarly equipped traditional compact vehicle; get marginal improvements in fuel economy; then have the audacity to call this package “economical.” By whose definition?!?

When compared to most economy diesels being sold in Europe or even a brilliant designed economy car like the Honda Fit, the traditional hybrid is a tough sell. However, in spite of the anemic performance numbers, skewed cost to savings ratios and the khaki wearing, tree-hugger, patchouli-stink, stigma associated with the very word “hybrid,” the technology managed to soldier on and evolve. Leading this hybrid revolution was Toyota, who proved that when in the right hands- hybrid technology can be more than marketing hype and actually be beneficial to consumers. Over the years, Toyota engineers took a once homely-looking, political statement on wheels (Prius), and morphed it into a daily commuter that offers useable space, non-offensive looks and somewhat quantifiable fuel savings.

If we listened only to marketing people hired by automobile manufacturers, then we are spoon fed the belief that the word “hybrid” is only synonymous with compact vehicles that make environmentalists tight in their lycra cycling pants and upper-middle class suburbanites feel like they are saving the ozone, every time they drive to Whole Foods. Yes, Toyota sets the standard for fuel efficiency and is a mark for all other hybrids to follow, but what if hybrid technology was put to a better use? What if instead of trying to make a vehicle more fuel efficient, we used this technology to enhance performance?

Ferrari LaFerrari- Photo Courtesy of Nobert Aepli

Ferrari LaFerrari at 2013 Geneva Motor Show- Photo Courtesy of Norbert Aepli

At the 2013 Geneva Motor Show, Ferrari presented the stunningly beautiful LaFerrari to the world. As if it’s striking design alone couldn’t attract a flurry of flashes from eager photographers, Ferrari also announced that the 789 bhp V12, would be mated to a 161 bhp electric motor- making this a 950 bhp hybrid hypercar. Although the hybrid technology (called HY-KERS) used by Ferrari was based off of a similar 2008 design used by Formula One race cars, the LaFerrari elegantly illustrated that hybrid technology could be used to enhance performance by having bursts of additional horsepower and torque always at the ready.

Torque vs. Horsepower Chart

Torque vs. Horsepower Chart

Without getting too mechanically in-depth, allow me to briefly explain how horsepower and torque work together in very basic terms. Horsepower is the output of the engine and in essence, it determines how fast your vehicle can potentially travel. Torque is the measure of power being applied to the wheels, determining how fast you can get to that top speed. Since most internal combustion engines generate much less horsepower and torque in the lower RPM range (think of pulling out of a corner on a track or when moving from a complete standstill), an electric motor can be used to supplement that power deficit. You see unlike an internal combustion engine, electric motors are capable of producing 100% of their torque at 0 RPM.

The added “on tap” well of extra torque and horsepower provided by the electric engine, enabled the LaFerrari to lap the Fiorano Test Circuit in under a 120 seconds- making it the fastest road-legal Ferrari to grace that track. This stunning feat proved that with the right combination of lightweight materials and the brains of seasoned F1 vehicle designers, hybrid technology could be the key to a new level of vehicle performance and driving dynamics. Although the LaFerrari might have been believed to have been the first exotic hypercar to shatter the seemingly “nerdy” image of a hybrid vehicle, in truth- it wasn’t alone.

McLaren P1 at Geneva Motor Show- Photo Courtesy of Norbert Aepli

McLaren P1 at 2013 Geneva Motor Show- Photo Courtesy of Norbert Aepli

Never to be outdone by their historic F1 rival, McLaren also released their version of a hybrid hypercar at that same show in Geneva. In addition to offering their version of a KERS (like the LaFerrari), the 903 bhp McLaren P1 also featured plug-in hybrid technology, along with the ability to manually deploy the 176 bhp electric motor independently from the 727 bhp twin-turbocharged V8 (you CAN do this as well with the LaFerrari, but it is not totally practical or recommended by Ferrari). Pushing the envelope of hybrid performance further, the McLaren warps time as it goes from 0-60 in 2.8 seconds, is electronically limited to 217 mph, and is rumored to have lapped the all-mighty Nüburgring in under 7-seconds (the exact time has not been revealed by McLaren, nor officially recorded).

Porsche 918 at Frankfort Motor Show- Photo Courtesy of Thomas Wolf

Porsche 918 at Frankfort Auto Show- Photo Courtesy of Thomas Wolf

As if these wild hybrids weren’t enough to make a compelling argument for the technology; later that same year, a mid-engined, 887 bhp, all wheel drive, Porsche 918 wowed audiences at the Frankfort Auto Show. Soon after, the 918 would go onto smashing the Nürburgring record for a production vehicle, by posting an official 6:57 lap time. This week at NAIAS, Acura proudly revealed the long-awaited, production version of the NSX. Aside from being the sexiest Acura since the previous NSX, the new NSX promises to be powered by a twin-turbocharged V6 aided by 3 electric motors, yielding over 550 bhp, all wheel drive, and performance that is on par with a Ferrari 458.

2016 Acrura NSX Revealed at NAIAS- Photo Courtesy of NAIAS

2016 Acrura NSX Revealed at NAIAS- Photo Courtesy of NAIAS

I am not afraid to go on the record and state that I am a harsh critic of most moderately-priced hybrid vehicles. In my many experiences behind the wheel of your average, “economical,” hybrid, I was met with snore inducing performance, lackluster handling and negligible cost savings at best- which is why I purchased a diesel. However, when this technology is put into the types of vehicles whose poster images will adorn the walls of teenage boys and leave drivers simply breathless on the track, who can honestly argue against the hybrid? My confession is this- I actually admire this technology and when properly deployed, it can actually make a vehicle better than we ever could have fathomed. I am truly excited to see where this technology will take us in the coming years and perhaps I might see one of those poster vehicles parked in my garage?

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