Yesterday we had the pleasure to test drive the electric Saab 9-3 from NEVS and here is a summary of my impressions of the car. Firstly I’d like to say that we’re gonna publish two videos from this, one is an interview with Anders Björnberg who is the Project Leader for the EV project at NEVS, a very nice and extremely experienced engineer who gave us a warm welcome and showed us how to have a lot of fun with an electric car on the Saab test track! The second is video from the test track which shows the electric car in action!
But until those videos are ready, here is what I thought of the car.
When I first saw it, the very first thing I realized that it really doesn’t look any different from the conventional car for an exterior view, except for one thing, it is higher than the normal sedan. Thats because on this test car, the engineers have used the suspension system from the 9-3X in order to create more ground clearance so that the battery pack can fit under the car. In all honesty it looks a bit weird and my first thoughts were that this car would behave strangely on the road, I was wrong!
Having driven the ZE (ePower) and almost every other electric car thats been made including the Tesla Roadster, my expectations of this prototype were pretty low at first, the car was under powered compared to what the production version will be and it still lacked several of the technologies that the production version will have, but it had things that impressed me a lot. After having mounted all the cameras on our two follow-me cars we drove out on the track and I was completely blown away, the underpowered (140 hp) electric 9-3 accelerated away from a 220 hp gasoline 9-3 without giving the gasoline car a chance, only once this prototype had reached its limit speed of 120 and slowed down did the gasoline car catch up. I was later told that once the electric car was rolling at speed it’ll have even better accelerating capabilities, my words were: show me. And they did. I did a classic overtake maneuver pushing the pedal to the metal and the acceleration was significant.
I’m used to driving a manual gear box and every time I press the clutch to shift gear, I lose speed and time, especially when overtaking someone, in an electric prototype like this the acceleration is fenomenal, just imagine what it will be in the production version? =)
And now for my biggest surprise, the handling… I was expecting an elephant on a skateboard, it certainly wasn’t. The extremely low center of gravity makes this car extremely responsive and sticks to the ground like few Saabs ever have, this car is even more responsive than the gasoline version which I’ve also driven several laps on the test track. The chassi setting is close to perfect, even though this is just a prototype, the engineers did not save anything on creating a chassi that “just works for now” it actually works and performs extremely well! The 50 / 50 weight distribution is really great and is also one that most sports car makers use which doesn’t surprise me one bit, it has clear advantages!
But now what probably came as the biggest shocker for me, regeneration. Saabs are generally built around a person who likes to drive, being efficient have not been the no 1 priority for Saab but most often driving experience has superseded fuel efficiency in order to make a car more fun. This has been greatly appreciated among Saabs drivers who most often think that a Saab is efficient enough, even though its no world leader in low fuel consumption. When building an electric car this creates a dilemma since you need to be as efficient as possible in order to get the person to where he/she wants to go. Can you really combine an efficient car and one that is fun to drive? Well yes, if you make it efficient enough.
First off let me explain regeneration for you who have not driven an electric car or a gasoline car with regeneration. The principle is that you use the cars momentum to charge the batteries either when going down hill in order to maintain speed or when wanting to slow down. Rather than pressing the brakes and re-create the kinetic energy that the car has into heat which is just wasted, you use the kinetic energy (momentum of the car) to run a generator which in turn creates a bit of friction and slows the car down, while charging the batteries. Any electric motor can be used as a generation if you spin it the other way around. If it goes one way it draws electricity from the battery, spinn it the other way it’ll push electricity into the battery.
When you release the accelerator pedal on most electric cars you feel a strong deceleration (almost like pushing the brakes pretty hard on a normal car), this is because the most efficient way to generate power is to push it quickly into the battery when the car has a lot of momentum, on the BMW i3 you almost end up in the windshield if you’re not ready for it regardless of which speed you’re driving, the deceleration is that strong and it takes a bit of getting used to in order to learn how to drive.
Well Saab engineers are known for thinking different and this time they did that as well since they wanted a car that drivers don’t have to adapt to, they’re just supposed to drive it just like any other car. There is a concept in the auto industry called sailing which is used on many cars today, which actually comes from the old original Saabs of free-wheeling in which you physically disconnect the engine from the drive shaft and let the car just roll. A car will roll a lot further and maintain its speed a lot longer than most people think and when driving on the highway you most often don’t want your car to slow down quickly, you just want it to slow down a little bit so Saab engineers have implemented the concept of free-wheeling into the electric car as well making the car charge it self in a nice calm way when decelerating at slower speeds and by using the momentum of the car by free-wheeling at higher speeds. Its essentially back to the roots for Saab in this project which made it so much more interesting for me! Of course you don’t generate as much power into the cars but you still don’t use as much either when using the momentum that the car has making the car fun to drive, and efficient enough!
Now I’m not saying that the electric 9-3 is inefficient, far from it, the battery system and car works very well, but it won’t be a market leader in terms of range, but it is the most fun to drive electric car within its price-range!
So what about the noise level? Well the car is quiet, even more than any Tesla I’ve driven, perhaps not as quiet as the i3 but Saab engineers have done a great job in eliminating all of those electric motor noises that you usually get in electric cars. They are extremely annoying when you do notice them but the 9-3 is generally a quiet car compared to others in its class even with the gasoline engine in it, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that its quiet as an electric version as well.
Another thing which really struck me even though I had been told this many times was that Saab engineers had not made any reductions in passenger space nor storage capability. By chance I opened the luggage compartment of the car to put my computer bag into it and once the hatch was opened I stopped and looked almost surprise, they were right, there is absolutely no infringement on the space at all. There is even space for a spare wheel.
Now this is a prototype, I know that and in order to make this a good commercial product the Saab engineers need to make some changes, they know that. So here are my thoughts on what the car needs.
- First off all the car is extremely fun to drive and its fast enough for most people, for hard core fans it needs a bit more acceleration capability than this car had but with a stronger electric motor in the front which is due on the production version that constraint will be taken care of.
- The engineers might want to rethink the big gap that is created in the wheel well by installing a higher suspension. Someone in the comments suggested that they’d just as well make a 9-3X out of it right away and I agree with that, having the chassi that it has now works, but it doesn’t look all that good. Sure the car needs to have the ground clearance in order to work, but it still needs to look good at the same time.
- Electric car range is today marketed according to an international standard for measuring range. This figure most often turns out to be wrong when not driving in the optimized conditions that the range is measured in. This in 99% of cases causes customers to feel cheated and let down since the car won’t perform to their expectations. This is dangerous territory. On a gasoline car if the fuel consumption was 5% higher than advertised it really didn’t matter that much since you’d just turn into a gas-station and fill it up anyway. On an electric car this is a completely different matter since most customers will carefully calculate if the car works for them or not, if the figures from the manufacture are different from what normally works in everyday life then the manufacturer will have a problem!
- Range extension! The BMW i3 has become the new market leader for electric cars, there is no doubt about it, with its carbon fibre structure and long range it outsold the Tesla already in its third month in the market and it is already pushing down sales for the Nissan Leaf and most other electric car. Even though the car looks like crap in my opinion its figures are excellent and it offers what most people want to have, range extension! This is what SAAB needs as well. Sure 95% of the time people will cope fine on just the electric range, but having a car is having freedom and if a customer is to spend close to 30-50k Euro on a car which most electric cars today cost, you as a manufacturer can not limit the customers freedom in any way! You are competing with gasoline cars, there is no question about that and you have to offer the customer the same freedom as he/she would get with a gasoline version. And being able to assure that the customer does not “get stuck” anywhere or is able to make it to that place that they spontaneously find out that they need to go to, you have to provide them with the option of having that freedom and not being locked into a fixed range!
There is space in the 9-3 to offer a small 25 kW engine and a gasoline tank of 10-15 liters that can charge the batteries, this could be offered as an option on the car which customers who might want to assure that freedom of getting that extra mile that the car otherwise can’t, and are willing to pay for it. Sure the car won’t be 100% clean anymore, but just like its sacrifice to make it fun to drive and efficient enough, it’ll also bee clean enough for the real Saab driver!