Auto Tech

What should a hybrid sports car feel like?

With vehicles like the Fisker Karma on the horizon and rumors of Nissan mulling a hybrid 370Z, sports car enthusiasts find themselves alternating between outrage and excitement about what the future may hold for sustainable motoring.

Fisker Karma Concept
Fisker Automotive

Gasoline/electric hybrids have been around for almost half a decade. In this time, automakers have--through tweaking and borrowing ideas--homed in on how a thrifty and efficient hybrid vehicle should look and feel: essentially, something like the Toyota Prius.

With that all sorted out, automakers started to look at other vehicle segments to which they could apply their hybridization magic. Trucks, SUVs, and even large luxury sedans drink less fuel as the result of an electric motor being tossed into the drivetrain mix. Yet, until recently, one segment has managed to stay off of the greenies' radar: sports cars.

However, with vehicles like the Fisker Karma on the horizon and rumors of Nissan mulling a hybrid 370Z, sports car enthusiasts find themselves alternating between outrage and excitement about what the future may hold for sustainable motoring.

Nissan 370Z
So, would they call it the Nissan 370ZH? Nissan Motor Co.

When you consider the instant-on torque that is characteristic of the electric motor, it would be interesting to see what a no-compromises, performance-oriented hybrid drivetrain would feel like in a lightweight, rear wheel drive sports coupe.

However, when you consider that most manufacturers can't even build an automatic transmission that can outperform a good old fashioned manual gearbox, the prospect of even more techno-foolery between the driver and the meat of the tires is a bit scary.

In my opinion, adding hybrid technology to the sports car formula without mucking the whole affair up involves getting two things right: keeping the additional weight of the electric components low and making the technology transparent.

In the world of sports cars, weight is bad, and adding even the Toyota Prius' 150-pound battery pack results in slower acceleration and less responsive handing. That doesn't even include the additional weight of the electric motor, transmission components, and additional wiring. (Yes, I said wiring. Every ounce counts!) In a hybrid sports car, weight (or at least the center of gravity) must be kept low.

Sports cars are quite often small and bare-bones, lacking large trunks and storage spaces that can be sacrificed to store the battery packs. So the additional issue of where to put the batteries is created. No wonder the first hybrids were small SUVs with plenty of space!

Then, there's the bigger bombshell issue of technology transparency.

For the most part, sports car guys are sort of Luddites, at least where the drive train is concerned. Don't believe me? Google "Synchro Rev Match" and read some of the condescending things drivers have to say about Nissan's newest feature. But who can blame them? Historically, adding too much technology to the mix has dulled the driver's connection to the vehicle. (I'm looking at you, torque-converter automatic transmission!)

Subaru Impreza 2.5GT shifter
Years of poorly performing automatic transmissions has made enthusiasts wary of technology. Corinne Schulze/CNET

Only recently, with the widespread acceptance of DSG, SST, PDK and other double-clutch, automated-manual acronyms and advanced all-wheel drive systems have enthusiast drivers begun to accept that perhaps tech can be a good thing for performance. Which brings us back to the idea of hybrid sports cars.

For the most part, people's conceptions of how a sports car's hybrid drive train would feel end up right back were we started with the Prius. However, I contend that the template for a sports car hybrid is, at this point, a blank slate. There is no high performance hybrid being manufactured on a grand scale today (unless you count the Lexus GS450h, which I don't).

I've always thought that a good performance hybrid drive should work something like an inverted turbocharger (building power at the bottom end of the powerband with instant-on torque, instead of at the top like a spooling turbo) making a small motor feel larger and torquier, while maintaining efficiency, or removing the feeling of lag from a turbocharged engine. Power transitions should be smooth. The driver should only feel an increase in power, not two powerplants fighting for control of the driven wheels.

Alternatively, a performance hybrid could work something like an old-school exhaust bypass switch or the M-Power button on a BMW M-car, operating efficiently until a Mr. Hyde button is pressed and the power of the electric drive train is uncorked.

We're interested in hearing what you think the performance hybrids of the future will look, feel, sound, and smell like. Is such a thing even feasible? Sound off in the comments section below.