I wake up and Manhattan is miserable. It's pouring rain on a dark, May morning, and snagging a taxi that will shuttle me to Central Park, site of the 2008 General Motors/Department of Energy Challenge X hybrid vehicle competition, becomes a challenge in itself. Walking a few blocks north of midtown, I spy a yellow savior waiting near a hotel. But the taxi doesn't matter much now. I'm already soaked (didn't pack an umbrella - Jay-Z says it just rains money in Manhattan). Sitting in the cab, I pat my face dry with an undershirt and a piece of paper.
Today, the very same Mother Nature that GM and the Department of Energy advocate saving is pounding New York commuters. I put up with the soggy, Big City traffic because Automobile Magazine has been invited to sample some of GM's newest, greenest SUVs - a fleet of Chevrolet Equinox hybrids. Of course, GM engineered none of the Equinox hybrids I'm about to drive. And none will ever be for sale.
As part of the Challenge X competition, 17 colleges and universities were given a regular Chevrolet Equinox four years ago and told to develop it with the same goal -produce a new hybrid SUV with the most improved fuel economy and lowest emissions, all while maintaining driver comfort and vehicle performance.
Not an easy task, considering Chevy's Equinox was designed in the golden era of SUVs.
Waiting to see these college-built eco-stars, I imagine students turning their Equinoxes inside out, crafting crazy grass-powered hybrids in woodshop settings. The fleet of green Chevys would now be lowered, have body kits, tail fins, hood scoops, diffusers, and all types of improved aerodynamic gear. I expect them to have some new LED headlights and taillights, maybe even a convertible top so passengers can fully inhale the environment they would be saving.
Yet pulling up next to the hybrids, I spy 16 Chevys lined in rows and looking rather mundane. Each has similar wheels and go-fast sponsor stickers. They all have Michelin run-flat tires and conservative paint jobs. One has a hood scoop.
Where did I get this idea that hybrids would look exciting?
Huddled under awnings are teams of college students and Challenge X project advisors, all answering media questions about their modified people movers. I chat with a few of the competition advisors, who explain the enormous amounts of time and energy that went into building their respective Challenge X projects.
After a short Challenge X event introduction, it's revealed that media will only have about an hour to actually drive the students' new Equinox hybrids before the giant convoy of SUVs heads south for Englishtown, NJ, then onward to Washington, D.C., the Challenge X's final destination. (The hybrids are evaluated throughout this journey based on 18 categories, including acceleration, road emissions, consumer acceptability, and presentation).
Quickly, I run through the rain, ready to test what is rumored to be the best Equinox hybrid in the competition (Mississippi State's through-the-road parallel, 1.9-liter turbocharged diesel SUV).
Too late - it's taken.
And I'm wet again.
Wanting to stay warm, I hop into Texas Tech's E85 and hydrogen-fueled, 2.4-liter four-cylinder hybrid, which is assisted by a 4-kW belt drive alternator-starter (BAS) and a 36-V battery. Matt Harrison, Texas Tech electrical engineering graduate student, explains a BAS provides the capability to shut down the Equinox's engine during stops and allows for limited regenerative braking. The silver Texas Tech Chevy also has a 10-kW hydrogen fuel cell, mounted in the rear cargo area, which powers the vehicle's 12-V and 36-V electrical systems.
This first Equinox hybrid, like many of the Challenge X hybrids, suffers from slow acceleration (due to excess hybrid component weight), and its raw, regenerative braking system provides inadequate stopping power throughout the Central Park test circle. Still, Texas Tech's Equinox runs and drives, and it improves the Equinox's fuel efficiency, meaning the Tech team did its job. In fact, Texas, along with every other school, is already ahead of the University of Michigan's Challenge X team (whose series hydraulic Equinox never left Michigan's garage).
Stopping to swap hybrids, I see the Mississippi State Equinox is rolling away with another journalist. Ugh. So I get behind the wheel of Penn State's hybrid Equinox, which had already won Challenge X awards for Best Engineering & Fabrication Workmanship and Best Vehicle Appearance.
Like Texas Tech, Penn State was one of only three teams to use hydrogen as a supplementary or secondary propulsion source in their Equinox (Penn State injected hydrogen into its vehicle's 1.3-liter, turbocharged diesel engine). The guys from State College also crafted a Challenge X Equinox with lightweight titanium brakes and a relatively unmolested interior (many hybrid models had wires strewn everywhere), and their hybrid provided nearly identical performance to the regular Equinox.
I am in a Penn State Equinox that is efficient and sufficient. Even the trunk area has a custom fabricated battery pack cover to maximize interior volume. But the SUV isn't fun to drive (although the turbocharged diesel offered more power than I expected). Left to wonder if a performance-oriented Challenge X Equinox hybrid even exists, I get out of Penn State's vehicle and look down the rows of four-doors.
At this point, I'm still keeping an eye out for the Mississippi State Equinox. More accurately, I'm practically drooling for a chance to sample MSU's dreamy, six-speed manual.
But the MSU Equinox is out again, and I'm told it won't be back soon. Time for Plan B.
Introducing myself to Tulsa students, I ask for drive time in their less popular six-speed, through-the-road-parallel hybrid. It just so happens that Tulsa's Equinox has the same transmission and 1.9-liter GM direct-injection turbo diesel engine that was in the elusive MSU hybrid.
I get in, turn the key, and almost immediately begin darting through Central Park traffic.
Without question, this six-speed hybrid is the performance SUV I had been waiting for.
However, while I'm waiting at a stoplight, the clutch pedal in Tulsa's experimental Chevy suddenly begins disappearing from under my foot! (By this, I mean that it was literally retracting into the Equinox's engine bay until only the brake and accelerator pedals remained.)
I turn to one of Tulsa's student representatives in the passenger seat.
"Um, yeah, so I think I lost your clutch."
Mari Riera, Tulsa's outreach coordinator, just giggles.
"I forgot to tell you," she says. "When the hybrid battery is fully charged, you simply put the gear selector in second gear and the Equinox will drive on battery power. And you don't need to shift."
Tulsa crafted this unique, city-standard transmission for their Equinox hybrid to simplify stop-and-go traffic and improve fuel economy. Mississippi State's hybrid may be somewhere else on its way to winning the Challenge X competition (which it did, based on overall performance), but this single feature on the Tulsa Equinox wins my heart. Who wouldn't want to drive a hybrid with a real, six-speed manual transmission and then be able to drive it without shifting gears whenever you wanted? And why haven't automobile manufacturers adopted this technology for city commuters?
I know the Challenge X competition is mostly just an exploratory exercise for future engineers. I also learned that the cost of all the technology students applied to each hybrid Equinox is more than an unreasonable $200,000 to order, engineer, and install. But as Tulsa's team, and students from all of Challenge X's 17 colleges and universities have proven, GM is only scraping the surface when it comes to exciting hybrid vehicle technology. Perhaps the automotive giant should start taking a closer look at what else could be accomplished by exploring hybrid power (and I'm not just talking about developing the plug-in Chevy Volt hybrid).
Of course, this can only happen if GM and other car companies can begin turning profits and reinvesting that money into alternative power. If they can't, automakers are in for a stormy future.
And I'd advise them all to pack a heavy-duty umbrella.