Balancing the need to grow vehicle sales with the pressure to reduce tailpipe emissions is a challenge for every OEM. But the task becomes even more difficult when the demand from consumers is for more SUVs, and not more efficient, lower-slung passenger vehicles.
There are of course benefits for OEMs in developing more SUVs. For one thing the margins for each vehicle are far higher, which means better profits. But in a world that is heading towards 95g/km CO2 targets, those margins could be eroded by the cost of more complex powertrain technologies.
The dust has long since settled on the Geneva Motor Show, but it highlighted the importance of SUVs to the automotive industry, with firms ranging from Maserati to SEAT and Skoda all investing in the vehicle type. And it was also brought up during discussions with engineers and executives, that they have to meet the demand for SUVs in order to grow.
But it will have a huge impact on the powertrain technologies OEMs develop. One company in particular that has so far managed with only minimal SUVs in its vehicle line-up admitted that it must grow its numbers. But if that happens it will also have to start looking at greater levels of electrification, otherwise it won’t be able to meet carbon emissions targets.
Of course diesel, no matter what the repercussions of the Volkswagen saga, will remain an important tool in emissions reduction, but combustion technology alone can take us only so far. Especially as new test procedures are introduced, which will make meeting targets that little bit more difficult.
Read page 10 and you’ll see that the Range Rover Evoque convertible is a 1,900kg vehicle, and, even using the OEM’s latest diesel technology, carbon emissions remain nearly 150g/km. The Ford Kuga, a much lighter vehicle, using a 90kW/240Nm 1.5-litre diesel engine, manages 115g/km. Better, but not close to where vehicles need to be.
Which is pushing us towards plug-in hybrid technology, a system that should allow OEMs to offer the vehicle types that consumers are demanding, but without threatening to derail the emissions targets.
Volvo has probably become the best-known user of plug-in technology with SUVs. Its XC90 SUV weighs over 2,000kg, but on the official test cycle at least it emits only 49g/km CO2.
A supercharged and turbocharged 2-litre four-cylinder gasoline engine linked to an electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack means that total powertrain output is 300kW/640Nm. Which equates to 0-100km/h acceleration in 5.6 seconds.
Integrating plug-in hybrid technology is easier if the vehicle you are developing has a sticker price of ¤75,000, much less so if it sells for less than half that amount. Which will be the challenge for mass-market vehicles and the OEMs that develop them.
Battery technology remains the most expensive part of any electric powertrain and, until those costs come down significantly, widespread adoption will be difficult. But the pressure to meet differing demands from consumers and legislators means that engineers will have to start finding ways to adopt electrification across vehicle line-ups, no matter if it’s in the premium or the mass market.