If we stare into the crystal ball, it’s clear that electric cars will quickly transform from a minor part of the automotive landscape to the dominant species. It is largely a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’, with the main factors influencing the speed of EV uptake being resource availability and cost. By 2030, expect almost everything to be electrified in some way.
While the raw performance of an electric vehicle is hard to argue with (have you ever joyride an avid Tesla owner?), are they necessarily the best option for a performance car? Not as long as hybrids are a thing.
Witness cars like the recently arrived Ferrari 296 GTB, which takes Ferrari away from its beloved V8s, but accelerates it into the future with a twin-turbo V6 and plug-in electric capability. McLaren’s Artura follows the same pattern, and while both are capable of running all-electric for a modest distance (about 25km for the Ferrari, 30km for the McLaren), the real transformative aspect of their hybrid powertrains isn’t the The fact that they drive zero emissions – and therefore legal compliance – it’s the fact that combining an electric motor with an internal combustion engine is really the best of both worlds. This is why.
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EVs are fantastically fast. They are exceptional drag racers thanks to their ability to deliver maximum torque from zero rpm, and if all you want to do is be the fastest car at the traffic lights, an EV is the way to go. Weight, however, is the performance car’s enemy, and pure EVs are absolute scale busters. A Tesla Model S weighs between 1.9 and 2.1 tons, depending on the size of the battery.
Gasoline, on the other hand, is an incredibly efficient means of storing energy. While a Tesla battery has an energy density of about 260 Watt-hours per kilogram, the same mass of gasoline contains about 12,780 Wh/kg. Even taking into account the relative inefficiency of gasoline engines (your typical gasoline engine can only convert less than half of the fuel’s latent energy into actual power), you don’t need to weigh that much in a gasoline tank to produce the same level of kinetic energy like an electric car.
As a result, the overall vehicle weighs less – which is a huge advantage when it comes to cornering quickly. This is critical for a performance car, as good handling and braking are just as (if not more important) than straight-line speed, and heavy cars tend to perform poorly on both. But why should hybridizing result in better performance if it inevitably adds more mass?
Simple: because the extra mass is offset by giving an electric car’s best features—that massive off-the-line torque delivery and linear response—to the rest of the powertrain. Acceleration from a standstill will certainly benefit, but the electric motors can also serve to lengthen and fatten the powerband, eliminating dips in power delivery caused by shifting or turbo lag. Meanwhile, the petrol engine provides some real muscle power at higher speeds, where electric motors typically start to lose performance. Combustion and electrification are highly complementary technologies, and there are good reasons why McLaren, Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini and Aston Martin have gone hybrid for their top-end hypercars, and are increasingly using it for their lower end products.
Supercar makers and Le Mans racing teams have been pointing out the performance benefits of hybridization for some time, but it’s a trick that’s only just beginning to take hold in more accessible segments of the car market. Honda’s CR-Z was ahead of its time and was launched in 2011 as the world’s first true performance hybrid, but while not achieving commercial success, it certainly paved a path that is only now beginning to see some traffic.
The Cupra Leon VZe will be available later this year as a plug-in hybrid hot hatch that accelerates to 100 km/h in 6.7 seconds and has a peak power of 180 kW and 400 Nm. its combustion engine. With 110 kW and 250 Nm on petrol alone, the electrics alone make up the balance. This is also the case with the Volkswagen Golf GTE. We’ve missed previous versions of VW’s electrified hot hatch, but it’s now expected to come here next year in Mk8 form with similar capabilities to the Leon VZe.
Mercedes-AMG will use its just-announced C43 to deploy a slightly different performance hybrid strategy. While it’s only a mild hybrid with no real power to drive purely electric, the C43 instead uses an electric motor to spool up its turbocharger when the engine wouldn’t normally produce a boost, effectively eliminating turbo lag and reducing the 2.0 -litre inline of the C43 four has a muscular power delivery. Oh, and the integrated starter/generator can also add 10 kW to the engine’s 300 kW and 500 Nm, and the same hybridized engine will be used in the next-generation C63 with even more power and torque.
Mercedes-AMG is not satisfied with hybridizing purely four-cylinder, but has also announced the GT 63 E Performance, which generates a monstrous 620 kW and 1400 Nm from its hybrid twin-turbo 4.0-litre V8 and can launch up to 100 km /u in a barely believable 2.9 seconds. The non-hybrid version of the same powertrain is 0.3 seconds slower. As a PHEV, the GT 63 E Performance can also drive emission-free if you want to save your hydrocarbons for a dignified road.
The only problem with all of this is the cost. Performance cars are already expensive because of the extra engineering effort and specialized drivetrains, drivetrains and suspensions they require, so tacking on a hybrid system only adds to that. It’s why supercars have made the most of technology, while low-hot hatches have largely been turned away.
When it came off the market in 2013, the CR-Z cost north of $40K, making it a tough sell given its 99 kW output. The aforementioned Cupra Leon VZe will be a $59,990 car before the cost on the road is factored in, which again is quite a chunk of change for something with its level of performance. The higher up the price scale you go, the easier it is to write off the extra cost of hybrid hardware.
But as electrification gains momentum, that extra financial burden should disappear. In the meantime, the performance potential of hybrid performance cars should only improve, meaning that hybridization is not something to be feared or avoided by car enthusiasts, but rather something to be embraced as a change for the better.