I’ve been driving around in a great big Buick with a four-banger and a little electric motor under the hood. These are the lengths to which auto makers must go to stay in the game as serious, new fuel economy regulations take hold in 2016.
General Motors is spending billions to build and publicize its electric car, the Volt. Yes, it’s not pure electric because it has a “range-extending” gasoline engine tucked in there, too, but I’ve always believed the Volt is mostly about GM repairing its image as the company that once “killed the electric car.”
The Volt makes a good story, but the technology that GM is actually rolling out just as fast as they can in nearly everything they build is called e-Assist. The very first car they’ve sold it in is the big Buick that is currently sitting in my driveway.
It’s the 2012 Buick LaCrosse. The gasoline engine is a 2.4-litre inline-four that has one of those generator-electric motor combos bolted on to the side of it. That’s the e-Assist part and it’s good for a burst of about 10 horsepower. It helps get the wheels rolling from a stop and gives the little four-banger extra oomph when you’re passing or going up a hill.
The brakes generate the juice, which is stored in a smallish lithium-ion battery under the back seat. The usual computers keep the whole thing running smoothly and so, yes, this is a “hybrid” vehicle – but a very mild hybrid. However, GM points out that the e-Assist stuff improves fuel economy by 20 to 30 per cent over the same car with the same engine without e-Assist while only raising the price a few hundred bucks.
This car’s too big for me, but I’m not a Chinese government official or business owner who’s going to sit in the luxurious back seat and get chauffeured around. Buick is a huge hit in China and the Chinese know they have major problems with air quality and the cost of imported oil. The e-Assist package and this Buick in particular is aimed squarely at the Chinese market, which is where GM makes most of its money. It makes an equal amount of sense here too although the sales will be smaller.
I haven’t done enough city driving in it yet to see how the long-term numbers work out. GM says it will do 5.6 litres/100 km on the highway. I can verify that it will – at 80 km/h. Hold it at that speed and the “Instant Economy” number on the instruments reads 5.6. But keep up with traffic on the 400 and you’ll do about 8.
One thing I will say is that at highway speed this is a comfortable, near-silent car. Buicks used to bounce down the road like under-inflated beach balls. This one sits just right – stable and balanced. And that little four-banger does just fine. No noise, no clatter; having the extra 10 electric ponies lets the six-speed tranny stay in top even when climbing hills.
The other thing the lith-ion battery does is provide the power for heater, A/C radio, etc. while you’re stopped. When the wheels aren’t turning, the engine switches off. Remember the generator-motor combo bolted on the gas engine? When you touch the accelerator, the motor turns over the engine to get the wheels rolling while also firing up the engine. No starter motor, no noise.
The e-Assist is not the silver bullet that will solve all GM’s fleet economy average issues that are looming ahead. But it is an excellent, low-cost step along the way.
Putting it first in a Buick was no accident either. It draws attention to the once all but dead brand. Buick deserves attention now. New styling, great interior, drives like a real car, five-star safety and new fuel economy technology too. Buick’s not dead yet – by a long shot.