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First drive: Electric Rio heralds greener Kias

Light electric: Rio Hybrid uses about 1km/L more than Toyota's Prius.

Kia plans to produce budget hybrids by 2009. We drive one of the first examples

26 Nov 2007

By JAMES STANFORD in SEOUL

HYBRID technology could soon be an affordable alternative if Kia Motors has its way. The South Korean budget brand plans to be able to produce budget-conscious hybrid models in large numbers in 2009.

Currently, the cheapest vehicle available in Australia with hybrid technology is Honda Civic IMA, which costs $32,990.

Kia aims to significantly undercut that with hybrid technology fitted to small cars including the Rio, Cerato and Cee'd, before spreading the technology across its range. Its parent company, Hyundai, is also expected to roll out models using the same technology. Kia is in the process of supplying South Korea's Industry, Commerce and Energy ministry with 3390 Kia Rio petrol-electric prototypes to be run in its employee fleet. The government-backed scheme is a crucial part of the hybrid development process, giving engineers crucial feedback on how the systems operate in real life. The government did not directly fund the hybrid project, but did agree to pay for the prototype models, which are estimated to be worth around $40,000 each at cost price.

17 center imageKia said the technology would become much more affordable when the car is produced in reasonable volumes, rather than small batches of prototype cars. A more advanced second-generation hybrid system will be introduced in 2009 with a 'mid-sized' model that Kia would not elaborate on.

That car will initially be available for government fleets.

Kia won't comment on when its hybrids will be on sale to the public.

"We want to be capable of producing them in large numbers in 2009. That's when we want to be able to pull the trigger for large scale production," said Kia overseas communication manager Michael Choo. The actual arrival date of the hybrid models for sale to the public could be 2009 or later.

"That really depends on financial considerations," said Mr Choo.

Climate change concerns could lead governments to either legislate or make funding available that would make the business case for mass production of Kia hybrids in 2009 or 2010 quite solid. Importantly, the existing Rio Hybrid qualifies as a super low emissions vehicle in the US. The Rio hybrid uses a 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with 67kW and 126Nm, mated to an electric motor with 12kW and 95Nm.

It is fitted with an efficient continuously variable automatic transmission.

The electric motor is located between the flywheel and the gearbox and assists the petrol engine when starting and when the vehicle is accelerating or the engine is under load. When the vehicle is cruising, the electric motor turns off. The Rio hybrid uses a 144-volt battery, which is stored in the boot and is recharged with energy generated when the engine slows down. Unlike the Toyota Prius system, the Rio Hybrid does not generate electricity from the vehicle's brakes.

The Rio Hybrid does switch off at idle, but always fires up when the driver lifts their foot off the brake.

Its battery can run features such as the air-conditioning, headlights and sound system.

While the Toyota/Lexus hybrid systems are able to run up to a certain speed on electric motor power alone, the Rio hybrid always needs the assistance of the petrol engine to move. The reason is simply financial. Kia wanted to ensure its hybrid system was more affordable.

Its engineers insist they have the capability to use the Toyota-style system, but will not introduce it until it is cheaper to produce. The Kia Rio hybrid is not going to win any drag races and takes 12.2 seconds to run from 0-100km/h. It can reach a top speed of 180km/h. The figure that really counts is the fuel consumption total. It stands at 5.3 litres per 100km/h. That is more than 1 litre per 100km/h more than a Prius, but still better than the fuel consumption of the regular petrol Rio automatic, which stands at 6.8 litres per 100km.

The savings are likely to be improved with the next generation of Kia hybrid technology due in 2009.

Kia engineers have taken steps to save weight, fitting the Rio hybrid with special lightweight components including an aluminium bonnet, bootlid and front seat frames and lighter wheels. These measures help reduce the impact of the extra weight of the electric motors and battery pack.

Kia also utlises low-friction tyres and has replaced the Rio's hydraulic power steering system with a more efficient electric system. This is not the first time Kia has used government fleets to test new vehicle technology.

In 1994, the government ran a fleet of electric commercial vans developed by Kia in a bid to test the viability of electric vehicles. The electric vehicle plan never made it into production.

Drive impressions:

GOAUTO'S first drive of the Rio Hybrid, at the Hyundai-Kia research and development at Namyang south of Seoul, was limited to a few kilometers on a large patch of tarmac, part of which was also being used by many disguised future models from Hyundai and Kia. It was brief, but the test run was enough to pick that the Rio Hybrid was not much different to a regular petrol Rio.

You hop in, turn the key and the petrol engine fires up. It sounds just like any other small petrol powerplant.

Select drive, accelerate and the Rio Hybrid acts like any other small car fitted with a CVT, too. Just like any other car fitted with one, it constantly adjusts gear ratios under acceleration while the engine slurs as if the clutch is slipping.

The claimed 0-100km/h time of 12.2 seconds sounds awfully slow, but the car doesn't feel that bad.

A meter on the dashboard indicates that under acceleration, the electric motor is lending a hand to its petrol partner.

Back off the accelerator and the electric assistance stops and another bar indicates the motor is charging up as the engine winds down. When the car stops, so does the engine. You don't have to press any buttons or anything to get it started again, just lift your foot off the brake pedal. The engine fires up and off you go. In stop-start traffic, the Toyota Prius would be a better option because it can coast along a fair way in electric-only mode.

Still, the Kia system is likely to be fitted to a car a fair bit cheaper than the Toyota's sticker price of $37,400.

Just like all other hybrid models, there is a price to pay when it comes to practicality.

The Rio Hybrid is just like any other Rio on the inside. It has five seats and a reasonable amount of head and legroom given the car is classified in the light-car class with cars like the Holden Barina and Toyota Yaris. The difference is made clear when you open the boot, where about one third of available space is taken up with the battery pack.

Kia has removed the spare wheel to make the most of the remaining space. Owners make do with a repair kit, but the reduction could put off some buyers. While it won't be enough for some, the area remaining can still consume a big load of shopping or a few overnight bags for a weekend away. The fuel consumption figure of the Rio Hybrid is not mind-blowing, but it is still an encouraging improvement.

If Kia is able to deliver this type of gain for a small and therefore already reasonably efficient car with hybrid technology, it is likely that larger vehicles will yield even more savings. The big question is whether a hybrid Kia is economically viable without the government assistance it is currently receiving.

If global warming concerns continue to occupy the headlines and Kia can develop the technology at a reasonable price, it has every reason to succeed.

Read more:

Kia: ‘We will recover’


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