The terms “high-performance” and “ecologically sound” are not mutually exclusive. In fact, some of the most exciting new high-end vehicles to come out of Detroit, Japan and Germany of late are “green” models — hybrids and diesels that turn heads both on the highway and at the gas pump. Less than a decade after Lexus launched its first hybrid model, eco-friendly luxury is no longer just a novelty.
Welcome to Green Luxury 2.0. Now it’s possible to roll in a top-line Porsche, BMW or Benz and actually feel good about saving the planet at the same time. And with gas soaring past $4 a gallon, not a moment too soon.
The green luxury movement was dramatically accelerated with the U.S. debut of clean diesel vehicles in 2006, spearheaded by Mercedes-Benz and a well-coordinated effort from Audi and Volkswagen. At the time, diesel had already been huge in Europe for decades — accounting for about half of all cars on the road.
Adopted by celebrities as the green technology du jour, diesel was a stateside hit right off the bat. And its popularity continues to grow, with new models introduced every year — the clear majority of them of the luxury variety. Audi recently expanded its lineup with a diesel version of its entry-level A3, and BMW has entered the diesel and hybrid fray with a big push of its own.
Why diesel? As noted in a recent statement by AAA, diesel engines generally get around 30% better mileage than their gas counterparts witha “corresponding decline in carbon dioxide emissions.”
“When [consumers] look at the full range of factors of the cost of ownership, including fuel costs and resale value, they are finding the benefits of investing in proven clean-diesel technology,” said Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, a nonprofit association that represents diesel engine, vehicle and equipment manufacturers.
A recently released Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business study highlighted the fact that despite the slightly higher purchase price associated with diesel-engine vehicles, they are a better value because of their lower operating costs and higher resale value.
American drivers are taking notice — and manufacturers are responding.
BMW has beefed up its high-performance diesel line, dropping new turbocharged six-cylinder engines into the 335d and X5 — the former available as a sedan, coupe or convertible and the latter sporting a new eight-speed automatic transmission.
Mercedes-Benz has expanded its BlueTEC clean-diesel line with a hot new E350, a rear-wheel drive sedan rated up to 33 mpg highway with a 3-liter V-6 and 210 horsepower. It joins a newly redesigned R350 — with cleaner lines and a sleek new profile — that has been remade inside and out. This all-wheel-drive family carrier seats six or seven and packs a 3-liter turbo-diesel V-6 rated at 24 mpg highway.
Audi recently followed up its first American diesel model, the 225-horsepower Q7 SUV, with the A3 TDI, a sleek and agile beauty that offers the amenities and comfort that drivers have come to expect from Audi. Dual-zone climate control and leather seating comes standard — to say nothing of its nimble handling and 140-horsepower diesel engine that generates 236 pound-feet of torque and upwards of 42 mpg highway and 30 in-city.
On the Volkswagen front, the redesigned VW Touareg SUV is larger but lighter than ever before, with a more spacious interior and 3-liter V-6 turbodiesel engine that gets a remarkable 28 mpg highway. Also redesigned for 2011, the Touareg Hybrid combines a 3-liter V-6 with an electric motor for a total 375 horsepower. It can stay in electric mode for speeds up to 31 mph and boasts highway fuel efficiency of 24 mpg. And like its diesel counterpart, it can tow up to 7,700 pounds.
Showing how far hybrid technology has evolved in the high-performance market, Porsche now weighs in with a gas-electric Cayenne S that sacrifices none of the flash and power of the original. Able to cruise up to 37 mph in all-electric mode, the Cayenne Hybrid marries a supercharged 3-liter 333-horsepower V-6 with a 47-horsepower electric motor through an eight-gear automatic transmission. Porsche estimates it achieves about 40% better mileage than the gas-only Cayenne S.
Infiniti’s first hybrid, the elegantly aggressive 2012 M35h midsize sedan — a gas-electric version of the M37 — gets up to an estimated 30 mpg with a 3.5-liter V-6 and combined 360 horsepower. An impressive roster of standard features includes leather upholstery and a moonroof.
Lexus recently augmented its luxury hybrid ranks with the all-new 2011 CT 200h, a sporty premium five-door compact with a base sticker price of less than $30,000 and extreme green credentials: The CT 200h gets 43 mpg in city driving and 40 highway with a ferocious little 1.8-liter engine.
“The CT 200h is expected to lead the class in fuel economy and deliver low emissions, but the CT 200h isn’t just about being a hybrid, it’s about having fun,” said Mark Templin, Lexus Division group vice president and general manager. “The stylish CT 200h has an attitude and driving dynamic unlike any other Lexus hybrid. It will excite eco-conscious young consumers and symbolize urban luxury living.”
In addition to its line of BlueTEC diesel rides, Mercedes-Benz rolled out its new 2011 ML450 Hybrid, a revolutionary SUV with two electric motors — one kicks in from a stop and the other is designed for moving acceleration. Both boost a 3.5-liter V-6 gas engine for 335 total horsepower and up to 24 mpg. The ML450 Hybrid rides on electricity alone at slower speeds.
Lincoln weighs in with the 2011 MKZ Hybrid, an all-new midsize luxury sedan that offers all the comfort and amenities that lovers of this iconic brand have come to expect — heated and cooled leather seating is standard — along with a remarkable 41 mpg in city and 36 highway. The 2.5-liter I-4 gas engine works with the electric motor to achieve 191 horsepower.
“The Lincoln MKZ Hybrid offers everything our customers look for in a midsize luxury sedan, plus unsurpassed fuel economy,” said Derrick Kuzak, group vice president of Ford Global Product Development. “Our engineers worked to ensure the hybrid-electric motor and engine complement each other in a fashion that reflects the truly refined driving experience that is synonymous with the Lincoln name.”
– Bob Young, Brand Publishing Writer