Land Rover joins hybrid race
The Europe-oriented hybrid Range Rover and Range Rover Sport are powered by diesel engines alongside an electric motor rather than a petrol unit - even though the leading markets for hybrids are the United States and the Far East, where the appetite for diesels is small.
"There are a couple of reasons why we decided on a diesel," says Peter Hichings, Jaguar Land Rover's director of hybrids.
"We wanted to make the hybrid the most fuel-efficient Range Rover and we wanted it to be Europe-biased. We see a real opportunity in Europe. The technology is adaptable to petrol engines, but there are no current plans."
Hichings has also been explaining why the vehicles have not adopted the plug-in hybrid technology Land Rover has been working on.
"The world isn't ready for plug- in hybrids. There isn't the infrastructure to recharge them, and a plug-in hybrid which is not plugged in regularly is hopelessly inefficient.
"But the technology is fully developed and we can be ready when the market is ready."
The hybrid Range Rovers pair Land Rover's 3.0-litre, 213kW V6 diesel engine working with a 34kW, 170Nm electric motor housed within the eight-speed automatic transmission. Land Rover claims comparable performance to models powered by the TDV8 diesel engine, but with 26 per cent lower CO2 emissions at 169g/km and average fuel economy of 6.4L/100km.
The triple-mode drive system defaults to full hybrid mode, but drivers can switch to zero- emissions all-electric (EV) operation or a sport setting, which gives stronger acceleration. EV mode allows 1.6 kilometres of electric driving at speeds of up to 50kmh before the batteries are exhausted, but they are recharged when the driver coasts or brakes. EV mode ensures both vehicles are exempt from the London congestion charge.
Creating them posed several challenges, says Hichings. "From the start we said they were going to be hybrids and they were going to be Range Rovers, but there were not going to be any compromises." Passenger and luggage space in both has been maintained by mounting the lithium-ion batteries in a boron-steel cage beneath the floor.
"That was the first challenge - the package," says Hichings. "The second was to make it work, to be durable and to be as good off-road as any other Range Rover. The third was to ensure the two power systems would switch seamlessly."
There was also the issue of preserving the vehicles' ability to wade in water up to 900mm deep with batteries mounted beneath the floor.
"We have not isolated the batteries completely," says Hichings. "They are going to get wet. But we spent a great deal of time and trouble on the seals. We took the cars to all the places we normally go to and tested them for tens of thousands of miles to make sure they are proper Range Rovers."
While the technology involved is impressive enough, with the introduction of hybrids to the Range Rover lineup, Land Rover believes its Solihull factory in Birmingham is now one of the most versatile - if not the most versatile - in the world.
Everything from the rugged Defender and Discovery to the luxurious Range Rover and Range Rover Sport goes down the same assembly line. It means that aluminium- and steel-bodied cars, models with monocoque and ladder-frame construction and petrol, diesel and hybrid versions are built alongside each other.
The Land Rover Freelander and Range Rover Evoque are assembled separately at the company's Halewood plant on Merseyside.
To prepare the Solihull plant in the English Midlands for the addition of hybrids to the assembly line, additional work stations specific to the diesel- electric vehicles were installed last year. These small sub- assembly areas are staffed by employees who have been given special training at local colleges to handle the batteries, which are delivered ready-built by an outside supplier.
"We knew there were going to be hybrids in the range so we have undertaken a lot of training to make sure everything is safe from a handling point of view," says the plant's operations director, Alan Volkaerts.
"The batteries are fitted manually with a special manipulator, but employees have no access to the power end of the battery. The greatest area of training was for those people involved in off-track investigations and repairs."
Solihull has been Land Rover's home since the company began operations in 1948. It now covers 121 hectares and employs 6000 people. A facility to build a new compact Jaguar saloon is being added and will begin making cars in 2015.
The factory moved to a triple- shift system in 2011 ready for the arrival of the new aluminium- bodied Range Rover and Range Rover Sport. It also produces parts for assembly in other regions of the world.
Solihull is also home to the main Land Rover Experience off- road centre, where visitors can try their hand around the jungle and adventure courses, and has recently added a new handover area where customers can collect their Range Rover or Range Rover Sport.
The total investment to prepare for the new Range Rovers was NZ$725 million, of which NZ$61m is for the hybrid models.
In order to launch the new hybrids, Land Rover set itself the target of driving a trio of them on what it calls the "Silk Trail 2013" expedition. The three hybrids are to take 53 days on what equates to a final development test drive that will cross 12 countries en route to India - a total of just under 16,000 kilometres.