KIA’S CLEAN TECHNOLOGY: Automotive paradigm shift

To see the research and development centre of Kia Motors (and sister company Hyundai) in Korea is to realise why this Korean automaker is among the top manufacturers in the world.

It’s the size of a small city, and houses the company’s top talent. The R&D Centre is also home to a gigantic wind tunnel, crash test centre and test track facility the size of 100 football fields. It is here where, among others,

Kia’s next generation of eco-friendly vehicles is being developed.

The first of these, a Cerato Hybrid running on a combination of electricity and a liquid petroleum-fuelled engine, developed over two years at a cost of R1,6 billion, was officially launched in Korea end of July.

During a recent visit to the R&D Centre, SA motoring journos, along with about 60 other scribes from central Europe and the Middle East, were able to drive the new Cerato LPI Hybrid – although only to the end of an empty parking lot and back – as well as a farther-into-the-future hydrogen-powered Sportage fuel cell electric test vehicle, the latter uncannily quiet and with instant torque from the electric motor.

In the hybrid Cerato both the engine and electric motor are activated when the ignition is turned on, but only the engine will run when cruising.

The hybrid system is also equipped with Kia’s Idle Stop and Go (ISG) function, which automatically switches off the engine when the vehicle is idle.

The Forte LPI Hybrid’s Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) for hybrid cars is also equipped with a special E-gear (Eco Drive) that makes automatic adjustments to ensure maximum fuel efficiency.

The experimental Sportage’s electric motor, on the other hand, is powered by the electricity generated by the chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. A single fuel cell can’t produce enough power to power a car, so a lot of them have to be linked and stacked (hence the description fuel cell stack).

The Sportage we drove had a 100-kW stack, or output, for a range of 400km, a top speed of 152 km/h and acceleration to 100 km/h in 12 seconds.

Although hydrogen FCEV motors are twice as effective as internal combustion engines and the only emission is water vapour, there’s still a long way to go, with mammoth production costs being the most limiting factor.

Hydrogen filling stations and storage facilities also need to be put in place.

Yet Kia has come a long way along this road, having recently developed a 115-kW stack and a supercapacitor, a next-generation energy storage unit. Built into a Kia MPV, the Borrego, the experimental vehicle can travel up to 760km on a single charge, and reach 160 km/h.

It is estimated that if 200 000 green vehicles (read hybrids) are on the roads by 2013, fossil fuel consumption will decrease by 70 000 kilolitres, enough to power 40 000 compact-size vehicles for a year, and CO2 emissions will decrease by 310 000 tons.