Not all specialist and niche cars are produced by specialist and niche companies. Several OEMs also include low-volume niche models, and one of them is Peugeot, which showed the 308 RCZ Coupe concept at last year’s Frankfurt Motor Show and indicated that the company was seriously considering putting it into production.
At April’s Lisbon Motor Show, and following lengthy and serious consideration, Peugeot confirmed that it would manufacture the car. The key elements of the concept’s distinctive design will remain, stated company officials. These are particularly its “double bubble” roofline and rear windshield.
The time it took to decide to build the car underlines the caution and prolonged consideration that even a major OEM must give to a niche project, despite the fact that the RCZ concept last year received general approval by the public and media and has been driven by this AEI editor on public roads—unusual for a concept.
Pascal Henault, PSA Peugeot Citroën Group Director of R&D, explained that for an OEM, the time spent to make such a decision does not center on just technology and manufacturing capability.
“For us, doing niche cars is a little difficult. It’s about how to sell them and to be sure of our customers,” he said. “But it is not a design or production problem. Yes, we are a manufacturer of mass-produced sedans and wagons, but we also focus a lot of thought on building cars in low volumes that can fill niches and be marketed at a reasonable price.”
Henault noted PSA’s strong platform policy behind such cars as the 308 RCZ—the company cannot build models that are not designed using established platforms. “But from sedan to coupe, convertible, and SUV, we certainly can,” he said.
Both the 205 Cabriolet and 206 Coupe Cabriolet have been particularly successful, and the signs are promising for the 308 sedan-based RCZ.
Diesel-HEVs on schedule
Another niche that Peugeot is aiming to fill is that of the diesel-hybrid. The company announced last year that its diesel-hybrid program was going ahead and it invited AEI to drive early prototype vehicles using parallel hybrid systems. But costs of diesel-hybrid technology have always been a very difficult hurdle, and the challenge continues. Although the program remains in place, its potential market positioning has changed.
Working with the French Agency for Industrial Innovation, PSA completed a precise cost analysis to establish commercial viability of a diesel-hybrid. Meanwhile the European Commission was concerned that if PSA received French government aid for the project, it would constitute unfair competition.
“So we have decided that we would not be capable of reducing the cost sufficiently for lower-priced vehicles and have rescheduled our target,” revealed Henault. “We will offer it in cars in a higher range than forecast; that will be the Peugeot 308 upwards. After that, maybe we could cascade it down through the ranges. But the program is still on target for 2010-2011.”
He said the company supports this strategy despite the cost—“some people can afford it!” he said.
PSA is also pursuing other hybrid applications to help maintain its claim of having the world’s lowest CO2 fleet-emissions average for its car range—something that has become a marketing race.
“We have achieved 140 g/km in France and 141 g/km across all our European markets,” Henault claimed, “and we will meet the emission requirements for 2012.”
The application of micro-hybrid (stop-start) systems is part of this strategy. “We plan to produce 1.1 million cars with micro-hybrid technology by 2011 and close to 1.6 million by 2012,” he said.
Peugeot and Citroën both are introducing low-rolling-resistance tires, low-friction bearings, and optimized transmissions to complement the hybrid applications. Henault regards six speeds as sufficient for the needs of all the company’s models.
PSA’s HCCI development
Henault also sees diesel-gasoline convergence technology as a being a significant development for the future, although the problem remains of very-low-temperature starting (below -20°C) in relation to reduced diesel compression ratios in a gasoline/diesel convergence power unit. PSA's collaboration with BMW on gasoline engine development, including turbocharged direct injection, may be a significant element of this.
“A lot of work is being done on converging the two systems, and we are trying to make a gasoline engine work without spark plugs,” he said. But Henault admitted that it will be at least 10 years before PSA has a convergence engine, widely known in the industry as homogeneous-charge compression igntion (HCCI), ready for production.
PSA does not want such an engine to run on special fuel; the use of conventional fuel would ensure the continued use of existing infrastructure.
Regarding fuel cells, Henault is very cautious. “We have too many major barriers—the fuel cell is very expensive, and continues to be as the cost of platinum rises. Also, it may be possible to reach 1000 hours of operation on the test bench, but not in transient systems. As for the carriage of hydrogen in tanks at 700 bar—"it’s a pain in the neck!” he asserted.
Henault believes fuel-cell technology will not be introduced on a massive scale in the near term. He said hydrogen still must be made available at a very economic price. “Today it is a dream,” he said.
So although the 308 RCZ will make production in 2010 (it is expected to be seen at next year’s Frankfurt Motor Show) and will follow the folding-hardtop version of the 308, it looks certain that it will not be developed to use a fuel cell. But it could eventually get a diesel-hybrid system. If so, it would become a truly niche car that might act as a technology demonstrator and have sufficiently distinctive aesthetics to advertise PSA’s environmentally advanced thinking.