Paris Auto Show: Why Jaguar Is Unveiling a Plug-In Hybrid

Last Updated Sep 30, 2010 2:33 PM EDT

The days are long gone when the Detroit automakers were inclined to laugh at electric cars and call them glorified golf carts. Nevertheless, it's still a little jarring to see high-end luxury brands like Jaguar jump on the electric-hybrid bandwagon.

Jaguar joined the crowd by announcing the Jaguar C-X75 Concept car, a plug-in hybrid, at this week's press preview for the Paris auto show. The concept car has a top speed of 205 mph, and goes from zero to 62 mph (that's 100 kilometers per hour, hence the odd number) in 3.4 seconds. Anything under four seconds is blazingly fast.

The company bills the Jaguar C-X75 Concept as a "four-wheel drive electric supercar." That's a whole string of terms that are not usually thought of together, nor thought of in connection with the posh, wood-and-leather Jaguar brand. Take them one at a time:

1. Four-wheel drive.
Most people still associate four-wheel drive with trucks, and with SUVs plowing through the snow, an image that's reinforced in a lot of advertising. However, car enthusiasts are aware that four-wheel drive can also be a high-performance feature.

A lot of professional racecars have all-wheel drive. So do many of the sportiest Porsche and Audi passenger cars. Jaguar in particular has a recent history of stylish four-wheel drive passenger cars, so four-wheel drive actually isn't such a departure for Jaguar.

2. Electric.
Properly speaking, the Jaguar C-X75 Concept is an Extended Range Electric Vehicle, more commonly called a plug-in hybrid. Today's hybrids, like the Toyota Prius, run off a battery-powered electric motor, a conventional gasoline-powered motor, or both. The gasoline motor also recharges the battery. In fact, the gasoline engine is the only way the battery in a conventional hybrid gets recharged.

In an EREV, like the Chevy Volt that goes on sale later this year, the electric motor drives the wheels, exclusively. The battery that powers the electric motor gets recharged two ways. One is by the onboard gasoline engine. The second is by plugging it into more or less ordinary household current. The benefits are a much greater range, running on battery power (that's the "ER" in EREV); it's also much cheaper to recharge the battery by plugging it in at home, as opposed to running what amounts to an onboard, gasoline-powered generator.

3. Supercar.
Jaguar has produced its share of supercars over the years, but the Tesla (TSLA) brand kicked off the "electric supercar" category, with blazing acceleration and supercar styling. Today, Tesla has plenty of company. Competitors include Fisker, and even Ferrari has announced it will have a hybrid.

Other luxury brands are offering hybrids in a somewhat less rare and more practical vein, including Audi, Lexus, (TM) Lincoln (F), Mercedes-Benz (DDAIF.PK) and Porsche (VLKAY.PK). More are announced all the time. Nobody would call any of those a golf cart.


Photo: Jaguar