If I said one car maker had designed an engine that runs on air, you might imagine it would cost a king’s ransom. That’s when it goes on sale, which you might surmise wouldn’t be until about 2030. And anyway, doesn’t the whole notion of an engine fuelled by air seem a tad fanciful at best? Peugeot doesn’t think so. It has built one and it could be on sale within three years. But most importantly, if a HYbrid Air powered 208 was in dealers today it would be wearing a sticker saying £16,500 about the same as a diesel model.
Although called hybrid, rather than battery power accompanying petrol, the Peugeot system relies on compressed nitrogen. A tank of the gas, under very high pressure, pushes hydraulic fluid through a motor to generate power. It’s capable of around 30kW (40hp), but only for a very short time. That’s enough to get a car to 30mph, then after 300m the compressed nitrogen’s energy is exhausted. It doesn’t sound far but in the context of a big city centre that’s probably the distance between traffic lights.
The clever part is that the gas can be re-pressurised and therefore re-energised within 10 seconds of the internal combustion engine running. So a bit of idling at the lights and you’re ready to go again on air power. As with other hybrids, the car can run either on air alone, air in tandem with the petrol engine for what Peugeot calls ‘boost’, or petrol alone. In the boost phase, the engine would deliver the equivalent of 120hp. But a third of those horses would be free both in financial and environmental terms.
Although Peugeot has a prototype 208 model using this engine and claims 141mpg and 46g/km of carbon dioxide, that car uses lightweight materials and has aerodynamic tweaks designed to make it more windcheating. It would of course be correspondingly more expensive. But the exciting thing about this power source is that there are very tangible benefits to be had in an otherwise unmodified car: Peugeot reckons 94mpg and 69g/km which is well worth having.
Whether the HYbrid Air makes it beyond the prototype stage is down to whether Peugeot can find a partner and build sufficient engines to make it economically viable. I suggest, there is a sense and precedent that if something is right, build it and they will buy it, to bastardise the film tag line.
A version of this story was published in Daily Telegraph Cars