Subaru announces the Solterra, it’s first battery electric car

Perhaps not by coincidence Subaru chose the week of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow to launch its first battery electric car, the Solterra (the name is a portmanteau of the Latin worlds for sun and earth). To say that it’s based on the same “e-TNGA” electric vehicle platform as the Toyota bZ4X understates how much the two cars have in common: They are basically one and the same car fitted with different badges. Even the wheels are the same. You have to look very carefully at this pair of genetically identical twins until you find a minor detail that distinguishes them: Yes, the rear lights are a bit different.

Toyota owns 20% of Subaru and they have shared models before (Toyota 86 / Subaru BRZ), but I did not expect to see so little recognizable Subaru DNA in their first battery electric vehicle. Yes, there is a four wheel drive model of both the Solterra and the bZ4X and one assumes that Subaru had a hand in design choices for this, but 4WD is by no means unique for BEVs, as models ranging from the Tesla Model 3 to the Volkswagen’s ID.4 are also offered in dual motor 4 wheel drive configurations. Even the hybrid Prius is available in an electric 4WD version.

What seems a little odd is that the non-4WD model is front wheel drive (FWD). In internal combustion engine (ICE) cars, FWD offers some advantages as it saves having to have a long drive shaft between the front engine and the rear differential. The engine and the gearbox can be bolted together and directly drive the nearby front wheels. At the same time the weight of the engine and gearbox provides good traction for the driving wheels, especially in wintry conditions.

With a BEV however, the bulk of the weight is not in the engine but in the battery under the passenger compartment. Thus there is no real advantage in driving the front wheels as opposed to the rear wheels.

An electric motor driving the rear wheels can be very compact, not much bigger than the rear differential and exhaust system in rear wheel drive (RWD) ICE car. Without the traction advantage of the engine over the wheels, it would be better to go for RWD to get more weight on the driving wheels when going uphill or when accelerating. The turning circle would benefit too if the driving wheels don’t have to steer. It is no coincidence that both Tesla and Volkswagen use RWD for their BEVs, in the case of Volkswagen despite the fact that its best selling models such as the Golf and Passat are FWD. So why not Toyota and Subaru? It’s a mystery to me.

Another detail that surprised me was that even though DC charging on this car can reach a respectable 150 kW, AC charging at home is limited to mere 6.6 kW, which is less than for a compact Chevy Bolt. A Golf-sized ID.3 actually handles up to 11 kW. Some of this may be due to the Japanese Chademo charging standard and domestic grid considerations, as Japanese households only have access to 100 V and 200 V single phase current while the US and Europe use the CCS standard and 120 V / 230 V respectively, with 400 V 3-phase AC available anywhere in Europe. So even if there were technical reasons for limited AC charging speeds in Japan, export models should be able to do much better. Toyota may have specified its home charging module to the smallest common denominator, which if true is a bit disappointing.

As for the looks of the Toyota bZ4X / Subaru Solterra, to me they look like a close cousin to the existing Toyota RAV4 that I personally do not find very appealing. However, it is a big seller in the US market and this similarity may help move existing RAV4 owners over to BEV models once they become available some time in 2022.

Toyota has never been enthusiastic about battery electric vehicles. Its official line has been that hybrids are good enough for today and tomorrow we’ll get hydrogen fuel cell cars like its own Toyota Mirai, with all the benefits of battery electric but none of the drawbacks. There was no real space for battery electric in this vision. Toyota clearly over-promised and under-delivered on this strategy: Hybrid cars still spew CO2 into the atmosphere while almost all hydrogen today is made from fossil fuels. Battery electric does much better than that.

In Japan Toyota could rely on the government to help promote its “hybrids today, hydrogen tomorrow” story but in international markets that won’t fly. There the war for the future of the car is over and battery electric won hands down. No other country has a comparable push for hydrogen refuelling infrastructure as Japan has. Even if there were a domestic market for hydrogen cars in Japan, there won’t be any export markets.

Most experts agree that hydrogen vehicles are at least three times less energy efficient than battery electric vehicles, a flaw that would kill them even if the cars and the necessary fueling infrastructure could be built for the same cost, which isn’t the case. Batteries are far cheaper than hydrogen fuel cells and DC chargers are cheaper than electrolysers and hydrogen fuel stations. With battery prices falling further and further, within a few years BEVs will become cheaper to build than hybrid cars. Then the speed of conversion will only be limited by battery production capacity. It’s not clear Toyota will have the right investments in place by then, since it says its future BEVs will eventually be using solid-state batteries, an as yet unproven technology that only exists in the lab.

Until now Toyota had been avoiding BEVs except for the Chinese market, as it hoped buyers would keep buying its existing more profitable hybrid models. That is becoming a risky bet. Drastic changes needed to avoid the worst of a climate disaster no longer seem so radical compared to worldwide measures taken to deal with SARS-CoV-2. Huge numbers of consumers are ready for change. New BEVs by competitors are picking up market share in the US and in Europe. Toyota can no longer afford to wait on the sidelines or it will be seen as becoming irrelevant due to obsolete products.

This new BEV model is a very cautious move by Toyota and Subaru. Instead of competing head on with Tesla or Volkswagen, Toyota and Subaru are entering the BEV market only about as far as they absolutely have to, to still be a credible global player in 2022. The two companies will have to up their stakes to keep up with market developments.

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