European automakers charge up on electric vehicles

Paul A. Eisenstein, CNBC Contributor
A partially covered Vauxhall at the 2013 Frankfurt International Motor Show
Jason Alden | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The European automotive market has come unplugged recently, which may explain why brands as diverse as BMW, Volkswagen and Porsche are introducing hybrids, plug-ins and battery electric vehicles at the Frankfurt Motor Show this week.

Manufacturers see potential benefits from electric propulsion, especially in a market where regular unleaded gasoline goes for the equivalent of over $9 a gallon. The technology also will prove critical if makers hope to meet Europe's increasingly stringent restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions—a tough challenge for high-end makers such as Mercedes-Benz, which will unveil a new plug-in version of its big S-Class sedan at the show.

The range of battery-based offerings will be "all over the map," said Stephanie Brinley, an industry analyst with IHS Automotive—from the compact Volkswagen e-Golf to Land Rover's plug-in diesel hybrid for its flagship Range Rover SUV.

Nonetheless, Brinley is among the many skeptics who question how much impact battery technology will have in Europe, where, despite sky-high fuel prices, electric propulsion has gained about as much traction as it has in the U.S.—less than 4 percent of the total market.

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Price has been a barrier, as battery-based vehicles typically start at several thousand dollars above conventional gasoline systems. The gap is narrower when it comes to an alternative, high-mileage technology—but unlike American drivers, Europeans have fallen in love with diesel.

Equipped with turbochargers and high-pressure fuel injection systems, today's diesels are quiet, clean and surprisingly peppy, while delivering near-hybrid highway mileage—factors that have helped so-called "oil-burners" garner roughly half of the European market.

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The Range Rover hybrid coming to Frankfurt is meant to deliver the best of both technologies, pairing a 288-horsepower turbodiesel with a 47-horsepower electric motor. While the system can launch the huge SUV from 0 to 100 kmh (62.5 mph) in just 6.9 seconds, it also is expected to yield 44.1 mpg—roughly approximate to the Toyota Prius of a few years back.

"We are extremely excited," said John Edwards, Land Rover's global brand director. "The addition of a smooth electric drive enhances refinement, cuts CO2 emissions and delivers staggering performance," he said.

Combining the words "performance" and "hybrid" might seem oxymoronic for those familiar with the battery-based vehicles that have dominated the market in recent years. Models such as the Prius and the Nissan Leaf have put a premium on energy efficiency, at the expense of spirited acceleration.

Electric motors generate their maximum, tire-smoking torque when they begin to spin. It's a matter of picking the right batteries and motors.

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That's important for manufacturers for which quick takeoff is as important as leather seats and high-end audio systems. Manufacturers such as Porsche can't afford to alienate their customer base as they stare into the face of restrictive European Union CO2 standards that could otherwise force them to produce "stone ponies."

Luxury auto sales jump 31.5% in August
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One of the most significant introductions coming to Frankfurt—from a battery-based performance standpoint, anyway—is the Porsche 918. The carbon-fiber plug-in hybrid is rated at 78 mpg and will get about 18 miles per charge on its lithium-ion battery pack, but it will also launch from 0 to 60 in less than 2.8 seconds. A Chevrolet Volt it is not. Especially at $845,000.

But Frankfurt's battery fix won't be limited to the moneyed class. Brands will target those who actually have to worry about the cost of fuel. There will be two pure battery-electric offerings from Volkswagen, which owns Porsche and Audi, the latter which will be introducing a 700-horsepower performance hybrid.

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For more mainstream markets, VW will be unveiling the e-Up (an all-electric version of its microcar) and a battery-electric e-Golf. They are expected to cut fuel costs by as much as two-thirds versus the same models equipped with a midrange gasoline engine.

"We're seeing a natural progression of battery technology as it's applied to a wider spectrum of products," Brinley said.

Whether that will bring buyers into showrooms in a seriously distressed car market remains to be seen, but manufacturers are clearly plugging into battery power and hoping European motorists will get charged up, too.

By CNBC Contributor Paul A. Eisenstein. Follow him on Twitter @DetroitBureau or