Saturday, January 17, 2015

Hybrid Wrangler a Possibility?

A lot of fuss has been made regarding the new generation JL Jeep Wrangler that is under development for the 2017 model year.  Everything from suspension design to diesel power to aluminum construction to even the factory in which it will be assembled.  The latest gossip is reporting that the Wrangler could get a hybrid option.  Although suspension (solid axle versus independent) is a more critical feature for offroad performance, Jeepers have still expressed strong aversion to a hybrid powertrain.  Hybrid cars have certain popular connatations, but I view hybrids as actually falling into three main categories:

Weird Al stereotypes the Prius owner
The most well-known hybrid cars are the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, both of which are arguably the most boring transportation appliances ever created.  These cars have proudly adopted their nerdy personae, selling well amongst automotive critics and non-enthusiasts while becoming the laughing stock of motorsports fans.  Whereas Wrangler owners are seen as adventureous outdoorsmen, the hybrid customer base is so stereotypically nerdy that even "Weird Al" Yankovic has parodied Prius owners in his video "White and Nerdy."

There are a lot more hybrids than just these urban/suburban commuters, however, and most of them try to avoid the negative Prius stereotype by flying under the radar.  This second group of hybrids, which includes the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Lexus RX, Ford Escape, and many other cookie-cutter family sedans and crossover vehicles are available with hybrid powertrains and look just like their non-hybrid versions. These vehicles return increased fuel economy without the compromised interior space and goofy appearance of the high-profile hybrids' aerodynamic kammback design.  Their overall performance is usually similar to their non-hybrid versions, but their gain in fuel economy is offset by the higher initial purchase price.
Honda Accord Hybrid
The third group of hybrids are what I consider to be high-performance hybrids; cars that perform better because of their gas/electric powertrain.  The McLaren P1, Porsche 918 Spyder, and Ferrari LaFerrari are the most obvious examples, but even low-profile cars like the Lexus GS450h boast a big boost in performance as a result of being upfitted with a hybrid powertrain.

Ferarri LaFerrari hybrid
Even the most outspoken and critical automotive experts in the world - Top Gear on BBC - have raved over the cars that make up this new class of hybrid supercars:

These cars actually perform better and become more desirable thanks to their hybrid powertrain.  If done right, the Jeep Wrangler could fall into this latter category.  How could a Wrangler possibly be improved by being a hybrid?  Jeepers have been clamoring for a diesel engine for years, but who's ever asked for a hybrid?  We need to look into what hardware makes up a supplemental electric powertrain, and as with the supercars, how these features can improve the Wrangler's performance.

The reason why the Wrangler has a 2.72:1 low-range transfer case (and the reason why the Rubicon edition has an extra-low 4.0:1 transfer case) is because maximum torque at minimal speeds is necessary on the trail.  Whereas an internal combustion engine (both gasoline and diesel) offers a fraction of its torque peak at idle, an electric motor provides its maximum torque plateau from 0 RPM on up.  The ability to smoothly crawl with a surplus of low-speed torque can only improve the vehicle's performance on technical trails.  Regenerative braking would not only recharge the battery pack but could also be programmed to smoothly modulate the vehicle's speed on even the roughest of rocky trails.  Land Rover has demonstrated the off-road benefits of an electric motor with its Electric Defender concept truck:

A hybrid Wrangler would also have a much higher capacity electrical system than a standard internal combustion engine does.  4wheelers wouldn't need to add a high-amperage alternator and/or auxiliary batteries to power their winch, offroad lights, or electric coolers because the hybrid system's alternator and batteries would already be better than anything available in the aftermarket.

Crawling along the trails in battery-only mode would keep down the noise since the gas engine and radiator fan wouldn't need to run.  With neither exhaust blowing out of the tailpipe nor the cooling fan running, less dust would be kicked up in electric mode.  This would mean less fatigue on the vehicle's occupants, as well as the vehicle's lower profile on the trails to render one more of the anti-access critics' arguments against multi-use trails null and void.

The biggest downside to a hybrid Wrangler would be concern over its dependability on the trail; a more complex vehicle means more potential problems and more components to fail.  The JK Wrangler's complexity over its TJ, YJ, and CJ predecessors has proven to be a non-issue; the hybrid JL's ability to use either its electric motor in the event of an engine breakdown, or its gasoline engine in the event of an electrical breakdown, means that its additional complexity may be a benefit rather than a detriment to backcountry reliability.

Improved fuel economy can be appreciated by anyone.  Hybrids boost passing power and overall fuel economy on the highway, but they see an even bigger gain in city driving.  Off-road, where much time is normally spent idling and most driving is a near-idle speed, a hybrid powertrain would likely return a huge increase in fuel economy since the gasoline engine would only run when needed.  As an added bonus, drivers wouldn't have to worry about the engine overheating.  Consumables such as oil filters, air filters, and brake pads would also last a lot longer since they would see much less use.

Of course, the simplicity of an old CJ's low-tech carbureted engine can't be beaten for a mechanically-experienced owner's ability to perform trail fixes, except for that of an even-simpler diesel engine and its bare minimum requirement of only 1 electrical wire.  However, the reality of today's politically-driven requirements for new automobiles means that a vehicle like that could never be offered again.  Gasoline engines have become incredibly complicated, and diesel engines even more so.  Hybrids aren't significantly more complicated than non-hybrid vehicles anymore, yet they could offer some real advantages for the offroad market - provided that Jeep's engineers take advantage of all that the addition of a supplemental electric motor can offer.

A hybrid Wrangler would be more expensive than a gasoline-only version, but potentially similar to the cost of a diesel version.  More options are always better than fewer, so I embrace the idea of a hybrid Wrangler and its potential performance enhancements.  A hybrid Wrangler doesn't have to be a dorky Prius - it could absolutely be a high-performance offroad Ferrari!

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