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HYBRID 4WDs ARE THE FUTURE IN AUSTRALIA
Electrification is coming fast and it works very well.

Every vehicle maker is now committed to electrification in some form on all new models. For Australian-market 4WDs it’s a certainty that we’ll see ‘real’ 4WDs – vehicles with true off-road capability – in increasing numbers in the next two years.

Although there is no serious 4WD hybrid offering yet on the Australian market, we know that they’re coming and that’s why we’ve been evaluating every hybrid SUV we can get our hands on. We want to know how effective a hybrid powertrain will be for real-world bush travel.

First up, we reckon the majority of 4WD hybrids will be petrol/electric, not diesel/electric. There is little appetite for diesels in the northern hemisphere, thanks to repeated violations of emissions laws by virtually all diesel engine makers.

Also, the two big problems with modern diesels are the need for perfectly clean, microscopically-filtered fuel – one dose of dud fuel can cost up to 20 grand in engine repairs – and well-publicised reliability issues with their highly complicated emissions treatment systems. Today’s petrol engines are far less complex.

All the hybrid SUVs we’ve tested have mimicked diesel economy, so the old bogey of high petrol-engine fuel consumption seems to be dead. On top of that, a plug-in hybrid can run for at least 50 kilometres on electric power alone, following an overnight battery charge, so much metro running can be done without petrol use at all.

Some 4WD owners are worried about the durability of electric motors in water crossings, but we think those fears are groundless: every septic sewage-treatment system has a submerged electric motor that runs reliably for years.

The benefits of electric power are obvious when you consider that an electric motor delivers its peak toque at zero revs, so a fully capable off-road machine may not need low-range gearing at all. (Gearing is there to magnify torque, remember.)

For the tech-minded, check out our explanation of hybrid technology and for an idea of how a hybrid will work for you, here are our test findings of Australian-market hybrid systems as at early 2020.

 

Toyota

Without spelling out any product details in advance, Toyota has said it will introduce hybrid powertrains to its 4WD lineup – Prado, HiLux and the 200 Series – by 2022.

In 2018 Toyota released two new TNGA powertrains: a 3.5-litre V6 (2GR-FKS), and, a 2.5-litre Dynamic Force four-cylinder Toyota Hybrid System II with 650-volt electric motor (A25A-FXS) and Continuously-Variable Transmission (CVT). 

Toyota has more hybrid production vehicle experience than any other maker. It all started with the Prius and has spread across the company’s sedan and SUV products.

The Toyota Camry Hybrid four-cylinder petrol sedan is only slightly more expensive than the similarly performing, but far less economical, V6 petrol model. That hybrid powertrain has proved its worth in the highly competitive taxi market, producing lower per kilometre running costs than any petrol, LPG or diesel competitor and with improved reliability.

However, Toyota has been slow to introduce its reliable, economical and lower-emissions hybrid powertrains into the SUV and 4WD world. In early 2020 the only SUV entrants were the RAV4 Hybrid and the Lexus RX 450h.

In June 2019 we drove the new RAV4 Hybrid, powered by Toyota’s new hybrid-specific Dynamic Force 2.5-litre hybrid package and were most impressed with its performance and economy. 

With a claimed 163kW combined output from petrol plus electric power plants and combined torque of 440Nm, the little RAV4 was a sparkling performer and probably had enough grunt for that powertrain to replace the publicly-maligned 2.8-litre turbo diesel in the Prado and HiLux.

The RAV4 Hybrid started off most times on battery power alone and the petrol engine cut in during acceleration. From then on it was difficult to tell which engine/motor was doing most of the work, because progress was almost silent. The CVT transmission shifted almost imperceptibly and was indistinguishable from a torque-converter auto box.

Performance was excellent, with smooth response at any speed and very brisk acceleration from the combined IC/electric powerplants when the accelerator was floored. Despite not having the economy advantage of a plug-in hybrid the RAV4 returned a very impressive 6.2L/100km economy figure in combined highway and town driving.

We took it onto our off-road circuit, being careful not to damage the projecting front spoiler. Our aim was to check out what it could do on steep up and down slopes and we were pleasantly surprised. Without low-range gearing the RAV4 Hybrid managed to climb steep slopes that a conventional RAV4 wouldn’t look at.

The RAV4 Hybrid drives mainly in front wheel drive, with a combination of petrol and electric power, but when conditions demand, it switches in its electric-motor rear axle. The combined zero-revs electric motor torque at both ends explained why the RAV4 Hybrid was so capable in steep terrain.

Unfortunately, the chassis packaging isn’t intended for off-roading, with street tyres, limited ground clearance and long front overhang, so we couldn’t examine its torque and gearing potential.

 

Lexus

We checked out Toyota’s 3.5-litre V6 (2GR-FKS) Hybrid System in a Lexus RX 450hL press vehicle. Maximum petrol engine output was 193kW, with 335Nm of torque. The total output of the hybrid powertrain (engine and electric motor combined) was 230kW. 

Unlike mechanically-powered SUVs the Lexus RX 450hL had no propellor shaft connecting the east-west engine/transmission to the rear axle. Instead, rear wheel drive was provided by the Lexus E-Four intelligent system that incorporated a 50kW, 139Nm electric motor in the rear axle.

An electronically controlled continuously variable transmission offered a six-step sequential shift.

Combined cycle fuel economy was claimed to be 5.7 litres/100km and 6.0 litres/100km on 7-seat variants. Our test vehicle was a seven-seater that we drove part-loaded and fully-loaded on-highway, on smooth gravel and around town, for an average consumption of 8.1L/100km.

On-road the RX 450hL was an outstanding performer, with smooth power flow across the engine rev band. It handled beautifully, was very quiet when driven docilely and had world-class fit and finish.

The Lexus’ low ground clearance and overhangs precluded even mild off-roading, but the tractive ability of the hybrid system was never in doubt: electric motor peak torque at zero revs saw to that.

We estimate that the 3.5-litre V6 hybrid package would have enough pulling power to replace the V8 turbo-diesel in the 200 Series wagon. As well, when it was stirred into overtaking action it had a beautiful exhaust note!

 

Land Rover

As is usual in the 4WD world, Land Rover is leading the way, with the 2019 Australian release of the first plug-in hybrid-electric 4WD – a ‘real’ 4WD, with ground clearance and low-range gearing, not an SUV – the Range Rover Sport P400e PHEV.

We borrowed a press-test vehicle for an evaluation and we can see how this powertrain could bring electrification to the Australian 4WD scene, without introducing so-called ‘range anxiety’.

The Sport 400e test vehicle was an HSE, fitted with low-range gearing and height-adjustable air suspension, but unfortunately sat on 21-inch road-only tyres. This rubber could not be risked on our mild off-road circuit.

Another off-road restriction was that the hybrid package included replacement of the spare wheel by a stack of lithium batteries. There was no spare wheel and tyre; just a can of gorilla snot and a small air compressor.

We think that as hybrids become more commonplace and future 4WD platforms are designed around electric powertrains there’ll be sufficient space for larger batteries and full-sized spare wheels that the Australian market needs.

We confined our testing to on-road, but that gave us plenty of opportunity to check out the viability of the hybrid system.

Like all current PHEVs the Range Sport version was a ‘mild’ hybrid. That meant it had a powerful internal combustion (IC) engine – a 221kW, two-litre turbocharged petrol four in this case – driving through a 76kW/240Nm electric ‘sandwich’ to a conventional  automatic transmission (ZF eight speed).

The limited battery capacity of mild hybrids confines them to around 50km range on electric power alone, after which the petrol engine becomes the primary power source, with additional input from the electric motor.

Because an electric motor delivers maximum torque constantly from zero revs an electric motor is a potent contributor to acceleration and hill-climbing ability. It also means that the IC engine doesn’t need to be tuned for low-speed torque as well as high-speed horsepower, because the electric motor can fill in the torque gap at low IC engine speeds.

That’s how it worked in the Range Rover Sport PHEV that performed much better than two-litre turbo-petrol power would suggest, when solo and also when towing.

The combined petrol-electric hybrid package boasted 297kW and 640Nm, so it was right up there with the best wagon performers. Overtaking acceleration was breathtaking.

We drove it around town, on a 600km return country trip as a solo vehicle and did a towing stint on secondary bitumen and smooth gravel roads. The overall economy worked out at 6L/100km, including some short trips that were completed without the IC engine’s turning on.

When towing and driving briskly with a combination of IC and electric power the economy averaged 10-12L/100km. That’s in the very best diesel 4WD league.

We charged it for nothing during daylight hours, when our rooftop solar panels were providing free electricity. Because the Rangie’s power cable was only 10-amp it took around 10 hours to recharge fully. A dedicated fast-charger may do the job in less than half that time.

Of course, very, very few people can afford a Range Rover Sport Hybrid that starts at $128,000, but our test proved the viability of a mild hybrid powertrain that should be available in the near future from lower-spec’ makers for around half that price.

 

Mitsubishi PHEV

Why Mitsubishi hasn’t released a Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV) in the Triton and Pajero Sport range is a mystery to us, because the three-diamond badge graced the first PHEV SUV in the Australian market

We first saw the new Outlander bodywork at the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show, although it was displayed then as a hybrid concept vehicle called PX-MiEVII. The concept vehicle’s bodywork had a production-ready look about it: confirmed when the new Outlander was launched a year later. We checked out the Outlander PHEV in 2014 and again in early 2020.

The Outlander Hybrid was Mitsubishi Motors’ first plug-in hybrid production vehicle and was a true electric vehicle in that two front and one rear electric motors propelled it. Power from the motors was split 60kW at the front wheels and 60kW at the rear with peak torque of 137Nm front and 195Nm rear.

A 12kWh/300V lithium ion battery provided enough juice for a 50+km range on electric power alone.

For 2020 the Outlander PHEV was given a facelift – unfortunately, in some people’s minds – and power improvements. Petrol engine size went up to 2.4 litres and outputs to 94kW and 199Nm. The electric motor torque figures remained the same, but the rear motor was increased to 70kW power.

Battery capacity also went up, to13.8kWh, from 12kWh. Interestingly, the plug-in charger was 10-amp household-compatible, not requiring a 15-amp power point. (The original charging cord had a 15-amp plug with a large earth terminal that wouldn’t fit into a normal 10-amp socket.)

The Outlander PHEV’s petrol engine acts as a battery charger when the voltage level drops – series hybrid operation – or as the principal powerplant, with electric motor backup – parallel hybrid operation. The Hybrid automatically selected the optimum drive mode, but the driver could elect to override that selection should more performance be required.

The original 15-amp plug-in charging system could perform a full charge in around 4.5 hours and a quick charge, to 80 percent of battery capacity, in as little as 30 minutes. The 2020 10-amp charger takes around seven hours for a full charge, three hours on a type two charger and as little as 25 minutes on a DC fast charger. The combined petrol/electric operating range is estimated at 880km.

We found the 2014 and 2020 PHEVs little different from conventional Outlanders, other than for the additional weight – 280kg – of the associated battery, electric motors, wiring, charger and control units. They felt heavier on and off road. Economy is the main driver of hybrid vehicles and that’s where we concentrated our testing.

Check out our video test of the 2014 Outlander PHEV:

We confirmed Mitsubishi’s claim of 50km operating range on battery and front electric motor alone, following overnight charging from a mains power point. This test was done without traffic, on gently undulating roads.

When driven in Sydney peak hour traffic conditions we managed an hour and a half driving for 50 kilometres  with very little petrol engine contribution, for an average of 0.8L/100km.

Stretching the drive to 150km, following an overnight full battery charge, with a combination of some traffic and open road touring, we managed 6.7L/100km in 2014 and 6.1L/100km in 2020.

When driven over the same route, but starting with a flat battery, the fuel consumption worked out at 8.4L/100km in 2014 and 8.1L/100km in 2020.

The reduced petrol consumption we recorded in 2020 is probably down to increased engine efficiency in the newer 2.4-litre donk.

We’re looking forward to evaluating more 4WD hybrid machines when they’re launched here in 2020 and 2021.

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