In hindsight, Hybrids seem like such a no-brainer. Look at it, why wouldn't you want those efficiencies, which are currently being frittered away, captured back for giving you more bang for the buck. There is good reason why current day hybrids are an Asian innovation, though they are sold in greater numbers in the more mature markets of the West than anywhere else.

That is due for change soon, even in India, primarily because of two reasons. One, hybrids are becoming more affordable and two, the price of petrol is set to cross a critical point, which is the ultimate driver of technology adoption for the value-conscious Indian.

The market for hybrids and electric vehicles here just got a big boost late last month, when the Government announced an incentive scheme for electric vehicles.

The Rs 95 crore incentive package announced by the Ministry of New & Renewable Energy (MNRE) will enable electric vehicle manufacturers to reduce prices by upto 20 per cent, within a Rs 1 lakh ceiling. The MNRE package will be applicable to all types of Battery Operated Vehicles (BOVs), Plug-in Hybrid Vehicles (PHEVs), Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEVs) and Electric / Exercise-Bike Generator Inverter (E2BI) used for transportation.

The price of electric and hybrid technology has been a deterrent for buyers. Governments world over incentivise the purchase of such vehicles to meet their own environmental responsibilities and to promote the adoption of the technology. This new MNRE scheme will attempt to offer sops to buyers of these vehicles till the end of fiscal 2011-2012 and will be applicable to electric and hybrid vehicles that have at least 30 per cent indigenous content, which basically means local assembly is a must.

The most impact from the adoption of electric vehicle technology will be felt when its affordability trickles down to mass market cars – when hatchbacks and entry-level sedans can be offered with the tech.

Ind-genuity

Think mass market hybrids and the company that comes first to mind as being capable of producing one is Maruti Suzuki. Just a week before the announcement of the electrics and hybrids scheme, I got a chance to drive two of Maruti's experimental electric and hybrid cars.

I head to the test track at Maruti's plant in Gurgaon, near Delhi to drive the SX4 Hybrid and the EECO electric concepts. These are working prototypes and members of Maruti's senior management and engineering team kept stressing that there are no plans, as of now, to launch them commercially. But, these plans can take a quick turn, especially in the light of the Government's announcement.

SX4 Hybrid

I drove the SX4 hybrid first. Maruti engineers have taken the regular SX4, replaced the stock engine with the 1.2-litre K-Series engine and integrated a full, parallel hybrid system into the car. So, in terms of performance, the SX4 Hybrid features a 1.2-litre petrol engine and a 50 kW electric motor that independently draws power from a 2.35 kWh Lithium-ion battery pack.

This is not a plug-in hybrid, but my guess is that it can easily be converted into one. The hybrid system in the SX4 concept is capable of behaving like a parallel hybrid (technically like the Honda Civic Hybrid) and also like a series hybrid (technically like the Toyota Prius). So, the SX4 Hybrid is capable of being powered solely by its battery-powered electric motor or it can be powered by both electric motor and petrol engine.

Featuring start-stop and regenerative braking, the SX4's special transmission that combines both the motive power sources is a five-speed automated manual transmission. It also features a twin-clutch system that features one clutch between the engine and the electric motor, and one between the electric motor and transmission. The battery stack is located in the boot at the rear and it has a separate cooling system with its own independent electric compressor.

I crank the engine of the SX4 Hybrid and the K12 comes to power humming under the bonnet. The sedan starts off with the gasoline engine, but if you only nudge gently on the throttle, then the engine shuts off and the electric motor takes over to power the car (was nice to know that emissions were zero, though there was a petrol engine in the bonnet). As I accelerate slowly, the LCD display on the dashboard of the SX4 Hybrid graphically shows the current power source being used. After the speedo needle crosses the 40-45 kmph mark, the petrol engine seamlessly comes to life and takes over, accelerating the SX4 Hybrid further.

Taking the foot off the pedal leads to the engine power being re-routed to power the battery and the same regenerative braking principles work when I progressively apply the brakes. A few laps later, I start off the block by flooring the throttle and both the electric motor and the petrol engine work together to help accelerate quickly.

Though the technology (including the algorithms and mapping for the hybrid system) in the SX4 Hybrid is still in concept stage, the seamlessness with which it switched from series to parallel engagement under various driving conditions was pretty impressive. The system also combines feedback from various sensors in the car including a throttle position sensor.

To protect the battery, the system automatically switches to petrol engine alone mode when the battery charge touches the 40 per cent mark. The automated manual transmission allowed me to drive in both full auto mode or in +/- manual mode.

The SX4 Hybrid is said to be capable of delivering 25 per cent higher fuel efficiency compared to the regular SX4. The hybrid powertrain combined output is a 125 bhp compared to the stock SX4's 103 bhp. The hybrid is capable of a top speed of 160 kmph and acceleration has improved 20 per cent. There hasn't been the need to make any changes to the suspension set up, since the Hybrid's incremental weight is only about 200 kgs.

EECO Charge

The other vehicle that I drove at the track was the EECO Charge – a pure-electric vehicle built on the same MPV platform as the stock EECO. This is a plug-in electric vehicle that is powered by a 50 kW motor that is powered by a larger 24 kWh Lithium-ion battery. Because the EECO Charge is a pure-electric vehicle, it features the larger battery stack at the bottom of the vehicle, just below the floor and between the two axles.

I just slot the key into the fob and turn it into cranking position and the EECO Charge is already on standby. Depressing the throttle leads to a mild hum as the electric motor draws charge from the battery pack to power the EECO forward. This is a simple linear discharge electric vehicle that has a driving range of about 100 kms. It attains a top speed of about 100 kmph. Because of the absence of the petrol engine under the floor near the driver's side, and because the additional weight of the battery nearly offsets it, the EECO Charge's gross vehicle weight is almost the same as the stock EECO at 1,540 kgs.

The dash-mounted LCD screen of the EECO Charge displays real time ‘state of charge' and ‘distance to empty' figures for the convenience of the driver. The vehicle can be plugged into a standard household power source for charging the battery pack overnight.

The SX4 Hybrid and the EECO Charge were originally developed by Maruti Suzuki's R&D team as part of the Government initiated National Hybrid Propulsion Programme (NHPP) and MNRE projects. Showcased at the Auto Expo and later at the Delhi Commonwealth Games, these two electric and hybrid vehicles look promising and can potentially bring the technology to the masses.

Let us hope Maruti will launch them within the next year or two.

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