SEAT Leon TwinDrive Ecomotive: the details, driven

November 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

SEAT’s Leon TwinDrive Ecomotive prototype previews plug-in hybrid technology which will appear in the SEAT range from 2015, probably as an option within the next-generation Leon line-up. In the meantime, a handful of these pre-production vehicles is going out to fleets for real-world testing (see previous post).

As with the Altea XL Electric, the powertrain and its technology is shared with other projects within the Volkswagen Group family; like the latest Golf TwinDrive (of which 20 are now out testing with a view to a 2013 launch), this Leon has the 1.4 TSI petrol engine (115hp) and an 85kW/115hp motor, giving a total 163hp when both are engaged. Its all-electric range is 52km and overall range is up to 900km – average fuel consumption is 1.7l/km (over 166mpg!) and carbon dioxide output 39g/km. Top speed is 170kph.

SEAT engineers explain that the two powertrains can work independently, or in parallel. The TwinDrive starts in all-electric mode – the battery will only drain to a defined level, always giving enough for ignition – and it can run in ‘e-mode’ at up to 120kph. The engine starts up to work in series for recharging – acting as a generator to produce electrical energy, but not driving the wheels directly – and when higher speeds or sudden bursts of acceleration are called for, its clutch is engaged and it acts in parallel with the motor in sending torque to the axle.

The engine kicks in and drops out almost imperceptibly in action – the loudest noise from this car is its tyre roar – and low-speed progress is smooth and linear. If the car is charged fully, an urban owner could do most of their daily driving in all-electric mode; a selectable e-mode remaps the throttle for heightened energy-efficiency, or alternatively, a ‘sport’ mode (selected via the gearshift lever) sharpens up the acceleration and brakes. It’s a versatile – if complex – solution which could suit a variety of owner needs or tastes without compromising on range or performance.

Because of this, SEAT sees more of a role for plug-in hybrids than pure battery-electric vehicles in the near-to-medium term: a projected 10% of its sales in the next five to six years, says president James Muir. The main challenge is to make them cheaply enough – a price premium of 2,500-3000 euros over a comparable diesel model is targeted for the launch in four years’ time. “We need to bring the cost down”, says R&D chief Dr Matthias Rabe. “We have to scale our efforts and share our core technologies with the Volkswagen Group.”

Whilst final supplier contracts have not yet been signed, SEAT has confirmed that it is working with Sanyo and Spanish firm Ficosa on a plan to make batteries for its plug-in vehicles in Spain and Portugal; Sanyo would develop and build the cells, and Ficosa carry out the final assembly of the packs, perhaps also contributing to their packaging and integration, and supplying their control and management systems. “There will not be just one supplier”, says Dr Rabe, “but we will not limit Ficosa and Sanyo to the Iberian peninsula, they will supply to some other locations.” However, this is “not decided yet”, and “we will be in discussion with the Group and conducting all activities in the pre-development phase with a lot of suppliers for batteries.”

This underlines the fact that SEAT’s plug-in cars are still a long way from being consumer-ready – though the market itself is still immature too. As well as the establishing of a recharging infrastructure, Muir adds that “the role of governments in supporting and incentivising is critical” for mass adoption of plug-in vehicles. He calls for tax breaks and benefits – and for a unified approach across the EU to underline these.

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