I was not surprised to see Ford’s impressive Fusion hybrid made North American car of the year for 2010. This handsome Mondeo-size saloon benefits from a proper fully-hybrid system, which has been fitted into an otherwise standard car. Under the bonnet is a 2.5-litre four-pot petrol Atkinson cycle engine and automatic transmission, with a substantial electric motor (see picture below) sandwiched between the two. Behind the rear seat is a chunky nickel-metal hydride battery.
Because it’s a full hybrid, the Fusion can manage 47mph on batteries alone and with the electric motor and engine both fully on stream, it can put out 191bhp. The Fusion Hybrid even has an affordable base price of $28,000, around £18,000 at today’s exchange rate.
I was particularly intrigued by the car when it was launched earlier in the new year, because the next Fusion will be merged in the next-generation Mondeo world car project. So something very similar to this Fusion could appear in the UK in 2013.
However, when I got face-to-face with the Fusion’s technology and Ford’s techy Detroit stand, I was shocked by the sheer complexity and expense involved in engineering the Fusion Hybrid. In an instant I also wondered whether the car industry has sent itself up a developmental dead-end.
That’s because, before Christmas I stumbled across the FIA-backed Ecotest website. This tests new vehicles on the basis of both fuel economy and exhaust pollution. Amazingly, the first car to be given a five-star rating (and 92 points out of a possible 100) was a VW Passat 1.4TSI fuelled by clean-burning natural gas. Only the second-generation Toyota Prius managed to match the Passat’s eco-score.
But surely the Passat should be judged to be even more eco-friendly than the Prius, because it does not rely on rare earth metals and batteries full of chemicals. I find the simplicity of an inexpensive turbocharged petrol engine which burns one of the least Co2-intensive fossil fuels very appealing.
At Detroit, I asked VW’s Research and Development boss Urlich Hackenburg why his company was bothering with hybrids, when its gas Passat was as eco-friendly as a Prius by any measure, and better as an overall engineering proposition.
"Yes, there are a lot of people in the mid-West [of America] who have huge gas reserves and are interested. But gas technology is not high volume." He left his answer at that. He also supported the development of the hybrid system (which is similar to the one used by the Fusion) which made its debut on the NCS concept coupe, "because they [hybrids] are very good in cities". Another VW source, however, admitted that the marketing appeal of the hybrid was almost overwhelming.
Dr Hackenburg’s brevity might be because, as an engineer, he knows that gas-power would be a very cost effective way of significantly reducing the Co2 output of a standard-issue car as well as keeping exhaust pollutants to a minimum. Don’t forget that Toyota developed the hybrid to achieve both better economy and meet California’s ultra-strict pollution regulations.
Could the world switch to gas as, say a stepping stone towards, a hydrogen future? Or even bet on gas for fuelling half of all the cars on the planet. Well, maybe.
Recently, new gas extraction techniques (which can blast gas out of shale) in the US have helped boost global reserves to 60 years’ supply, but even that estimate is rising very rapidly. The US has long desired ‘fuel security’ and would love to be able to live without Middle East oil. Huge gas reserves could be what the country has been praying for. Even US environmental groups are - with caveats - behind the idea.
I'm going to stick my neck out and suggest that there’s quite a good chance that the US could be on the verge of a ‘dash for gas’ that will leave expensive and complex hybrid cars as nothing more than a developmental dead end.