Saving is no longer possible: CO2 targets make small cars expensive

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Although small cars generally emit less CO2 than large SUVs, they too are having problems meeting EU targets. For customers, this means one thing above all: the vehicles will become much more expensive as electrification progresses.

For the entire new car fleet in the EU, the limit value of 95 grams of CO2 emissions per kilometer and vehicle sold has been binding since this year. Although individual values apply to the manufacturers, in simple terms it can be said that fines of 95 euros are now due for every gram of CO2 emitted with every single car sold above the permitted level. The fines can quickly reach billions for large car manufacturers. Last year, the average CO2 emission according to NEDC was 121.8 grams, as the consulting agency Jato Dynamics has just determined.

Manufacturers are therefore under massive pressure to reduce the average consumption and thus the CO2 emissions of their fleets. The situation is further aggravated by the fact that emissions must be reduced by a further 37.5 percent by 2030. This does not only affect car manufacturers who earn their money selling SUVs and sports cars. Suppliers of small and very small cars must also improve their CO2 balance. Because even they often exceed the prescribed limits.

Weight bonus helps the big ones in particular
But there is another component that comes into play for them: the average weight of all registered vehicles, which is currently determined at just under 1380 kilograms, is used to calculate the manufacturer-specific limit value. This is intended to help ensure that manufacturers of heavy passenger cars are not unduly disadvantaged in comparison with those of lighter vehicles. Put simply, there is therefore a weight bonus for heavy vehicles for the calculation of the limit values. Conversely, however, for manufacturers of lighter vehicles this means that the target value for them can be below 95 grams. Such cars can also have a negative impact on the manufacturer’s fleet consumption.

Car manufacturers are particularly affected by this, as it is with small and very small cars that they generate the highest sales in Europe. In these segments the profit margin is lower compared to the more prestigious and expensive models of premium manufacturers. Fuel-saving measures that enable a significant reduction in fuel consumption are cost-intensive – especially for small cars. So what can be done to avoid the fines?

The easiest way, of course, is to remove a model from the range altogether. This is currently a popular approach, especially for the smallest cars. Ford has removed the Ka, Opel the Adam and Karl from the list. Also the question about the continued existence of the triplets Peugeot 108, Citroen C1 and Toyota Aygo has not yet been finally answered.

From small cars to electric cars
Some manufacturers want to save their micro cars by turning them into electric cars for city traffic. Smart, for example, now offers its two and four-seaters only as electric cars. The Renault Twingo, which shares the technology with the Smart Forfour, is also coming onto the market as an electric model. In the VW group, all signs point to electrification at the technology brothers VW E-Up, Skoda Citigo E and Seat Mii.

Even the new Fiat 500 drives up electrically. In the end, not even Renault’s cheap brand Dacia can close itself off to electrification. An electric model is planned for 2021. Of course, these models are no longer available for a base price of around 10,000 euros. At least 20,000 euros will be required for the electric SUV. As a low-cost entry into the respective brand world, they are therefore only of limited use. The new EU regulations for safety equipment, which will, among other things, require all new cars to be equipped with emergency brake and lane departure warning systems from 2022, will add further surcharges.

Plug-in, mild and full hybrids
Even for the somewhat larger small cars, manufacturers must pull the electrification card to meet the requirements. However, the size leaves much more room for maneuver here. On the one hand, there are the expensive battery-electric models such as the Opel Corsa-e, Peugeot 208-e or the new Honda-e, as well as the Renault Captur as a plug-in hybrid from summer, which is still unique in the segment. The eco-bonus subsidy will further reduce the additional price of these E variants. It remains to be seen whether buyers will be able to get enthusiastic about an electric car even without financial support from the German government. What is certain, however, is that the industry will promote the sale of emission-free e-cars or low-emission plug-in vehicles.

Another way to reduce emissions is through mild hybrid systems, such as those used by Hyundai on the i20, Mazda on the 2 Series and Suzuki on the Swift, among others. Depending on the supplier, battery systems with up to 48 volts are supposed to support the combustion engine and thus ensure lower consumption. Purely electric driving is generally not possible. In the case of mild hybrids, it is usually only a matter of supporting the starting of the engine, starting off or supporting the engine with a so-called boost when accelerating.

In any case, there is no environmental bonus for mild hybrids. Nevertheless, customers have to pay quite a lot of money for this type of fuel saving. In the Suzuki Swift, for example, the new mild-hybrid version is supposed to save one litre of fuel in a one-third mix, according to the manufacturer. The price for the car itself increases by 2400 Euros compared to a Swift Sport. However, the Japanese are buffering the additional costs with a rich equipment package.

Are full hybrids the best solution

But small cars are also to be offered as full hybrids in the future. In contrast to the mild hybrid, the battery here is large enough to power the vehicle for several kilometers. Unlike the plug-in hybrid, however, the battery of the full hybrid cannot be charged at the socket. It is recharged by the combustion engine while driving.

So far, only Toyota offers a full hybrid in this segment. And successfully so: around 80 percent of Yaris buyers have so far opted for this variant. The new Yaris coming this summer also relies on this technology. A newly developed 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine with 91 hp will then be used in combination with a 79 hp electric motor. The system output is 116 bhp. Average fuel consumption is expected to be 3.7 liters and CO2 emissions 86 grams.

The new Honda Jazz, which will also be offered exclusively as a full hybrid version with a system output of 109 hp in the future, is expected to achieve similar consumption values. The Renault Clio will also be offered as a full hybrid with a system output of 140 hp. CO2 emissions here are expected to be around 100 grams.

The diesel is back

Just how important the French consider saving CO2 in the Clio to be is also shown by another decision: The diesel is back. After compression ignition engines had almost completely disappeared from the small car segment due to the high cost of exhaust aftertreatment, the French are now offering a diesel for their little one again. The 1.5 litre engine is offered in two versions with 85 hp and 115 hp. Renault states the average consumption according to WLTP with values of 3.6 to 3.8 litres; the CO2 emissions are between 95 and 101 g/km according to the data sheet.

Will micro and small cars disappear completely, as some analysts predict? Manufacturers are still working hard to achieve the CO2 targets. After all, the small ones are often the ticket to higher and more expensive brand portfolios. It remains to be seen whether this can still be communicated to customers, given the significantly more expensive micro and small cars.

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Mette Frederiksen is a The Washington Newsday correspondent. With her coverage of general science, NASA and the interface between technology and society, Frederiksen has been in the Science Desk's Technology Beat since joining Washington Newsday in 2018.

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