|Douglas A. Bolduc is Managing Editor at Automotive News Europe.|
The Panamera S E-Hybrid shows how fast alternative powertrain technology is improving. Porsche executives such as Panamera model line boss Gernot Doellner refer to the car as a "chameleon" because it can be a no-emissions green machine traveling on full electric power in the city and then race past rivals on the highway at speeds up to 270kph.
The second-generation Panamera variant does both because of its plug-in hybrid system, which can propel the car up to 135kph in electric power only and then join forces with the supercharged V-6 gasoline engine to boost combined output to 416 hp.
That puts the plug-in hybrid Panamera, which goes on sale next month starting at 110,409 euros in Germany, light years ahead of the full-hybrid first-generation variant of the car that debuted just two years ago.
The new plug-in hybrid's electric drive produces 95 hp, up from the 34 hp in the model it replaces. The major difference is the battery. The Panamera's plug-in system draws energy from a lithium ion battery that provides 9.4 kilowatt hours compared with 1.7 kWh in the first-generation car's nickel-metal hydride battery.
"It is a big step from the first-generation hybrid to the plug-in hybrid. The car provides more than five times more energy," Doellner said in an interview during the car's press launch in southern Germany last week.
When asked if we'll see an equally dramatic performance improvement in just a couple years from now, Doellner said that probably won't happen. "There will be step-by-step improvements," he said. "We will be able to increase the energy density by 10 percent to 15 percent every three to four years."
The reason for this more gradual improvement is because most automakers estimate that lithium ion batteries will be the most common choice to help electrify vehicle powertrains for years to come.
That being said, BMW board member Ian Robertson recently told the Automotive News Europe Congress that he sees major upgrades coming soon for battery technology.
"In the next three to four years we'll see more development of the batteries than we have in the last 100," Roberson said. "The next generation of lithium is moving into lithium air. Lithium air has four times to five times and in some cases 10 times the power capacity."
If Robertson is correct, lithium air may surpass lithium ion as quickly and decisively as that technology overtook nickel-metal hydride, resulting in performance statistics that seem impossible today.