posted on April 17th, 2018

Add batteries to add performance

No sooner had the Toyota Prius hit the streets than it earned the scorn of car enthusiasts everywhere. To purists, it represented the antithesis of what makes cars great: style, driver involvement, and perhaps most importantly, power and speed. In its pursuit of maximum MPG the Prius became the flag-bearer of the eco-car segment, and while everyday users loved its efficiency, many car geeks solemnly swore to never drive a hybrid.

Then, around 2013, something happened that wiped the smug grins off hybrid haters’ faces: three of the world’s greatest sports car brands released new range-topping models — all of which were hybrids. The Porsche 918, Ferrari LaFerrari, and McLaren P1 each used electric power to augment their gas engines, with shocking results. They crushed quarter mile runs and broke lap records at racetracks worldwide. Car geeks were forced to reevaluate their beliefs, as there was no doubt hybridization was the key these vehicles used to unlock their staggering performance.

But how could this be? What was it about their hybrid powertrains that made these cars so fast? The answer is torque fill.

Andrey’s 2016 BMW i8 (Los Angeles, CA)

In general, gasoline engines produce peak power high in the rev range, near their redline. While there’s no sensation like feeling power build as the tachometer swings higher and higher, it’s not often that a driver gets to exploit that outside of a racetrack. Conversely, electric motors produce peak torque from zero RPM, but tend to mellow out as speeds increase. This makes all-electric vehicles like Teslas awesome in daily driving situations, like zipping away from a stop or through traffic, but not ideal on a circuit.

Torque fill, then, is what’s accomplished when these two power sources are combined and tuned as one system. Auto engineers realized they could use the instant torque of an electric motor to fill in for the gas engine before it produces peak power. The result is linear power delivery, with acceleration available everywhere in the rev range — off the line, out of a corner, or tearing down a straightaway. It’s a potent pairing that even the best gas-only cars can’t match.

Harry’s 2017 Acura NSX (Glendale, CA)

Plus, powerful hybrid powertrains come with real world benefits. Some of these cars have an all-electric mode, where the gas motor can be shut off entirely, providing smooth, quiet operation when a screaming 700-plus horsepower engine isn’t needed. What’s more, in the modes where gas and electrons are combined, efficiency and range are improved — and no car geek wants to waste money on gas, even those that can drop a million bucks on a hypercar.

The good news is that sporty hybrids are coming for everyone, not just the ultra rich. Today, nearly every automaker is exploring new ways to make the most of hybrid performance. For example, AMG’s new “53” badged cars use a turbocharged inline six cylinder, coupled with an electric motor at the rear axle, and an electric-powered supercharger to further push the gas engine’s output. Toyota has confirmed a hybrid option for their upcoming Supra, and sports car legends like the Porsche 911, BMW M3, VW GTI, and Chevrolet Corvette are all rumored to become hybrids in their next generations.

Kudzila’s 2016 BMW X5 eDrive (Seattle, WA)

It’s wild to consider that technology pioneered in the Prius has led to automotive performance the likes of which were previously unimaginable. While there are still hurdles for fast hybrids to overcome, namely extra weight and complexity, it seems they offer a driving experience that would thrill even the staunchest combustion apologist, and still work as a sensible choice for everyday use. By combining the best aspects of gas and electric power it’s clear that — for the foreseeable future — hybrids make the best sports cars.

Alex has been a car fanatic for as long as he can remember. At 6'10," he might be the tallest auto writer in the world, and whether it's engine timing, exotic car design, or race strategy, there is no automotive topic beyond Alex's interest.