Toyota still leads in full hybrids with the Prius leading the way

Toyota still leads in full hybrids with the Prius leading the way

In the full hybrid arena, Toyota continues its utter dominance. Since 1997, it has made more than 2m vehicles using its Hybrid Synergy Drive system, and continues toward its goal of offering a hybrid variant of every model it builds.

Full hybrids, using a high-voltage battery pack of 1.0 to 5.0 kilowatt-hour (kWh), are distinguished from their mild-hybrid brethren by their ability to run on electric power alone, for short distances and usually at low speeds. (The upcoming Porsche Cayenne system, by contrast, provides electric ‘gliding’ at autobahn speeds under light loads.)

The more complex full-hybrid systems are pricier, but they do offer a distinct driving experience to hybrid fans, who are most concentrated among North American car buyers. And with the interior space of a D-segment large hatch, the quintessential Toyota Prius achieves fuel economy as good as, or better than, any advanced diesel car.

Beneath Toyota is a second group of companies, those who have already put full hybrid vehicles into volume production. The first player here was Ford, which has steadily refined its system since 2004 and plans to launch the latest version using a lithium-ion battery in 2012. Thus far, it has strictly capped its annual production capacity at 25,000 units of each vehicle, most likely to keep its losses manageable.

The four-way partnership among General Motors, Daimler, Chrysler, and BMW to produce the highly complex Two-Mode system for large sport utilities has now spawned almost a dozen models. But the combine has been unwound, and the two European companies are pursuing their own technical direction. Under Fiat’s ownership, Chrysler seems to have little interest in hybrids, so the evolution of the Two-Mode system seems likely to revert back to GM, which is already working on the next-generation version, known in prototype form as the ‘Four-Mode’.

Meanwhile, Daimler and BMW are pursuing an evolution of their different system, launched as a mild hybrid for their largest saloons but now being upgraded to act as a full hybrid capable of providing all-electric drive. The sixth and final player with a hybrid model already in production is Nissan, with low volume production of an Altima Hybrid that’s sold in only a few North American regions, and plans to offer its own design starting in 2011.

Finally, the universe of companies with announced plans or actual hybrid vehicles grows seemingly by the week. Hyundai unveiled its own hybrid system in the D-segment Sonata saloon at January’s Detroit Auto Show, for example, with Kia models expected to follow and, further down the line, a plug-in variation as well.

The Volkswagen Group will launch its system for 2011 in hybrid versions of its trio of redesigned sport utilities: the Porsche Cayenne, Volkswagen Touareg, and (later) the Audi Q7. And the modular system is expected to appear in several additional vehicle lines in rapid succession, especially those destined for the hybrid-friendly North American market.

Jaguar Land Rover also plan hybrids for their luxury road cars and sport utilities, and a host of Chinese players claim plans for home-market hybrids as well.

Given Toyota’s substantial bet on this sector, it will continue to dominate the field and produce the bulk of the world’s full hybrid vehicles for some years to come. It is working continuously to drive down costs, and is now thought to be turning a profit on its hybrid sales.

The costs of a full hybrid system, including a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack, electric motor and power electronics, are substantial. Substituting a lighter and more powerful lithium-ion battery pack raises costs further, as does enlarging the pack to provide plug-in capacity: the ability to recharge the high-voltage battery from mains power.

Thus far, Toyota is the sole company with announced production plans for a plug-in version (in 2012) of a full power-split hybrid, in which electric power and mechanical torque are blended to drive the wheels. Ford, Daimler, and others now have low-volume test programmes, with model launches anticipated for the 2013 model year and later.

These plug-in hybrids are distinct from series hybrid designs, used in such vehicles as the 2011 Chevrolet Volt and the 2011 Fisker Karma, which run solely on electric power for 40-50 miles and then switch on a petrol engine to generate electricity that powers the drive motor. Series hybrids are mechanically less complex, and over time, their ‘range extenders’ may evolve into much smaller, purpose-built engines.

This article has been extracted from the just published just-auto research report 'Global market review of full and plug-in hybrid vehicles – forecasts to 2017'

See also: RESEARCH: The changing position of 'mild hybrids'

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