Recently, a high-ranking team member from a foreign automaker came to Washington, D.C., on a desperate mission. In fact, the trip was so important that some experts believe the fate of the company's U.S. business hangs in the balance. And no, I'm not talking about Akio Toyoda.
Stefan SchlÃ¤fli, a big-time lobbyist for Porsche, visited Washington to discuss the automaker's progress toward meeting the new CAFE standards that are expected to go into effect in 2012 '” at least for most other OEMs, as Porsche has already worked out a deal that excepts it from the standards until 2016.
Oh, and about that "progress"? Well, apparently there hasn't been too much, as Porsche is truly concerned that it won't be able to achieve its government-proposed 2016 benchmark, which a company representative has pegged at 41.4 mpg. And if it can't, Porsche vehicles will either have to carry an exceedingly stiff penalty of up to $37,500 per car or simply not be sold here in the U.S. Needless to say, the prospect of being shut out of its biggest market isn't going over too well at Porsche, so the company is making some efforts '” beyond lobbying the U.S. government '” to help itself out.
For example, the upcoming Geneva Motor Show in Switzerland will mark the introduction of the 2011 Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid, the automaker's first production hybrid vehicle. The new Cayenne will be a top performer both on and off the road, filled with luxury and high-tech amenities, etc., etc. But the heart of the matter here is its hybrid powertrain, which combines a supercharged V6 and an electric motor to deliver 380 hp and 427 lb-ft of torque; as a comparison, the "regular" Cayenne S packs a 400 hp V8 that makes about 370 lb-ft of torque.
A more important comparison: the 2010 Cayenne S is rated by the EPA at 13 mpg city/19 highway/15 combined; figures aren't yet available for the new hybrid, but some observers are claiming it will earn more than 28 combined mpg in the European testing cycle, which turns up results that are significantly higher than the EPA. That's a 60 percent increase, but even 28 mpg, while certainly not shabby, is also certainly not that close to 41.4 mpg.
Of course, it might help things if Porsche applied some fuel-saving technologies at the other end of its lineup. The 2010 Porsche Boxster and Porsche Cayman can both go 20/29/24 in the EPA's ratings, and a 60 percent bump in fuel efficiency on these cars would deliver 32/46/38. Remember, too, the iconic Porsche 911 can achieve 19/27/22 today, which I suppose isn't that surprising. After all, lightweight, efficient sports cars used to be the company's raison d'Ãªtre before it started chasing the SUV segments.
That brings me to another point. True, I'm a dedicated Porschephile and would hate to see the company pull out of the U.S. market. But if worse came to worse, I'd have to put the blame squarely on Porsche. A lot of the noise around this situation is coming from people who think the only way the automaker could meet the new CAFE regulations is by giving up on the company's traditional high-performance values '” which has things completely backward. The original Porsche, the classic 356, weighed in at about 2,000 lbs, while the 2011 Cayenne will tip the scales at approximately 4,700 lbs. And I'm thinking it's the former that's a better expression of Porsche's heritage.
But Porsche isn't the only luxury automaker that's throwing hybrid systems at its big SUVs, and some are actually doing a worse job at improving fuel economy, and the most egregious offender is probably BMW. The most efficient non-hybrid BMW X6 can eke out an EPA line of just 15/21/17; the hybrid version goes 17/19/18.
Things are better at Toyota's lux division, where the all-wheel-drive Lexus RX 450h goes a stellar 30/28/29, as compared to the non-hybrid, AWD RX 350, which gets 18/24/20 while also delivering less power. And somewhere in the middle is Mercedes-Benz. The EPA has not rated the Mercedes-Benz M-Class hybrid '” the ML450 '” but the company's spec sheet indicates it manages 21 mpg city/24 mpg highway, while the smaller, non-hybrid ML350 is rated at 16/21/18 by the EPA.
Now, I know I've been really flinging the numbers around today, but here's the short story: Having SUVs like the Cayenne won't stop Porsche's run in the U.S., as one can see that all the other players in the lux segments have them, too. It's not having cars like a hybrid BMW 5-Series (set to debut in Geneva) or Lexus HS 250h '” or even like that old 356 '” that's the problem.