This has been the year of the power vacuum. And it’s not just the car industry that doesn’t know where to go. Popular uprisings in the Arab world have left dictators shaken, overthrown or dead. The killing of Bin Laden and Gaddafi left big vacancies for terrorists and tyrants.
The sudden death of Kim Jong-il has created a power vacuum in a nuclear nation, with a 20-something year-old set to get the keys to the codes. Asside from that geo-political nightmare, industries here at home are struggling, too. Automakers are shuttering factories. Major media companies haven’t really figured out how to make their print properties make money online – and so they hedge their bets, spending big money to get onto iPads, Kindles, Blackberries, Androids and anything else with a screen.
Automakers, for their part, are hedging their bets too and covering all bases in anticipation of the internal combustion engine leaving a very, very large power vacuum sometime in the future. And so it is that consumers end up with such different automotive options. The three hybrids we have assembled here each have unique systems for supplementing gasoline-power.
Buick Regal eAssist: The (very) mild hybrid
The Regal is a car that will offend nobody. It’s quietly stylish, comfortable, intuitive, easy. We like it a lot actually, and believe me, that’s not something I thought I would ever say about a new Buick.
Now, the eAssist shares all of those same traits as the bog standard Regal. In fact, unless you’re sitting in the driver’s seat or have a good look under the hood there’s nothing that would make you think this is anything other than a regular Regal. The hybrid system is optional. You’ve got to tick the box for the “eAssist 1SU Package” to get it, and that’ll cost you a total of $34,190 (compared to the base car’s $29,940 sticker). For your extra cash, you’ll get a whole bunch of extra luxury bits like 17-inch alloy rims, auto-dimming mirrors, rear parking sensors, XM satellite radio, remote vehicle start, and automatic dual-zone climate control. Plus, you’ll also get a large 115V lithium-ion battery pack and a little electric motor. The later sits where the alternator would usually go, drawing power from the conventional 2.4-litre, 182 horsepower engine, to charge the batteries.
The hybrid bit comes in when that battery pack is called upon to deliver power to the wheels. That happens only for brief moments, when pulling away from a stop, or for when you need some extra oomph to overtake on the highway. GM says the eAssist is worth about 15 horsepower and 79 lb-ft of torque above and beyond the regular motor. The car weighs about 20 kg (44 lbs.) more than the base Regal, though. The system is pretty seamless, so you can’t really tell when the electric boost is giving you an assist.
Fuel economy is rated at 8.3 L/100 km in city and 5.4 highway. Doing a mix or urban and highway driving, we averaged 8.6 L/100 km.
Kia Optima hybrid: The big, bold hybrid
People look at this car. They don’t look because it’s a hybrid, they look because it’s so freaking stylish. People look at it, and then think, as Liz Lemon once said, “I want to go to there.” The credit for all those strokes of styling genius has to go to chief designer Peter Schreyer, who Kia stole from Audi.
The Optima is a proper midsize sedan, with tons of room both front and rear, as well as a trunk that can haul a family’s luggage. It’s not as luxurious and hasn’t been refined over decades like a BMW 5 Series/Mercedes-Benz E-Class, but it also starts at $30,595 for the hybrid. (About $20,000 less than the Germans.)
The Kia laughs at the Buick’s puny hybrid system. The Optima has a full-on parallel hybrid setup, similar to the Toyota Prius. That means the Kia can run in several modes: 100 percent electric, 100 percent gasoline, or a mix of both sources. In the city, under light throttle load conditions, the Kia often switches to pure electric mode. You’ll be able to tell when this happens because the car becomes completely silent with the gasoline engine shut off. Pretty nifty, if slightly scary the first time it happens. The Kia also features an ECO-metre (where the tachometre would usually be) that tells you how economical your driving is. Our one gripe about the system though is that it isn’t quite seamless. It’s close, but there’s sometimes a bit of a shudder as the powertrain sorts itself out to run with optimum efficiency.
And, driving the car, you’d think it was a bit of a slug. But, if you actually abandon what the ECO-metre is telling you and put your foot to the floor, this thing goes thanks to a power output of 206 hp (40 from electric) and a torque rating of 195 lb-ft.
Fuel economy is officially rated at 4.9 L/100 km on the highway and 5.6 city. Driving the car in bumpter-to-bumper rush-hour traffic in Toronto though, and trying to be as eco-friendly as possible, I was still getting a reading of closer to 12 L/100 km from the onboard computer. After a quick jaunt on the highway though, that average came down to 7.8 L/100 km. And, had we done more highway miles, it would’ve dropped even further.
Chevrolet Volt: The radical hybrid
GM is so chuffed with their special little eco-car that they don’t even want to call it a hybrid. Their marketing people call it a “range-extender” plug-in or something like that. But, we call it a hybrid, because power comes from multiple sources: both gasoline generator and electric motor.
The clever bit about the Volt is that the gasoline engine is only used as a last resort. Under 50 km/h on light throttle loads, the car is all-electric and ghostly silent. Under hard acceleration or at highway speeds, the gasoline-powered generator (a small 1.4-litre engine) kicks in to provide electricity for the batteries which power the electric motor.
At night, you plug the car in (provided you have a garage and/or a power outlet) and charge the batteries. With a full charge, you could travel 40-80 km using battery power only.
Clear? Well, it doesn’t matter. The point is that if you average 13 km/h on your seven kilometre commute through downtown like me, you would never have to visit a gas station ever again. Ever. Ha! (Actually, the gas motor needs to run every 40 days or so to lubricate its seals. So you have the efficiency of an electric but carry around the weight of a perfectly good—and mostly unused—gasoline motor. That you still need to put gas into… –Ed.) At current rates in Canada, the electricity you use giving the Volt a full charge would cost about $2.00-$2.50 per night.
There is a downside, though: a $41,545 starting price. Depending on where you live, you might get some government incentives to bring that down a bit, though.
It feels great to drive stealthy and silent on electric-only mode in the city. I mean, the car feels okay to drive, enthusiasts will be unimpressed, but driving thrills are absolutely not the point of the Volt.
Here’s the best bit: Fuel economy is rated at the equivalent of 2.5 L/100 km according to the EPA. Our tester averaged 4.1 L/100 km (plus as-yet unknown electricity bills) over 355 kilometres of mixed urban and highway driving.
Hmmm… So, which powertrain might eventually fill the power vacuum left by the internal combustion engine? If we knew, we’d be very rich men. But, which hybrid is best for you?
Depends on where and how you drive. If you don’t really want a hybrid, the Buick is for you. If you have a short, urban commute: the Volt. If you have a mix or urban and highway drives and an easy place to park: the Kia.