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Euros Join Hybrid Brigade

In steady procession, European automakers lifted the covers on an
assortment of hybrids and gasoline-electric concept vehicles during the
first day of media previews in Frankfurt . It's a simple recognition of
two facts, said one well-placed industry observer. First, fuel prices
have risen so high, even grudgingly complacent European motorists have
had enough. Secondly, he added, Japanese makers like Toyota have done
too good a job making hybrids seem the greenest of all powertrain
technology in the mind of the public. On Monday, Audi unveiled a
hybrid-electric concept, based on its new Q7 sport-utility vehicle.
MINI showed a prototype that could use the technology, as well.

Despite the growing groundswell, skepticism remains high among European
industry leaders, most of whom see diesel power as a more effective
alternative. During the Mercedes-Benz news conference, the brand's new
boss, Dieter Zetsche, repeatedly referred to a report in the German
paper, AutoBild, which found that on an across-the-U.S. test drive, a
diesel-powered Mercedes M-Class delivered significantly better mileage
than the new hybrid Lexus RX400h (echoing concerns raised earlier this
year by TheCarConnection.com). But even DaimlerChrysler isn't writing
off gasoline-electric technology. Mercedes will reportedly show a
diesel hybrid later in the week, and its U.S. sibling, DaimlerChrysler,
is developing a new form of gasoline-electric propulsion under a joint
venture with General Motors. In fact, another frequent hybrid naysayer,
BMW, signed on with the JV recently.



Smart Crosstown

DaimlerChrysler's smart brand introduced an all-new concept that, based
on what was hinted, shows promise for the U.S. market. The crosstown is
claimed to be a "complete reinterpretation" of the smart's basic
structure; it builds on the fortwo's underpinnings but with a
completely new body design that's considerably boxier and "rugged"
styling cues-like exposed latches and rivets-that borrow from off-road
vehicles.

With an overall length of about 105 inches, only slightly longer than
the fortwo's 98 inches, the crosstown still would be extremely
diminutive for U.S. city streets-comparing more in size to a golf cart
than a typical "small car." The shape appears more upright and boxy
than the fortwo, and 16-inch tri-spoke wheels that huge and Hot
Wheels-like in proportion to the small body.

An especially standout feature of the crosstown is its movable
windshield. In addition to the conventional folding convertible top,
the windshield pivots forward and down and stows away completely under
the hood for a completely open-air experience-but likely not one that
would make it into a production car. The crosstown's 16-inch tri-spoke
wheels look huge in proportion to the small body.

Inside, the dash layout has been completely reworked as well to show
how it might be made to meet U.S. regulations. The instrument panel
design has more conventional (think Jeep meets Mattel) look, with a
very large glovebox with switches mounted right on the lid. Ready
interfaces are provided for USB devices and common PDAs. The interior
leather is given an intentionally used look, and the pedals are styled
with the tread pattern from mountain bike tires.

The crosstown is also the first smart model to be installed with hybrid
drive, a development of the unit first announced in 2001. The hybrid
system uses the same 61-hp gasoline engine from the fourtwo, combined
with a 23-kW electric motor, to give an estimated 15-percent
improvement in fuel economy in the EU cycle. Smart estimates that the
crosstown will accelerate to 62 mph "ten percent better" than the
fortwo's 15.5-second time. Top speed is limited to 84 mph.



BMW EfficientDynamics Concept

...

But the most intriguing vehicle, given recent developments on the
hybrid front, was the X3-based EfficientDynamics concept. BMW's take on
hybrids offers a system that uses supercapacitors to store energy and
deliver it in bursts under heavy acceleration. Combined with
"high-precision" direct fuel injection and a transmission outfitted
with an electric-motor system, the system could have some bearing on
what BMW will bring to the hybrid party now that it has signed an
agreement to cooperate with GM and DaimlerChrysler on hybrid
development. BMW says its system can boost fuel economy in the European
city cycle by up to 20 percent.



Audi Q7 and Hybrid

Audi, in a press conference that spent more time on music and celebrity
than on product details, unveiled the new Q7 sport-ute at what might
seem to be an unfortunate moment in history-particularly since the new
SUV has been developed specifically with the U.S. market in mind. The
three-row, seven-seater SUV sports either a 350-hp, 4.2-liter V-8 with
direct injection (the only unit coming to the U.S.), or a 233-hp V-6
diesel with common-rail injection. A six-speed Tiptronic automatic is
fitted across the board. The quattro all-wheel-drive system in the Q7
splits the engine's torque 40/60 to the rear; 18-inch tires are
standard, while 19-inchers and even 20-inchers can be ordered, as can
an air suspension. Audi's MMI interface and stability control are
standard. Priced north of $50,000, the Q7 arrives at dealers in the
first quarter of 2006.

The surprise of the Audi presentation emerged in the form of a Hybrid
version of the big SUV. Audi says its hybrid technology will be the
first to combine direct injection with electric motors in a system that
is capable of operating in battery-only mode-and it promises the
combination of V-8 power plus battery power will push the Q7 to 60 mph
in less than 6.8 seconds, while delivering 15 percent better fuel
economy. The Q7 Hybrid will be built and will arrive in 2008-one decade
after the premiere of the first hybrid, the Toyota Prius.



Mercedes-Benz Bluetec Hybrid

European automakers have been playing a game of catch-up in the hybrid
market, but if the Frankfurt show is any indication, they're getting
ready to take on their Japanese rivals. During the second of two news
conferences, Mercedes-Benz officials took the wrap off a trio of green
machines, starting with the striking if unusually-shaped Bionic Car.
The microvan concept's design was influenced by the shape of the
Boxfish, noted technology chief Thomas Weber. Its wind-cheating body
has a drag coefficient of just 0.19, which helps boost fuel economy to
well over 50 miles per gallon. With a mix of new emissions
technologies, dubbed "Bluetec5," Weber suggested a production version
of the diesel-powered Bionic Car could meet even the toughest new clean
air standards. "We are determined to build the world's cleanest
diesels, he suggested."

A second Mercedes concept mated the diesel Bluetec system with a "mild"
hybrid, or "mybrid" electric drive system. The E320 Bluetec, Weber
said, would meet the 2008 California diesel emissions standards, even
while delivering 49.5 mpg - and 0-100 km/h (0-62.5 mph) times of just
7.2 seconds. An alternate approach was shown in the S350 Direct Hybrid.
A prototype version of the new S-Class, it featured a 300-horsepower
hybrid system mating a direct-injection gasoline engine with a hybrid
electric drive system. Mercedes officials declined to say if or when
they could get the Bluetec system into production, though the automaker
is clearly trying to catch up on hybrids, while building demand for its
popular diesel engines.
 

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What I find disappointing is that none of these "next generation" hybrids is making claims to beat the current Toyota/Honda hybrid mileage and pollution benchmarks.

I'd be pretty surprised if the "diminuative" crosstown hybrid doesn't get better mileage than a Prius, but they don't feel it important enough to mention. Sounds like the Bionic Car probably also beats the Prius, but again, no mention.

Since this is a show for marketing, it sounds like customers aren't generally considered to be all that concerned about mileage or pollution yet. Or maybe they just think the Prius hasn't hit the radar of European customers yet.

Well, they're also using a different testing standard (EU cycle vs. US EPA). Anyone know how these tests compare?
 
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