Electric dreams: hybrids hog the limelight at Geneva show

But behind the hype, it could be decades before petrol-electric vehicles are mainstream
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As if recession was but a distant memory, the Geneva Motor Show began yesterday with a flurry of glitzy launches overwhelmingly dominated by green technology. Everyone who is anyone in the world of cars is showing off their hybrids – be they electric motors boosting a petrol engine, petrol engines extending the range of electric batteries, or any manner of gradations in between.

It might seem as if mainstream electric motoring is just around the next bend, given the crop being showcased in Geneva – ranging from jaw-dropping super cars from Ferrari and Porsche to the workhorse Toyota Auris, with offers too from BMW and Audi. But, so far, hybrids occupy only the tiniest niche in the global car market, and for all the hype there is a long way to go.

At present there are very few electric hybrids for sale in the UK; the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight are the obvious examples. But the next year or two will see a whole range of new entrants, with the Toyota Auris hybrid this year, the Nissan Leaf and the plug-in Prius next, and the Vauxhall Ampera from early 2012.

The Government firmly supports electric cars. Last week, the Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis, confirmed that the Government will stump up 25 per cent of the sale price, or up to £5,000, for buyers of plug-in cars from the start of next year. And in an effort to confront the chicken-and-egg issue of re-charging infrastructure, the government is putting up £30m to fund the installation of 11,000 charging points in London, Milton Keynes and the North-east, with another round of "plugged-in places" to follow.

But there are plenty of potholes in the road ahead. One of the biggest is cost. Hybrid technology is fiendishly expensive, not least because of the cost and weight of the lithium ion batteries. Car companies are busy looking into new financing models to try to make the economics work for their customers, with battery leasing schemes and monthly payment plans both on the table. But even with subsidies and clever financing, there is no getting away from the high up-front cost. VW's Touareg hybrid, for example, is expected to cost as much as £20,000 more than its diesel equivalent. And, with the latest developments in conventional engine technology, the £20,000-cheaper diesel may not be that much dirtier.

Diesels already give hybrids a run for their money on CO2 emissions: the current Prius produces 89 grams of CO2 per kilometre (g/km), compared with 104g/km from the Ford Focus Diesel Econetic and 99g/km from VW's diesel Golf Bluemotion. And the particulate emissions that give diesel its bad environmental name are significantly curbed in the modern so-called "clean diesels" using particulate traps and ammonia injection technologies. There are already diesel cars on sale that meet the "Euro 6" particulate emissions targets that do not come into force until 2014.

With all the hype about hybrids, car makers have no choice but to join the rush. But they do not necessarily believe it is the best way forward. The German car giants in particular view hybrids as an expensive distraction from clean diesel, according to Hilton Holloway, the associate editor of Autocar magazine. "Clean diesel is good enough to meet the Californian regulations which are right off the scale," he said. "But the car companies all feel they have to build hybrids because of the overwhelming marketing push, particularly in the US."

Next-generation internal combustion engines are not the only challenger to electric hybrids. A VW Passat powered by natural gas was recentlyrated Europe's most environmentally friendly vehicle. Its combination of a clean-burning petrol engine and low-pollution natural gas scored the same as the latest Prius. Hydrogen fuel cell technology is another key area of development. "Green cars are not just about hybrids: there is also gas-power, clean diesel and down-sized petrol engines," Mr Holloway said.

Even if electric hybrid car sales do take off, it will be decades before they reach anything like the mainstream. So far, hybrid sales are barely noticeable – accounting for less than 5 per cent of the Japanese market, 3 per cent in the US, and well below 2 per cent in Europe.

Even the most optimistic forecasts predict a global market share of only about 10 per cent by 2014. But new car sales themselves account for only a small proportion of the total – about 2m annually in the UK, compared with the 30m cars on the roads. "It is fine for hybrids to take the floor at shows like Geneva, but they are still only a minor part of the car market," said Mike Steventon, head of automotive at KPMG.

"They will need a long time to become a significant part of new sales or, more importantly, to make a real dent in the total car pool."

Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano

It is rare for petrolheads to drool over hybrids, but the Ferrari 599 has them doing just that. With a 100bhp electric motor alongside its conventional 6.0-litre V12 engine, its emissions come in a third lower than the petrol version. More importantly, the hybrid 599, HY-KERS, can reach an eye-watering 200mph and get from 0 to 60mph in 3.5 seconds. But it would set you back £400,000 if it was on sale now (which it isn't), and is likely to cost £300,000 when it launches in 2014-15.

Vauxhall Flextreme GT/E

Vauxhall is already on track to launch its plug-in Ampera in the UK in early 2012, with hints that if demand is sufficient to warrant local production for the European market, then Ellesmere Port in Merseyside could be in the running. But the Ampera is already old news after yesterday's display of its successor, the Flextreme GT/E. The five-door coupe is built from aluminium and composites to keep the weight down, and uses a beefed-up version of the Ampera's range extender technology – which uses a petrol engine to run a generator to power the battery over longer distances. The range is about 40 miles with battery-only, but the extender gives it up to 300 miles. The Flextreme has a top speed of 125mph and goes from 0 to 60mph in nine seconds.

Honda 3R-C personal mobility vehicle

The Honda 3R-C is more of a motorbike than a car, but as a vision of the "electric personal mobility vehicle" it is as wacky as they come. Created at the Japanese giant's research and design facility in Milan, the three-wheeler is a battery-powered single-seater with the city of the future in mind. It has a lockable luggage compartment at the front and handlebar steering. The plastic canopy folds over when the 3R-C is parked and acts as a windshield when in motion. It shares Honda's stand in Geneva this week with the US-X electric unicycle and the FCX Clarity, which is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.

Toyota Auris HSD

The Toyota Auris may be less exotic than the supercars from Porsche and Ferrari, but it is a far more likely sight on the high street – let alone in the dealership. The fully hybrid Auris HSD (Hybrid Synergy Drive) on show in Geneva yesterday will be on sale in the UK from July this year. It will be the first British-built hybrid, assembled at Toyota's Burnaston factory in Derbyshire and with an engine built in Deeside in Wales. The car uses much the same technology as the market-leading Prius, with a 1.8-litre, 97bhp engine supplemented by an electric motor powered by a bank of nickel-metal hydride batteries. The result is a combined 134bhp, acceleration from 0 to 60mph in around 10 seconds and emissions below 100g/km. There are solar panels on the roof to help the battery charge, and one on the dashboard for mobile phones and iPods.

Porsche 918 Spyder

The automotive blogosphere was in raptures at the surprise unveiling of Porsche's 918 Spyder hybrid yesterday. On the petrol side, it is powered by a 3.4-litre V8 engine that revs to 9,200rpm and produces more than 500bhp. But the hybrid element ii not only for show: the three electric motors on the front axle have a maximum output of 218bhp, and the 918 can go for 16 miles on electric power only. Add to that acceleration up to 62mph in 3.2 seconds and top speeds grazing 200mph, and you have a genuine supercar that can still be charged from a mains socket.

It also travels 78 miles per gallon and, in hybrid mode, emits a super-green 70g/km of CO2.