A couple of years ago, I was dining with Ferrari executives and fellow automotive writers and the conversation turned to future propulsion technologies. Then, Ferrari was cautiously dipping its baby toe into alternative fuel offerings by building show cars that could burn ethanol. From a save-the-planet perspective, it was an underwhelming effort. When I suggested that even a pure electric Ferrari could be exciting if done properly, I received dismissive looks from my colleagues.
Fast forward to this year’s Geneva Auto Show where Ferrari unveiled a 599 Fiorano HY-KERS hybrid electric concept. It isn’t pure plug and play like Tesla or even an extended range electric a la Fisker, but Ferrari boasts a 35 percent fuel economy improvement over the standard model. And you not only get better fuel economy, but an additional 100 electric horses to add to the 620 under the hood.
During the same show, Porsche revealed a 918 Spyder Hybrid concept. This stunning offering adds 214 electric horses to a 500-horsepower V8 to rule the left lane of most any Autobahn. Porsche claims fuel economy of 78 mpg if you curb your enthusiasm, although it’s a concept so no real proof of that boast is forthcoming.
European luxury automakers haven’t jumped completely into the green movement, but they are testing the water with clean diesel and hybrid offerings. Although hybrid gas and electric vehicles were the early environmental love interests, clean diesel technology is finally getting some traction. When you compare the Mercedes-Benz ML450 Hybrid to its ML350 BlueTEC diesel counterpart, the diesel offers better fuel economy and a lower MSRP. Along with hybrids and diesel power, Mercedes is also offering a hydrogen fuel cell compact sedan to 200 customers in selected markets, but don’t look for mass production.
The Tesla Roadster is still the only pure electric luxury offering, but the company’s Model S sedan has created substantial interest in the green luxury segment. Although a prototype of the new car is available and funding in place, a manufacturing site has not been finalized so production is at least two years away. Fisker’s Karma, an extended range electric sedan, should begin delivery later this year and the company has purchased a General Motors plant in Wilmington, Delaware to produce its more affordable sedan, code-named Nino. California-based Fisker hopes to export as much as 40 percent of its Nino production to Europe, a move that could start a trend if successful.
While luxury buyers are interested in green technology, there is a limit to how much a prudent person will pay for a vehicle with little fuel economy improvement. In that light, the Audi A3 TDI is the real value in compact luxury. In the large luxurious competition, the Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid has all the ingredients of a clear winner, combining a lower price with high efficiency.
This year’s list of green luxury nearly doubled in size and there are more offerings just around the corner. Who knows? Perhaps we’ll see a 714-horsepower, 78-mpg supercar. But until someone rewrites the laws of physics, look for incremental improvements. BRIAN DOUGLAS