Suzuki moves to 48V mild hybrid electrics to improve its business standing
Small, yet incredibly successful carmaker, Suzuki, has been caught in a cleft stick in recent times, reports Iain Robertson, between small capacity engine emissions and a very light touch on its hybrid developments, neither of which are pointers to its future.
Make no error, I am a determined Suzuki fan. I have owned Suzuki products in the past and I drive most satisfyingly a Suzuki today. For any motoring scribe to subscribe his personal motoring in such a manner suggests that a certain amount of ‘spending money where his mouth is’ forms a vital element of any critique. However, I am not biased and I do recognise some quite specific issues, where Suzuki GB falls flat and (perhaps) ought to be more confident, even arrogant in its stance.
While motor industry pecking orders are inevitable, due to the size of worldwide marketing operations, Suzuki as a group of companies is large, thanks to its motorbike and power products (that includes marine) divisions, even though its car business is only of modest dimensions. It is predominated by Suzuki’s position in the Indian sub-continent (which has been aided by its relationship with local production firm, Maruti), strong student sales in North America and a peppering of its talents across the rest of the world’s car markets.
Its upward trend in the UK has been due to two primary model lines, Vitara (its crossover best-seller) and Swift (the consummate sub-compact). A misjudged, too high, pricing exercise on the excellent S-Cross model stymied its market progression from the outset, while the recently deleted Celerio (city car) and Baleno (compact hatchback) models have been struck by what has been termed ‘emissions issues’ (fact check: poor sales), even though a more aggressive promotional stance may have saved them, as both were truly exceptional models in their respective classes.
The UK company’s relatively recent adoption of a Fleet Management department can be perceived as a positive direction for an up-and-coming player. Yet, all it has achieved is a reduction in the per unit profit and a minor upset in its otherwise excellent franchise operation. It is typical of fleet operations for smaller car firms, in that they wish to be perceived as ‘grander’ than they are but the reality is best left in the capable hands of the dealer network, which can return a significantly higher level of profitability both to themselves and also the carmaker. However, having created the stick with which to beat itself, it is (kind of) stuck with it. Suzuki should spend more time appreciating the value of its assets (its dealers and faithful customers), rather than following the airy-fairy suggestions of its uber-costly agencies and consultants!
Yet, addressing the demands of the environmental lobby is an issue confronting all carmakers. Suzuki is no exception and it is the key decision behind its forthcoming relationship with Toyota and its manufacturing plant at Burnaston, Derbyshire. Although the details are scant at present, versions of both the Corolla estate car and RAV4 SUV, both of which are full hybrid models, will be launched during 2020, with appropriate Suzuki detailing. This could witness a return of both Liana and Grand Vitara badging (to be confirmed) to the UK new car scene.
In the interim period, Suzuki is taking its SHVS technology up a step to 48V electrics, accompanied by a 20% reduction in exhaust emissions, for Swift, Vitara and S-Cross models. I might have been able to state that this is a vitally important move, were it not for the simple fact that the shift towards WLTP legislation for more realistic emissions and fuel consumption figuring means that the near stock £145 annual road tax rating will still be applied to them; therefore, the benefits are not as broad as they might be.
A greater level of torque and a 15% overall improvement in WLTP Combined fuel consumption figures does help a smidgen. Naturally, these models will replace directly the current 1.4-litre Boosterjet derivatives that are also equipped with manual transmissions. There is no mention about automatic gearbox alternatives at this stage.
Similar in basic principle to the lightweight and highly efficient 12V Hybrid SHVS (Smart Hybrid Vehicle by Suzuki) system that the company pioneered in 2016 and fitted to all manual transmission models in the Ignis range and Swift SZ5 models, the newly developed 48V Hybrid Powertrain retains its lightweight benefits, the components adding less than 15kg to the overall vehicle kerb weight.
The new system consists of a 48V lithium-ion battery, Integrated Starter Generator (known as ISG) and 48V-12V (DC/DC) converter to power components requiring lower voltages, including lights, audio system and air conditioning. The ISG acts as both a generator and starter motor; it is belt driven and assists the petrol engine during vehicle take off, for a higher level of torque, with 173lbs ft being available from a lowly 2,000rpm. The compact lithium-ion battery, along with its DC/DC convertor unit, is located below the front seats and stores electrical energy recovered from deceleration and braking, while incorporating an ‘idle stop’ function that is operated via the ISG.
A further benefit of the new 48V Hybrid system is the introduction of electric motor idling, when the clutch is disengaged and the engine speed is approximately 1,000rpm. This feature replaces fuel injection essentially, with power from the electric motor that controls and maintains engine idling at vehicle speeds below 10mph and while stationary. It has the effect of eliminating fuel consumption under those conditions, as engine momentum is electrically controlled by the ISG unit and the car is ready to re-accelerate (on demand), without engine restart delay occurring.
I shall be driving the new models early in 2020 and I am certain that they will deliver Suzuki’s claims, which tend invariably to be most conservative. There is still no word on fully-electric vehicles from Suzuki, although we know it is working on developments. However, its association with Toyota may produce some collaborative results. To be frank, I think that Suzuki’s tardiness on the EV front is more than justified by recent international reports on the poor CO2 performance of current generation EVs. Besides, Toyota’s work in the fuel cell arena is surely another aspect that could be shared more beneficially. Suzuki is taking a tentative step in the right direction, as far as vehicle exhaust emissions are concerned, but it is what might result from its strategic partnership with Toyota that will create the greatest attention.