Automakers Look to Hybrid Drivetrains For New Benefits Beyond Fuel Economy Boosts

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Hybrid drivetrains are starting to appear in unlikely vehicles like Jeeps and trucks. Here’s why the new hybrids will be loved by owners.

When hybrid drivetrains first appeared in passenger vehicles in America they were in vehicles with a very narrow design focus on fuel economy. Vehicles like the Prius, Honda Insight, and the later Chevy Volt adopted the electric hybrid systems to recapture and redeliver energy that was being lost when braking.  Ironically, hybrid systems were almost exclusively applied to the vehicles that needed them the least, small, efficient, fuel sippers. Automakers have been experimenting with hybrids and discovered that the electric boost they provide is very handy in a lot of situations that go beyond maximizing fuel efficiency.

Take the new Ram 1500 launched this past week at the Detroit Auto Show. The new Ram 1500 pickup will have a hybrid system the company calls eTorque. Ram says that the new hybrid drive in all of its V6 trucks and optional on its V8s will add 90 lb.-ft. of torque to the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 and up to 130 lb.-ft. to the 5.7-liter HEMI V-8. All of that additional torque will be available at zero RPMs, meaning that these trucks will feel much more capable when towing, or when starting off with a full load in the cargo bed. Just as a point of reference, the hybrid system in the V8 Ram adds more torque than the engine of a Toyota Corolla generates.

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The new Jeep Wrangler will also use eTorque, but with a new 2.0-liter turbocharged engine. The turbo will add low-end boost aplenty in the new Wrangler, so Wrangler’s engineers found many novel uses for the eTorque mild hybrid system. For example, it will start the Jeep, which features stop-start fuel-saving technology. The system also helps provide more torque in low-speed situations like off-road rock crawling. The eTorque system does help with fuel economy of course. During stops, when coasting, or when decelerating, the eTorque system enables the Jeep to stop fuel flow while still managing transmission functions.

Toyota is well-known for its hybrid Prius and its ability to make hybrids work well in almost any vehicle. One hybrid vehicle that has been selling robustly for Toyota for over a year now is the RAV4 Hybrid. The RAV4 Hybrid isn’t just a fuel-sipping compact crossover nestled into the RAV4 line to help meet CAFE requirements. It is Toyota’s most powerful compact crossover trim and it comes standard with a unique AWD system enabled by its electric drive. The system is unusual in that the front and rear tires of the RAV4 Hybrid AWD are not connected by any sort of transfer case or transaxle. They are independent of one another and the rear wheels are driven exclusively by the electric motors enabled by the hybrid electric drive system.

When Hyundai and Kia developed their Ioniq and Niro hybrid cars, designers wanted to use a transmission that had excellent fuel economy benefits, but better performance than a CVT. They realized that the hybrid drive system could be used to start the vehicle and move the car smoothly in situations like K turns in driveways. That scenario is the one remaining weakness in dual-clutch automatics. By combining the torque and low-speed operation benefits of the hybrid drive system with a dual clutch transmission, Hyundai and Kia created a system that we thought worked exceptionally well in BestRide testing.

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John Goreham

John Goreham