Auto Motor and Sport road test True Electric Saab 9-3

Saab are about to show what they’re calling the 9-3 ePower – a concept vehicle made to trial electric technology with a view to future application in road cars.

Their partner in this venture is a company called ElectroEngine and their first vehicle of note has been seen before, known as True Electric. This vehicle is different to the 9-3 ePower, though it’s based on what is basically the same technology.

Auto Motor and Sport visited ElectroEngine and got a chance to drive the True Electric Saab 9-3 Convertible. Swedes should go to Auto Motor and Sport and download the full report in PDF form. My thanks to Arild for this translation.

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Saab 9-3 True Electric. In about one year’s time, Saab can start selling electric cars that can be driven 300 km on one charge and that costs around 350000 SEK. The company Electroengine, located in Uppsala, is responsible for the flash of genius.

Electric SaabYou’ve read it before: bzzzzzzz, and then the electric car drives away! Zero emissions, zero excitement, zero reality in the world of car buyers – however, the maximum dream, weight and price. But this is not yet another test drive down the same line. Although I’m sitting in the first prototype the driving experience is so good that I would buy it directly. There is no feeling of drawbacks.

The engines don’t sound like high whining sewing machines, but make a kind of rough sound and, yes, a mechanical feeling. Directly on the drive shafts there are two large electric motors of more than 165 horsepower each! There is no gearbox and therefore not any noise from the gears. But what gives you that real feeling of desire is not really the car itself but the fact that the technology inside has taken a major leap forward compared to the electric cars I’ve previously driven. And the strange thing, or should we say symptomatic thing, is that the technology does not come from the automotive sector, but from a small technology company, who happens to be located in Uppsala: Electroengine.

Thomas Bergfjord is the technology brains behind the car. An entrepreneur who has been interested in electric cars for years, but for only a little over a year ago realized that the technology was ready for implementation. The breakthrough is the battery management. In a typical electric car you can only empty about 80 percent of the capacity in the battery pack. As a comparison, it’s like it always has to be ten liters of petrol left in the tank. In a conventional electric vehicle the battery pack provides no more capacity than what the weakest cell permits. When the batteries age, the capacity decreases severely.

In a conventional electric car the battery maker have to work around 100 hours on matching cells with similar qualities. Think of it this way: the cells in a battery are individuals with different characteristics. In order to provide a battery pack that serves as a unit you have to find the batteries that match. If one or more cells in a conventional electric vehicle get damaged after a crash or an electrical fault, it is almost impossible to replace just a few battery cells. The entire package must be replaced. That’s expensive. Very expensive.

When you charge a conventional electric car you can not fast charge more than to when the first cell reaches its maximum. Thereafter the charging gets slow and energy is lost due to heat. In a conventional electric car you need to put much effort – energy – to keep the battery pack at a constant temperature. Variable temperature weakens the performance according to this principle: the weakest cell is in control.

But today I drive no ordinary electric car. According to Thomas Bergfjord all these problems are solved, thanks to a new approach to balancing and controlling the cells in the battery pack. The small company has filed twelve patent applications, and there are more to come. The strongest cells send their energy to the weakest. The production of the batteries is faster and cheaper because you do not have to add the 100 hours in matching the cells. The fast charging phase becomes longer because the strong cells will send the current to the weaker cells. Problems with varying temperature are reduced significantly, meaning that the batteries could be spread out on different places in the car.

And you can replace individual cells. “The most important things aren’t that we can drive farther and that the batteries will be cheaper and faster to produce. The most important thing is that we can repair a battery pack. This means that second-hand car market can function and that leasing companies can be interested. A 100000 SEK brick that suddenly becomes worthless is the greatest danger for electric power”, says Christer Wikner who is the “businessman”.

When I sit behind the wheel, it feels like driving any car, but actually a bit better. The silence is beautiful, but it is the character of the car that seduces me. A gearless car is wonderfully pleasant, no shudder, just a steady flow. It is said that the electric engine provides full torque from start and the torque on this car is said to be unbelievably 2400 Nm. But there are no crazy burnouts, but rather a dignified suction that increases with the speed.

The explanation is that the effect is adjusted so that it will feel like a “normal” car. Of the 335 horsepower, I can only use just under half “because this is the first prototype”. Typical! But the possibilities you get with two separate engines is extremely exciting. “For the chassis guys this is a pure gold mine, the front axle can easily be locked at low speed for better traction and it is no problem to apply more torque on the outer wheel, which would make the front wheel drive car wonderfully controllable when cornering – if you like,“ continues Thomas.

The curb weight with batteries for 300 km of driving is the same as that of a petrol car, and it’s noticeable. Or rather, the car feels smooth and balanced as any Saab convertible. The regenerative engine braking can be programmed at will, and the batteries can be placed low in the car, which makes the least “damage” so that the car’s balance is not affected.

Another fun feature is that the energy consumption is virtually the same at 110 km/h when driving an electric car with 150 or 350 hp. But why does a small company like Electroengine choose to work with the “high-risk partner” Saab, and where is the money coming from, and what about the charge time and can this project turn into real cars?

Thomas: “Saab is small enough for this to work. We can schedule a meeting with ten decision makers and sit in the same room. In addition, the contact with everybody at Saab has been characterized by a positive optimism. Despite all the uncertainty they have never been difficult to understand or used their size against us. It’s been incredibly impressive and nice. But I want to stress that we only have a partnership and not yet a finished deal on production.“

The money for the company is so far coming from the founders who have had good support from Almi in Uppsala, but they hope for government aid money. The bureaucracy works slowly.

With a standard power outlet you can charge to 15 km per hour. A three-phase power outlet and 16 amps gives a little less than 100 km per hour. If you connect it to 32 amp you can charge 200 km in one hour.

Thomas tells me something I have not heard before. “Everybody talks about that you can fast charge a battery up to 80 percent. But that applies only when you charge from zero. If you have emptied the battery to 60 percent, you can just fast charge to 80 for the best cell. But we can, as mentioned, charge more than normal electric cars.“

Then the question of reality. Thomas and his colleagues are now working on new prototypes to be tested properly. The plan is that Saab will build 100 cars next year for field testing at large partners. “We see no reason for not starting to sell electric cars to regular customers in about one year’s time. And prices will go down as volumes go up. In addition, we are thinking about after market sets for used cars!“

Christian von Koenigsegg has test driven the car and likes it. He is thinking fondly of electric Koenigsegg cars and believes that Saab should go directly to electric cars without first taking the road through hybrids – even though those cars also may be built.

What can I say? Sure it sounds almost too good to be true. But this feels more down to earth and likely than for instance the concept bluff Quant on the Geneva motor show. Which large inventions didn’t sound unbelievable when they before they became reality?

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