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Small cars go electric

Powered up: Hyundai's first plug-in hybrid is expected to be based on Blue-Will, which was revealed at the Detroit motor show.

Small-car segment to become battleground for range of new hybrid and EV models in Oz

1 Jun 2010

AUSTRALIA’S booming small-car segment is set to become the new battleground for a host of electrified models from all of the established car-makers within a few years.

Toyota, Holden, Ford, Hyundai, Mazda, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Honda, Volkswagen, Peugeot, Citroen and Renault are now all expected to introduce mild hybrid, full hybrid, plug-in hybrid or all-electric versions of their top-selling small cars as early as next year.

Australia’s fourth best selling and fast growing automotive brand, Hyundai, has confirmed it will evaluate the local release of its US-built Sonata Hybrid Blue Drive, which is based on the recently released i45 medium sedan and goes on sale later this year in North America.

However, Hyundai Motor Company Australia is even more interested in a mild hybrid version of its top-selling model, the i30 hatchback, and is also expected to release a dedicated hybrid model to directly rival Toyota’s iconic Prius hybrid by late 2011.

The i30 Blue made its local debut in concept guise alongside the i10 Blue at last year’s Melbourne motor show, and will enter production at Hyundai’s new Nosovice factory in the Czech Republic.

It features a range of engine, chassis and aerodynamic technologies from Hyundai’s ‘Blue Drive’ sub-brand to reduce the i30 1.6 CRDi turbo-diesel’s fuel consumption from 4.7 to 4.1L/100km (and CO2 emissions from 125 to 106g/km), including the brand’s Idle Stop and Go (ISG) system, low-friction engine oil, optimised engine management, reduced ride height and underfloor covers.

 center imageFrom top: Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus and Hyundai i30 Blue.

Hyundai’s Elantra LPI Hybrid will not come to Australia in its current form but a version of its unique LPG-electric hybrid drivetrain is likely to be offered here in the next-generation Elantra small sedan, which made its debut globally last month and goes on sale here next year.

Hyundai will not reveal what could be on its hybrid horizon for Australians besides the i45 hybrid and i30 Blue, but last year revealed a number of innovative petrol-electric concepts, including the ix-Metro hybrid and Blue-Will plug-in hybrid, as well as the battery-powered i10 Electric.

The Blue-Will is expected to form the basis for Hyundai’s first stand-alone hybrid model and employs the same lithium polymer battery technology as the Elantra LPI and Sonata HBD, this time matched with a 1.6-litre direct-injection engine that is said to consume as little as 2.2L/100km when operating as a plug-in hybrid. The Blue-Will has an all-electric operating range of 65km.

The ix-Metro sub-compact SUV concept promised CO2 emissions of just 80g/km from a turbocharged 1.0-litre inline direct-injection three-cylinder engine, while the all-electric i10 – which is already available to Korean fleet buyers – uses a 49kW motor powered by a 16kWh battery to offer a driving range of 160km and a 130km/h top speed.

HMCA spokesman Ben Hershman said nothing could be confirmed at this point, but Hyundai Motor Company was well aware of the Australian distributor’s desire to introduce models under the Blue Drive banner in Australia.

“There won’t be anything this year, but we continue to talk to HMC about future hybrid models,” he said. “We’re talking to HMC about all options that may be available to us in the future, including the Sonata Hybrid and, especially, the i30 Blue.”

The likelihood of a mild hybrid i30 for Australia follows news that Toyota will soon commence local field trials of the forthcoming plug-in version of its pioneering small hybrid hatchback, the Prius, ahead of its global release earlier than expected in 2011.

Toyota will not comment directly on the potential for the Corolla-based Auris HSD hybrid, which was revealed at last September’s Frankfurt motor show alongside the plug-in Prius and has now entered production in the UK, to be sold in Australia.

However, a petrol-electric Corolla with full parallel hybrid drive is odds-on to be one of eight new hybrid models Toyota committed in July 2009 to releasing in Australia over the next four years, as part of its plan to offer hybrid versions of all its models globally by around 2020.

They include the MkIII Prius released that month, as well as February’s homegrown Camry Hybrid, next year’s new Prius-based dedicated hybrid CT200h from Lexus (which also emerged as a concept at Frankfurt) and eventual replacements for the Lexus GS450h and LS600hL.

The two remaining hybrids Toyota Australia has promised by mid-2013 could be either the RAV4 compact SUV, which also shares its global small-car platform with the Prius and Corolla, or the Kluger medium SUV, which is already produced in hybrid guise for the US – or both.

The world’s largest car-maker has already produced an electric RAV4, but sold only about 1900 examples of the RAV4 EV in Japan and the US between 1997 and 2003.

Ford has committed to hybrid, plug-in hybrid and all-electric versions of vehicles based on its global small-car platform (C1) from next year, when the next-generation Focus emerges for Europe and the US.

Due on sale here by the end of 2011, the next Focus – which is most likely to come to Australia from Thailand, but will also be built in Spain, Russia, Germany, the US and China – will emerge in full EV guise for European, North American and Asia-Pacific markets from next year.

The battery-powered Focus BEV, which emerged as a prototype in August 2008, will be built in partnership with Magna International and can travel up to 160km on a single charge. Ford hopes to have 10,000 electric versions of the Focus – which Ford hopes will become the world’s top-selling car by attracting two million sales a year – on the road from 2011.

The Focus EV will be followed by hybrid and plug-in derivatives to enter US production a year later. Ford last week said it would invest about $164 million and add 220 jobs at three Michigan facilities to help introduce five models powered wholly or partly by electricity by 2012.

While none of these models have been confirmed for Australia, where Ford has axed its plan to produce the next-generation Focus locally from 2011, electrified Focus models would compete directly against the Prius and Chevrolet’s Volt plug-in hybrid, which GM hopes to sell in Australia as a Holden from 2012.

Holden is also considering the potential of hybrid version of its successful Cruze small-car, which shares its GM Delta II platform with the Volt and will be produced in South Australia in both sedan and locally design hatchback guises from next year.

Along with the Volt, the Cruze hybrid, which was driven to the launch of a new global electric vehicle battery systems laboratory in June 2009 by then GM president Fritz Henderson, was the subject of high level talks between Mr Henderson and SA premier Mike Rann in Detroit last August.

Honda Australia will eventually introduce the Prius-rivalling Insight hybrid and the CR-Z petrol-electric sportscar to join its almost non-existent Civic Hybrid sedan, which will be replaced later than expected following Honda’s decision to delay the release of its next-generation Civic.

Mazda has forged an agreement to employ Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system for future hybrid models.

As we reported last week, the first all-electric vehicle to be sold in Australia by a major car-maker is expected to be the Tesla Roadster sportscar in August, followed by Mitsubishi’s pint-sized iMiEV later this year.

But the local importer of Chinese brands Great Wall and Chery, Ateco Automotive, has committed to releasing what could be the first Chinese EV in Australia in 2011, possibly from BYD, which this week formed a joint-venture with Germany’s Daimler to build an EV for the world’s largest car market.

The most ambitious mainstream brand in terms of all-electric small cars, however, is Nissan, which remains on target to launch the pioneering Leaf hatchback in Australia from 2012.

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn raised eyebrows by forecasting that EVs will account for 10 per cent of the global car market by 2020. Nissan says it will have the capacity to build 500,000 EVs a year by 2012 – well up on both the Volt, which goes on sale in the US in December and is expected to attract 45,000 sales by 2012, and Tesla’s all-electric Model S sedan, which is forecast to find 20,000 homes starting next year.

Volkswagen, which a month ago committed itself to producing an all-electric version of the Golf from 2013, has predicted there will be one million EVs on German roads by 2020.

However, the Leaf is already a sell-out in Japan, where Nissan holds 6000 orders, and the US, where 13,000 orders are held. European pre-orders open for the Leaf in July.

Japan’s third-largest car-maker began building an EV battery factory next to its main North American assembly plant at Smyrna, Tennessee, last week. Nissan expects to produce lithium-ion battery packs for up to 200,000 electric cars at Smyrna, which is forecast to build 150,000 rechargeable Leaf hatchbacks annually for the US when it opens in 2012. Similar plants are planned for the UK and Portugal.

While Nissan’s $US1.7 billion ($A$2.02b) investment at Smyrna was mostly funded by a $US1.4 billion ($A1.67b) US government loan, Nissan’s five-seat/five-door family EV will cost less than $A33,000 in North America.

Generous federal and state tax subsidies in both the US and UK will make the Leaf significantly more affordable than the sub-€30,000 ($A43,800) pricetag Nissan forecast for most European countries, but without similar incentives in Australia the Leaf and iMiEV are likely to cost more than of $50,000.

Australia’s Leaf will come from Nissan’s Yokosuka plant in Japan from early 2012, following its release in the US, Japan, Portugal and the Netherlands in December and in Britain and Ireland in February 2011.

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