Industry, manufacturing | Technology & innovation

Prokhorov’s hybrid ‘Yo-mobile’ project steps on the gas

18 Feb '11
Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor

Russia’s first LNG-gasoline hybrid car could be hitting the road by the end of the year with this week’s announcement that the $225m plant has broken ground in the village of Maryino outside St. Pete. The ‘Yo-mobile,’ also nicknamed ‘the Prokhorov hybrid’ after its ‘father,’ Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, already has the support of Porsche and foreign investors. The JV behind the project, Yo-avto, has high hopes even to sell its hybrid internationally. The big monkey-wrench however is whether or not the RF will agree to build enough LNG stations to keep the Yo tanked up to keep rolling on Russian roads.

According to Yo-avto, the new auto plant hopes to manufacture 10,000 cars its first year. The Yo will retail for an estimated $11,900-15,300. With just 60 horsepower, the new hybrid will have a curb weight of just 1,540 pounds—a reported 40% lighter than any other small vehicle currently produced.

This week’s announcement followed last December’s presentation of three working prototypes and came a year after Mr. Prokhorov first floated his $225m idea of a ‘popular car.’

Yo-avto was created last year by St. Pete-based Yarovit Motors (51%) and Mikhail Prokhorov’s Onexim Group (49%) to build an ICE and electric motor driven ‘direct-action hybrid’ running on gasoline or LNG. According to RBC daily, Germany’s Porsche has also officially signed on to collaborate in the project.

By this November, the new plant is expected to assemble its first trial batch. The vehicles will then be fully tested and certified in the UK by May 2012, Yo-avto said, adding that serial production was scheduled for the second half of next year. If the public likes what it sees, Yo-avto CEO Andrei Biryukov said, he hopes to boost St. Pete capacity to “40-50,000 cars a year.”

130km/hr with a 1,110km range

After months of design tweaking the ‘Prokhorov hybrid’ is now expected to have a maximum cruising range of up to 1,100km—a considerable 700km increase from what was envisioned in early 2010. Its maximum speed is a projected 130km/hr.

Last December, the JV showcased three prototypes—a hatchback, van and cross coupe. The designers claim they have achieved the goal set at the start of the project: to make a single chassis able to be adapted to family of vehicles, which may also later include a compact SUV and a light truck.

RBC daily quoted a Yo-avto spokesman as saying, “…instead of 6,000 conventional parts the new vehicle will have 400 units in a variety of combinations” to be used in any of the family.

Get up and go at -50C

The new hybrid chassis reportedly combines a rotary-vane engine, an electric motor, and a supercapacitor. The latter will replace conventional lithium-ion power packs typically used for electric vehicles and is expected to substantially cut the Yo’s design costs and extend battery service life.

To address cold start problems that so often plague winter driving in Russia, Yo-avto claims that the Yo will be able to get up and go even in temperatures as low as -50C degrees.

Small is beautiful

Although some analysts feel Yo-avto’s small production will make the Yo a money-loser, the St. Pete JV isn’t worried. Mr. Biryukov hopes that “starting 2012, partnerships will be opening in Russia’s regions every four-to-five months to assemble up to 10,000 Yo’s a year.” He also wants to slowly add more dealerships to make the car “rare” so that even with modest demand, the dealers can have the cars they need to make a profit without being concerned about competition or overstocks.

Anticipating success, Yo-avto is already in talks with a number of regional car manufacturers to be able to ramp up production quickly.

The firm isn’t just betting on the Russian market—notoriously fickle—so it has set its sights on the international hunger for hybrids as well. To make it happen Mr. Prokhorov and Mr. Biryukov plan to display the Yo at this year’s Frankfurt auto show. The JV is also reportedly looking for opportunities to set up assembling overseas.

On paper, the company has little risk. Even with an inevitable price increase in a European-made Yo, the car will still be much cheaper than the electric-driven Chevy Volt or Opel Ampera.

But where’s the LNG?

Yo-avto already has pre-sold the Yo. The Belgorod regional administration has booked 100 vehicles, the company said, adding that private customers were also lining up. As a result, the firm has announced a pre-production booking procedure starting this spring.

But even with orders in hand, launching a plant and getting franchisees to buy into the idea is still dependent on having enough LNG stations where owners can re-fuel.

There are less than 300 natural gas stations in all of Russia, most of which are in Moscow. Some vastly populated areas in Russia’s east or south have no LNG station at all. At some stations there’s only methane—which the Yo can’t use.

The JV knows this is a big obstacle and claims that framework agreements have been reached with both the RF and oil companies about building new stations and promoting LNG as an energy-saving alternative and an environmentally sound investment.

The big question is whether or not Mr. Prokhorov’s manifest ability to make inroads into the government will work for the Yo—if not, the new hybrid could meet the same fate as the Siber and become Russia’s newest lemon.
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