A mild case of hybrid fever at GM
eAssist eases buyers into pricey technology
A couple in their 50s recently arrived at a Buick dealership in Chelsea, Mich., looking for an attractive sedan with decent fuel economy. They left in a LaCrosse with a four-cylinder engine teamed with General Motors' new mild hybrid system.
The buyers were a far cry from the green types who do exhaustive research before plunking down money for a Toyota Prius or Nissan Leaf. They were trading in a Buick and had never heard of GM's system, dubbed "eAssist."
Mild hybrids such as eAssist use an electric motor to assist the gasoline engine but can't propel the vehicle on their own. The technology has occupied a low-key spot along the spectrum of alternative powertrains. But that's about to change -- even though, in GM's case, the "hybrid" label is avoided.
"We just explained that this is a new technology that allows a sizable car to get an extra 5 or 6 mpg in an inexpensive way," says Lance Underwood, general sales manager at Chelsea Chevrolet-Buick.
GM is the first automaker to introduce mild hybrids in a big way, adding the technology to high-volume models. This fall GM began selling it on the 2012 LaCrosse and Buick Regal. (The four-cylinder LaCrosse with eAssist, for example, gets 25 mpg in city driving and 36 on the highway compared with 19/30 mpg for the outgoing four-cylinder model.) It will be on the Eco version of the redesigned Chevrolet Malibu this spring.
A few other automakers offer mild hybrid technology, sometimes called "light electrification," though none is deploying it as aggressively as GM. Honda pioneered the technology in the late 1990s with the Insight before focusing more on full hybrids, though it still sells a mild hybrid: the new CR-Z coupe. BMW and Mercedes-Benz co-developed a mild hybrid system that both companies offer on their range-topping vehicles.
GM is aiming eAssist at what some analysts view as a sweet spot in the market for electrified powertrains. A mild hybrid system costs a buyer about a quarter of what a conventional hybrid system costs but can deliver about half the added fuel savings.
The eAssist option on the Buick Regal is $2,000. GM estimates that a buyer who drives 15,000 miles a year will offset that cost in fuel savings over 3 1/2 years if gasoline prices average $4 a gallon.
Success could nudge a whole new breed of customers into the hybrid realm. GM executives are betting that plenty of consumers will like the cost-benefit equation.
"It's a little more money, but those are some big fuel economy numbers," GM North America President Mark Reuss told Automotive News last week. "I think people are ready for that."
Mark Reuss, GM North America president: "It's a little more money, but those are some big fuel economy numbers. I think people are ready for that."
GM's big wager
GM's eAssist system is a reincarnation of a technology that flopped five years ago when the automaker tried it on two Saturns and the Malibu. That version eked out an extra 2 mpg. GM says the new system delivers three times the fuel savings -- an increase of about 25 percent overall compared with the same engine without the electric -- and better power than the predecessor.
The eAssist system uses an electric motor-generator that's bolted to the front of the engine and takes the place of the alternator. A drive belt connects the motor-generator to the crankshaft, boosting the engine with an extra 15 hp when the car accelerates onto the highway, for example.
The motor gets extra power from a small lithium ion battery stored in the trunk and recharged by regenerative braking. The package also includes a stop-start system, which turns the engine off at a complete stop and restarts it when the driver's foot leaves the brake.
Continental AG supplies the electric motor. Hitachi Vehicle Energy Ltd. makes the lithium ion batteries for the 115-volt battery pack, which GM assembles. The stop-start system is regulated through the electric motor by GM's own software.
GM engineers say they worked hard to make the system's regenerative braking, the stop-start system and other hybrid elements transparent to the driver.
Light electrification is one item on a menu of tweaks that automakers are using to meet stringent proposed U.S. fuel economy standards, which would raise the corporate average fuel economy standard to 54.5 mpg by the 2025 model year.
Like most of its rivals, GM is using several technologies to get there. It's expanding the powertrain from the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid to other models and is planning a pure-electric minicar, the Chevy Spark, for 2013.
But GM is betting big on eAssist. The technology could make its way across the majority of GM vehicles in coming years, execs have said.
"This is something we think will be the future base powertrain looking out over the horizon," says Larry Nitz, GM's executive director for vehicle electrification. He says GM improved the first-generation technology from an "optional, niche technology" to a "broad-based solution ... that's smooth, quiet, responsive and efficient."
Alan Baum, an industry consultant in suburban Detroit who tracks hybrid technology, believes other automakers soon will roll out light electrification as a relatively inexpensive way to boost fuel economy.
"If you look at the dollars per mpg, it's an excellent technology," Baum says. "And it's basically off-the-shelf."
Reuss agreed that the more-stringent CAFE standards will drive automakers to follow GM's lead. He said it's a "pretty darn compelling" technology for any mid-sized vehicle or larger -- even for pickups.
"I think solutions like that are going to have to become way more mainstream than they are today," Reuss said. "We are the only ones that have that. That will change."
Rivals aim elsewhere
Few competitors are following GM's lead.
Hybrid kingpin Toyota is rolling out multiple versions of the Prius and even cracking new segments such as big pickups. It doesn't have any mild hybrids in the works, a spokesman says.
Honda introduced its Integrated Motor Assist technology on the Insight in 1999. The system uses an electric motor sandwiched between the engine and transmission.
It has since evolved into a full hybrid and is used on the Insight and the redesigned Civic Hybrid, which was launched last spring. Honda is more focused on full hybrids that deliver big fuel savings, spokesman Ed Miller says.
BMW and Mercedes use their co-developed mild hybrid as a niche technology to achieve a specific purpose rather than to bring a new innovation to the masses.
For example, BMW offers hybrid versions of its 3- and 5-series sedans. But it put a mild hybrid on its range-topping 7 series, called ActiveHybrid 7, because it didn't want to gobble up valuable trunk space with a bigger battery. It boosts fuel economy to 17/24 mpg, from 15/22 mpg on the BMW 750.
Ford Motor Co. is bypassing mild hybrids, too. Next year Ford is introducing stop-start systems to nonhybrid vehicles in the United States for the first time. Ford will reveal its plans for the technology next month at the Detroit auto show.
"We feel people will be more apt to spend something like $150 for a start-stop system that delivers 5 percent better fuel efficiency than two grand" for a system like eAssist, Ford spokesman Richard Truett says.
Not exactly cheap
GM's eAssist might be far cheaper than a full-blown hybrid, but it's still around $2,000. That'll be a stretch for many buyers, says Eric Fedewa, IHS Automotive's director of global powertrain and component forecasts.
When gasoline prices go up, most consumers follow a predictable pattern, Fedewa says. "First, they drive less. Then they'll choose a base engine, a four instead of a six." But most won't spring for expensive technology unless gasoline prices are skyrocketing, he says. Right now, they're not.
Plus, Fedewa notes, there are a handful of models on the market now with conventional internal combustion engines that get 40 mpg on the highway. Hyundai has four of them. The Chevrolet Cruze Eco gets 42 mpg. Still, he says, mild hybrids ultimately will help smooth the path to broader adoption of electric vehicles.
In fact, IHS expects the number of mild hybrid vehicles assembled in North America to quadruple by 2015 from this year, when it expects about 24,000 will be built here. It predicts nearly the same pace of growth for full hybrids, from a base of about 175,500 produced this year.
GM anticipates a much better take rate for its mild hybrid system than it experienced in the first go-round, which started with the 2007 Saturn Vue crossover and later included the Saturn Aura sedan and Chevy Malibu.
That first generation cost about the same as the eAssist. But it disappointed buyers who, led by the cars' "hybrid" label, thought they would get Prius-like fuel savings. GM pulled the plug on the system in 2009.
The eAssist is more powerful and less thirsty and also smoother, Nitz says, thanks to faster processors that can respond instantly when the electric motor needs to kick in.
It comes standard on the 2012 LaCrosse and is a $2,000 option on the 2012 Buick Regal. The Malibu Eco will sport a four-cylinder with eAssist and will be the only model for the new Malibu until the regular version is launched six months later. The Eco model will be sold alongside the current-generation Malibu during that time.
GM predicts big volumes for its new technology. It expects a take rate of 20 to 30 percent for eAssist versions of the LaCrosse and Malibu.
Reuss noted that 30 percent of 2012 LaCrosse buyers so far have chosen the four-cylinder eAssist over a new, more-powerful 3.6-liter V-6, which carries the same price.
AutoPacific projects total U.S. sales of about 60,000 LaCrosses and 175,000 Malibus in 2013, the first full year of sales for the redesigned Malibu. That would translate to as many as 70,000 mild-hybrid sales that year.
And it's possible that many of those buyers will move almost unwittingly into the electrification realm. GM is taking a low-key approach to marketing eAssist and "decided we're not going to plaster it all over the car," Reuss said. Salespeople in Buick showrooms aren't throwing around the word "hybrid."
Sheri Hickok, GM's vehicle chief engineer for mid-sized and full-sized vehicles, puts it this way: "The industry is evolving to where fuel economy itself is becoming the message, not some special technology."
You can reach Mike Colias at email@example.com.