A car of many colors
By Lou Ann Hammond, Mon, 3 Apr 2006 08:00:00 PDT
Back in 2003, I remember Robert "Bob" Lutz, G.M.'s vice-chairman of product development, saying that it didn't make environmental or economic sense to try to put an expensive powertrain system into less expensive cars which already get good mileage. Lutz said that the focus should be on the biggest vehicles, such as buses, full-size pickups, and large SUVs. So far, General Motors has put their hybrid system in about 400 buses and about 1,500 of their large pickups.
It's not that Lutz isn't right. 13,000 hybrid buses are equivalent to about 500,000 Toyota Prius'. What Lutz forgot to factor into the equation was the emotional factor of a hybrid. Buses aren't sexy and they don't have that feel good grassroots feeling that is sweeping the country. Our President can't pen an energy policy, so people are revolting. If it costs the middle-income $5,000 extra and the rich $11,000 extra to help bridge the technology gap they are willing to do so. Our country has always been enamored with technology and there are people that will buy the latest and greatest of anything. Lutz should actually be happy about that. General Motors is in the big race for the holy grail; a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. Some of the technology that is in the hybrid vehicle is finding its way into the Sequel, GM's hydrogen vehicle. Allowing real world testing of this technology today could solve some of the issues of tomorrow.
The Saturn Vue made its debut at the 2006 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan. I spent some time in the hybrid with 30-year GM veteran Larry Nitz. Nitz has been with GM since he was 17 years old and became executive director of GM's global hybrid powertrains in 2003. He has worked on General Motors' trains and electric vehicles. He has worked with most every advanced technology group in the country, including Allison transmissions, the hybrid bus group. He is the lead in the two-mode hybrid (a powertrain with two electric motors) that is being shared with Daimler Chrysler and BMW.
Saturn Vue Green line is the actual name of the hybrid. A quick look at the numbers for the vehicle and the pricing tells me that General Motors is going head-to-head with Ford's Escape hybrid. GM has priced their hybrid a competitive $3,000 less than the Escape hybrid. According to a real world economy comparison done by AMCI the Vue greenline got 29.7 mpg combined city and highway while the Escape got 31.6. (Just for extra knowledge, the Toyota Highlander hybrid got 30.5 and the Lexus RX400h got 28.9). The Escape, gets 133 horsepower (plus 94hp if you include the electric motor) while the Vue gets 170 horsepower (plus 10Kw if you include the electric motor). Both utilize Nickel Metal Hydride batteries, Ford from Sanyo, GM from Cobasys.
There are two powertrain types for the Vue; the standard gasoline powered internal combustion engine (ICE) and the gas-electric version, known as a hybrid. The Vue greenline is named that, not just because of the environmentally friendly connotation, but to differentiate itself from the Vue known as the redline.
The Vue is based on the short wheelbase version of the Chevy Equinox/ Pontiac Torrent. It has the standard soft characteristics of a family SUV, but can get noisy over the rough pavement. The electric motor kicks in just at the right time, reminding you that a hybrid gives you torque. For a 4-cylinder it's a peppy little thing. The benefits of the mild hybrid are that the engine shuts off when vehicle is stopped, saving fuel. There is also early fuel cut-off during deceleration with torque smoothing. Regenerative braking is common in hybrids and the reason they don't need to be plugged in. The battery pack is located under the rear cargo floor, but all you have to do is pick up the carpet to see it. I questioned if there were children back there playing and they picked up the carpet if there was anyway they could get into the battery and Nitz said no.
The Vue has an air conditioning control system that allows you to pick whether you want the air conditioner, on, economy a/c or full a/c. Air conditioning is a big pull on power which is a big pull on fuel. Anytime you see a hybrid that gives you these options try to take advantage of the fuel savings and turn them to off unless you really do need them.
There is no roof rack offered because the aerodynamics would mean less fuel efficiency. The greenline is a 2.4-ltr DOHC 4-cylinder 5-door 5 passenger, transversely mounted front engine and transaxle, front wheel drive. The propulsion system consists of a motor generator unit. power electronics, battery and engine/transmission controls. Additional hybridization with General Motors includes, displays and controls on the cluster and HVAC and Hill Start Assist System.
The Saturn Vue is going to be one of the least expensive hybrids on the market. It is a mild hybrid that will be followed by a hybrid version of the Chevy Malibu sedan. Then comes a series of hybrid trucks with the two-mode hybrid, General Motors more serious hybrid. The competition will get tougher in the next couple of years for hybrids. Not only will there be more hybrids with better fuel economy, there will be clean diesel fuel which means more diesel cars will be coming to America. That is the same old internal engine with no battery and as good, if not better, fuel economy as a hybrid.