Hybrids only account for about two percent of annual U.S. auto sales, yet there is a huge push by most automakers to incorporate the green tech into future product. The reasons for this are many, and they include improved public perception, better Corporate Average Fuel Economy numbers and a push to continually improve the technology. The craze really caught on with the Toyota Prius, though it was started in the U.S. by Honda and Ford got in the game with the Escape Hybrid.
General Motors has taken a different approach to hybrid tech with a combination of technologies that includes the Voltec system used in the Chevrolet Volt and the Two-Mode Hybrid system that has been relegated to GM light-duty trucks and large SUVs. The third and most affordable option is eAssist, which utilizes a small, 65-pound 115V lithium-ion battery and a 15-horsepower electric motor to improve fuel economy by up to 25 percent.
We spent a week in a well-heeled 2012 Buick Regal with eAssist to gain a better understanding of the technology and to see how well GM's Gen II mild hybrid tech works in the real world.
Before delving into this Regal, it's important to understand how eAssist technology works. The system starts with a belt-driven electric motor/generator that provides up to 15 horsepower and 79 pound-feet of power assist. Energy is stored via a .5-kWh lithium-ion battery pack that resides in the trunk. For contrast, the 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid features a 1.6-kWh nickel metal-hydride battery pack. The eAssist battery pack is charged through regenerative braking, much like other hybrids now on the market.
While eAssist sounds a lot like traditional hybrid systems, this mild hybrid system is different in a lot of ways. The system does improve performance by assisting the gasoline engine with acceleration, and the engine will experience fuel cut-off during deceleration and shut down completely when the car is stopped at a light. But the belt-driven motor and smallish battery don't pack enough juice to run the vehicle alone without the internal combustion companion. That's why it won't deliver the same gaudy city driving fuel economy numbers as a traditional hybrid. The tradeoff is that the technology is simpler, lighter, and a lot less expensive.
The eAssist tech will be featured in three models by the time you read this: the Chevrolet Malibu Eco, the standard four-cylinder Buick Lacrosse and the Regal. GM is clearly trying to get a handle on just how to price this technology, as the three models come with three completely different means for adding eAssist to your power portfolio. If you choose a four-cylinder LaCrosse, the technology comes standard. With the 2013 Malibu, a buyer must purchase the Eco model to add eAssist. The Malibu Eco stickers for $25,995 and includes a bevy of tech gadgets, but the base Malibu should cost several thousand dollars less when it finally hits the market. Our Regal tester reveals a third path. A buyer can choose a Regal with the 2.4-liter engine, or he or she can shell out another $2,000 to add eAssist.
That probably sounds like a lot of money for technology that doesn't appreciably improve performance. At the same time doesn't turn in the same kind of fuel economy as a full hybrid system, but the option does come with extra fuel saving tech. Adding eAssist doesn't include operating the 2.4-liter engine on the efficient but power-sapping Atkinson cycle, but it does add low rolling resistance tires, lightweight 17-inch wheels and improved underbody aerodynamics. Adding this package also includes active lower intake shutters, a low-tech-looking eco gauge in the center cluster and a seven-inch infotainment screen with a PowerFlow readout.
On the road is where all this mild hybrid jargon meets the real world. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine offers 182 horsepower at 6,700 revolutions per minute and 172 pound-feet of torque at 4,900 rpm. The standard engine feels adequately powerful, but it certainly doesn't make the hair on the back of our neck stand up. Mix in eAssist and we notice that off-the-line acceleration feels a bit stronger; maybe a tenth or two off the AOL Autos-supplied 0-60 time of 8.2 seconds delivered by the base 2.4-liter. That small bump in motivation has everything to do with the 15-horsepower belt-driven motor, which replaces the traditional alternator under the hood of the standard Regal.
Many traditional hybrid powertrains also include some sort of Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), but GM has instead opted for a more traditional six-speed transmission. The transmission reduces spinning losses while at the same time improving shift response times. Add in the electric motor and the combo also allows for higher gearing. On the freeway, we noticed that the engine could easily stay under 2,000 rpm while cruising, which is impressive for anything powered by four cylinders. When we needed to pass there was adequate power, and the transmission didn't downshift to add that extra punch. The result is improved fuel economy without sacrificing performance – a very good thing.
One aspect of hybrid driving that tends to bother us most are the compromises that come with the quest for improved fuel economy, like unresponsive pedals or overly eager hybrid powertrains. The eAssist system is saddled with some of those sacrifices, mainly from the brakes. When coming to a stop, the brakes felt a bit touchy followed by longish stopping distances. We found that the throttle was better, with little of the annoying hesitation that rears its ugly head even on non-hybrid models.
Dynamically our tester felt much like the standard Regal, with a relatively stiffly sprung chassis that holds the road. And since the battery pack weighs only 65 pounds, eAssist doesn't add much mass to the standard model's 3,600-pound curb weight. As has been the case with other Regal models we've driven, we were impressed with the car's ability to stick to the pavement when driven hard, yet the MacPherson front strut suspension and four-link rear suspension was still able to soak up road imperfections without sacrificing agility. The Regal also features variable assist electronic power steering. Overall it felt responsive on the road, but the tiller is a bit heavy for our tastes in parking lots.
Driving dynamics are important, but we know that anyone paying $2,000 extra for eAssist wants improved fuel economy. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that this Regal will travel 36 miles per gallon on the highway and 25 mpg in the city. We averaged 29.1 mpg during our week with the Regal, which doesn't quite measure up to the 33.5 mpg we managed during a stint with the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, say, but that's still considerably more than the base Regal. Sans eAssist, the 2.4-liter-equipped Regal averages 19 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway, which should translate to about five fewer miles per gallon than the eAssist model. Figuring 15,000 miles per year and the cost of fuel at $3.50 per gallon, the hybrid-free Regal owner can expect to pay about $2,188 a year for gas. The eAssist owner can expect an annual petrol bill of $1,810, for a savings of about $378 per year. That suggests the eAssist system can pay for itself in just over five years – not the kind of ROI your investment banker wants to see, but not bad for the hybrid market.
Beyond eAssist, our $34,520 tester (including $860 destination) was essentially a standard Regal, packed with the Premium II Group package, which itself carries a $2,845 premium over the base Regal. Standard features include leather seats with an eight-way power front seat, remote start, USB port, Bluetooth hands-free communication and dual-zone climate control. Our favorite standard feature is the Harmon Kardon 5.1 Matrix Surround System, which pumps out 336 watts of aural bliss. Options included a power sunroof ($1,000) and GPS navigation with seven-inch touch-screen display ($1,145). That's a lot of equipment, but it's also a lot of cash, and adding eAssist only exacerbates the Regal line's pricing problem.
Our tester may contain GM's new eAssist tech, but it's hard to tell by looking at it. There are zero eAssist badges attached to this car's Gold Mist Metallic paint, and we're okay with that. We can see where traditional hybrid owners would want to tell the world that they're lessening their impact on the environment, but all that badging starts to look a bit tacky after a while. One telltale sign that any given Regal contains eAssist is the presence of those nine-spoke, lightweight 17-inch aluminum wheels. They're unattractive compared to the stylish 18s available on non-eAssist models, but losing unsprung mass is a good thing when looking to return optimal fuel efficiency.
On the inside the Regal continues to exhibit rich, soft-touch materials just about everywhere. The dash is cushy, the meaty steering wheel features soft-touch leather and the doors come with a good deal of padding and tasteful wood trim. The cabin is also whisper-quiet – a hallmark of luxury rides. The seats are well bolstered and swathed with rich leather, but the cockpit is a bit tight for this 250-pound writer, though the vast majority of drivers will have plenty of room. Rear legroom is competitive at 37.3 cubic inches, but the battery pack cuts trunk space down from 14.2 cubic feet to only 11 cubes.
On the functionality front, the Regal's Bluetooth system was easy to set up and use, and we had few issues with the navigation system other than the screen size being small for what claims to be a near-luxury vehicle. We were also somewhat confused by the switchgear on the center console. We've experienced plenty of instances where buttons and knobs look good but feel cheap, but the Regal has buttons that look cheap yet feel premium to the touch.
It took a few days to really understand and appreciate eAssist, but once we did the math and studied the fuel economy numbers, we began to see how the technology might appeal to Buick buyers. Averaging 29 miles per gallon won't entice many traditional hybrid buyers, and judging from the lack of eAssist badging we're thinking GM gets that. Adding eAssist to the Regal means that the average buyer can expect a return on investment in four to six years, and the system really does make the Regal slightly more powerful.
As for the Regal itself, Buick's mid-size offering is a looker inside and out, and it may be the best-handling non sport-sedan ever to wear the TriShield. Buick isn't exactly known for deft handling, but the Regal is helping change that paradigm. Unfortunately for Buick, the problem is that it's too tempting to compare the Regal to the likes of other up-and-coming midsize sedans like the Volkswagen Passat and the Hyundai Sonata... two very competent options that aren't trying to compete in the luxury arena. That tells us that Buick is still fighting a perception problem, and that Regal buyers aren't quite convinced that the brand's image and product is ready to take on the likes of Infiniti and Acura. Still, Buick moved 40,000 copies of the Regal in 2011, and we expect the eAssist model will help make more converts in 2012.