What was once a reliable workhorse and off-road conqueror has now grown (literally) into a multi-billion dollar auto sector that’s rather hard to fault.
A raised ride-height, commanding driving position and interior space combine into the perfect formula for a sales success. It’s not surprising, then, that SUVs have become more popular than the default sedan or hatchback – which have both seen a sharp drop in sales recently.
One class that’s struggling to find a foothold in South Africa, however, is the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) – mixing electricity with a conventional internal-combustion engine. This niche sector is often plagued by high asking-prices and a fear of change.
Could combining the traits of these two types of vehicle result in a marriage made in heaven?
The South African new car market doesn’t sport a particularly wide selection of hybrid SUVs, with mostly premium brands offering hybrid models. These manufacturers have the necessary cash flow to design, engineer, and build impressive hybrids that make sense in real world driving.
We’ve compiled a short list of SUVs – all from premium brands, featuring plug-in hybrid electric powertrains. From BMW we have the X5 xDrive40e, Volvo offers the XC90 T8 Twin Engine, and Land Rover presents its first hybrid, the Range Rover Sport P400e.
Manufacturers say people buy these vehicles because they’re looking for exceptional fuel efficiency, space, and off-road ability, as well as some sportiness if they happen to find themselves on a twisty road.
BMW X5 xDrive40e
Taking inspiration from the brand’s trailblazing i8 hybrid sports car, the X5 xDrive40e is BMW’s first plug-in hybrid production SUV. Combining the versatility and on-road presence of a large vehicle with BMW’s proven eDrive technology, the X5 presents a compelling argument for the green-conscious SUV lover.
The cleverly controlled interaction between the X5’s TwinPower turbocharged engine and the rechargeable electric motor generating an output of 230 kW, which ensures the SUV has that extra punch for some enthusiastic acceleration, yet won’t leave you in tears at the petrol station. The hybrid returns a combined fuel consumption of 3.4 litres/100km and only 78g/km of CO2, meaning it’s exempt from emissions tax.
Of course, these figures are claimed by the manufacturer and it might prove impossible to attain that level of efficiency. Nonetheless, it’s still more impressive than conventional powertrains and a lot less harmful than those sneaky diesels.
The X5 xDrive40e features an 8-speed Steptronic transmission for seamless gear changing and almost undetectable switching between hybrid modes. Its lithium-ion battery pack can be topped up from any standard power socket, or at public charging stations, by using the included charging cable plugged into the port located on the front left fender. This allows the car to drive in pure electric mode for up to 25 kilometres – meaning short journeys can be easily completed with zero tailpipe emissions.
Looks-wise, there’s not much setting this model apart from other X5s, with only small badges on the front fenders and D-pillars hinting at its special tech. Spec it with the M-Sport package and you can a have a menacing-looking SUV with a green heart.
Volvo XC90 T8 Twin Engine
Volvo surprised the market with their first hybrid offering – the XC90 T8 – promising outright power, exceptional fuel economy, and low emissions, all in a 7-seat luxury SUV. The brand’s Twin Engine moniker simply refers to the two sources of power found in the XC90 – its petrol engine and the rechargeable electric motor.
The manufacturer believes the XC90 to be segment leader, boasting 42 kilometres of zero emission, pure electric range and 303 kW of power at the driver’s disposal – all through an 8-speed automatic transmission.
It certainly is a powerful hybrid, and with R-Design sport package selected, it looks the part too. Yet, claimed fuel consumption is only 2.1 litres/100km and CO2 emissions as low as 49g/km.
The Volvo features five different modes that offer drivers a range of performance and fuel efficient characteristics. Hybrid is the default mode and is suitable for everyday use, it alternates between the two power sources to deliver the best overall fuel consumption.
Pure Electric mode is when the car’s batteries are fully charged and can serve as its sole energy source, powering the electric motor over the rear axle. In Power mode, drivers get the combined performance of the combustion engine and the electric motor, offering the kind of acceleration that will make a few sports cars hot under the collar.
AWD mode puts the XC90 in constant all-wheel drive, which is especially helpful in tricky situations like navigating wet roads or going off-road. Lastly, Save mode allows the driver to “freeze” the battery level, if fully charged, and save it for later use with Pure Electric mode.
Similar to the BMW, the XC90 T8’s lithium-ion battery pack can be charged from any domestic power socket by plugging its cable into the port situated on the front left fender.
Land Rover Range Rover Sport P400e
The Range Rover Sport has long been the first choice for those in search of a luxury SUV with an extra dose of grandeur. This PHEV version is Jaguar Land Rover’s first attempt at a hybrid powertrain and it hasn’t spoiled the latter’s image, but instead widened its appeal.
Titled the P400e, this new model uses both JLR’s Ingenium petrol engine and an electric motor to deliver a total power output of 297 kW from the permanent four-wheel drive system, powered through a ZF 8-speed automatic transmission. The new powertrain mixes dynamics and fuel efficiency with the tried and tested RR-level of comfort and refinement.
The P400e’s lithium-ion battery allows the posh SUV to travel up to 51 kilometres in all-electric mode, crowning it the electric range winner of this list. Like the previous two, the batteries can be charged by plugging its cable into a specific port hidden behind the grille.
Boasting a claimed fuel economy figure of 2.8 litres/100km and only 64g/km CO2, the Sport PHEV is the most fuel-efficient model in Land Rover’s history. It waits to be seen if the luxury SUV can live up to these figures, but they’re still impressive nonetheless.
Driving the future
Hybrid cars, and hybrid SUVs primarily, are still considered a niche market within South Africa, mostly inhibited by limited choice, high price tags, and the allure of frugal, yet malign diesels.
Still, with global warming, air pollution, and more stringent emission laws being passed, car manufacturers are now more ardently searching for alternate, earth-friendly powertrains.
It makes sense, then, that with the popularity of the SUV not dying down anytime soon and the increasing influx of new hybrid and battery technologies, vehicles like these will become more commonplace.
The models on this list are just a hint of what’s to come in the future – vehicles that are eco-conscious and partly electric, but still offer all the creature comforts that have made SUVs the most popular choice worldwide.