Stirring eco-executive saloon breaks cover
Now that the novelty of hybrid vehicles has subsided, the inevitable backlash has set in. Experts and layman alike have begun to question the real-world benefits of driving hybrids that cost significantly more than their gasoline-or diesel-powered counterparts, deliver just slightly better fuel efficiency in some cases, and spawn the murky scenario of battery pack disposal and/or recycling.
At the recent Geneva Motor Show, the locale for many hybrid sports car debuts, there was the collective sense that this new trend was more green-washing than anything of real substance. High-performance hybrids from the likes of Ferrari and Porsche were met with either a disinterested “meh” or a more critical response; the time and money spent developing low-volume hybrids could’ve been spent in other ways, after all.
The truth of the matter is, though, there is a place for hybrid vehicles in the market—at least for the near term. Not for sports cars, necessarily, or economy cars either, but for larger people-movers, including luxury limousines such as the 2010 BMW ActiveHybrid 7.
Here’s the main reason why a hybrid executive saloon makes sense: Customers who can afford the gas- or diesel-power versions of these saloons can, generally, also afford the extra $5K-$10K needed to purchase the hybrid variation. Here’s another reason: Not only do the hybrid versions offer a measurable dividend in terms of fuel efficiency, they’re also faster off the line.
Of the three production luxury hybrid saloons currently on the market, the ActiveHybrid 7 is, arguably, the most desirable of the lot.
While the Lexus LS 600h L was the first to market—it debuted for the 2008 model year—it’s due for an overhaul for one key reason: an outdated battery pack. The BMW and the Mercedes-Benz S400, the other luxury hybrid saloon, both employ lithium-ion battery packs, which are smaller, lighter and more efficient than the nickel-metal hydride batteries helping to power the Lexus.
In fact, the hybrid system and battery packs for the BMW and the Mercedes were developed in partnership, an award-winning project spearheaded by Daimler-Benz.
Another main drawback of hybrid vehicles—the size and placement of the power pack—has, of course, been mitigated by the use of the more compact lithium-ion batteries. But the position of the pack in the ActiveHybrid 7 is not as optimal as that of the S400. In the Mercedes, the batteries are placed in the engine compartment; in the BMW, they are in the trunk, which eliminates about 40 litres of storage capacity. The ActiveHybrid 7 can be ordered with an optional ski pass-through, so all is not lost for those with significant cargo-carrying requirements.
On the other side of the ledger, a direct comparison between the BMW and the Mercedes reveals that the former is much faster to 100 km/h (an estimated 4.9 seconds vs. an estimated 6.9 seconds), largely due to different philosophies and the fact that the identical electric motor on the Benz is linked to a V6 gasoline engine and not a twin-turbo gas V8, as is the case with the ActiveHybrid BMW 7 Series.
Even when assessed next to the BMW 750Li, the hybrid’s performance advantages are notable: 455 horsepower vs. 400, 697 Nm of torque vs. 609 and a half-second gain in the sprint to 100 km/h. As a result, the performance of the ActiveHybrid 7 is fairly stunning, as evidenced during a drive through the confines of downtown Los Angeles and a few sprints along that fair city’s freeways.
The engine(s) pull well from a standing start, delivering a genuine kick in the pants combined with a surprisingly throaty exhaust note, while the 8-speed automatic transmission (designed and built by ZF) shifts smoothly and quickly. In other words, the BMW doesn’t drive like a heavy, whiny, CVT-saddled hybrid at all.
In fact, while there is no such thing as a “BMW M7,” this spirited saloon would be a reasonable facsimile. To top it all off, the ActiveHybrid 7 incorporates classic features found on all hybrid vehicles: regenerative brakes and an automatic start/stop system. While the company’s experimentation with the advanced braking system ultimately didn’t bring a performance advantage to their Formula One efforts last season, all has not been lost; this saloon proves that the standard for braking feel in hybrids is now, more or less, equal to that of non-hybrids.
The start/stop system only works when the car is in the normal driving mode; switch to the sport mode and this fuel-saver technology is disabled. The system is reasonably smooth under most circumstances, but jumping on the accelerator when the engine is at rest does produce a significant stutter. Once underway, the transfer between the gas engine and the electric motor is almost completely seamless.
As a result of all this advanced technology, the BMW is expected to deliver a combined fuel economy of 9.4 L/100 km as opposed to the 11.4 L/100 km of the gas-powered 750Li. That’s a significant difference in anybody’s book.
From a handling standpoint, the 7 is no corner-carver, but it manages to hold its own compared to direct competitors. Previous experience with this BMW has shown it to be far more composed and confidence-inspiring at very high speeds than even an M3 or M5. Of course, the long-wheelbase version helps bring increased stability to the proceedings.