PARIS – Groupe Dassault, the leading French aerospace company, plans to enter the auto industry early next year with hybrid and electric powertrains.

A subsidiary, SVE (Societe de Vehicules Electriques), has been developing its ideas for several years with Heuliez S.A., a French manufacturer of folding convertible tops and car-body conversions. Late last year, when a major new investment was required for industrialization, Dassault bought out Heuliez and plunged ahead on its own.

Key to the powertrain system, called Cleanova, is a lithium-ion battery pack from Johnson Controls-Saft Advanced Power Solutions LLC, a joint venture formed in January 2006.

“Johnson Controls-Saft has launched series production of Li-ion battery cells,” SVE Program Manager Benoit Lafouasse says. “We are preparing Cleanova for launch in early 2008.”

SVE showed its latest Cleanova version at this month's Geneva auto show: a plug-in gasoline-electric hybrid that operates in two modes, series and parallel. In the body of a Fiat Doblo small utility van, shown on the Heuliez stand, the system has a theoretical range of 90-125 miles (150-200 km) on electricity alone, Lafouasse says, “depending on the battery.”

Because the battery will be an expensive component, the Cleanova concept is designed around allowing buyers to decide how much battery to buy, depending on their daily driving requirements. The project will launch next year with battery packs of 20 kWh, and later a 25 kWh battery will be offered.

SVE is targeting fleet buyers, and negotiations are in final stages with several potential customers for the initial orders, which will be Cleanova powertrains in a Renault Kangoo body. Both all-electric and plug-in hybrid versions will be prepared.

Some 15-20 companies in France have 200,000 vehicles in their fleets, and fleet managers understand how to balance purchase cost against running costs. In France, SVE estimates the electricity cost for driving 62 miles (100 km) at €1 ($1.32), assuming an overnight recharge when rates are lower. A Doblo with a 77 hp 1.4L engine is rated at 31.8 mpg (7.4 L/100 km), with a gallon of gasoline costing about €9 ($11.90) in France.

While earlier Cleanova versions and the initial vehicles to be sold are based on the Renault Kangoo, the conversion of a Fiat Doblo demonstrates the flexibility of the powertrain. The Cleanova hybrid system uses a 54-hp gasoline engine from German supplier Weber Automotive that weighs only 88 lbs. (40 kg). The flex-fuel engine is designed to run on any mixture of gasoline and E85.

The Cleanova approach is to use electricity for traction whenever possible. In the Doblo Cleanova, when the battery is low, the engine becomes a generator. For long journeys and when more power is needed than available from the electric motors, the engine delivers torque mechanically to the drive wheels. SVE and Dassault engineers have designed the control module, which allows drivers to choose the operating mode.

“We started with electric vehicles and are now pursuing hybrids,” Lafouasse says, explaining the drivetrain control strategy. “Electric versions are aimed at door to door urban use, and hybrids for extraurban use.”

SVE estimates fuel consumption under the European mixed city-highway conditions would be more than 118 mpg (2 L/100km), with carbon-dioxide emissions of less than 50 g/km.

Some 30 Cleanova prototypes have been undergoing testing for more than a year by potential customers, including the French post office, the French electric company EDF, and the principality of Monaco.

Dassault has moved several dozen engineers to SVE, and more are employed at the supplier companies such as Weber, Johnson Controls-Saft and TM4, a subsidiary of Canada's HydroQuebec, which developed the permanent magnet synchronous AC electric motor for SVE.

The key to Cleanova, as with all hybrids and electric vehicles, is the traction battery.

“They are Saft cells, but it is our concept of the package that insures the high density and long life of the Li-ion battery,” Lafouasse says. “The high density is due to our capacity to manage temperature in the cells, with a cooling system, and the mechanical integrity of the cells.”

Dassault and SVE have patents on their battery innovations.

Although Heuliez is no longer a JV partner in SVE, it remains the industrialization partner. Heuliez President Paul Queveau says SVE has invested in Heuliez convertible bonds to cement the new relationship of Heuliez as a production source.

In the past, Heuliez converted hundreds of Peugeot cars to electricity, and today it makes the Tigra TwinTops for Adam Opel GmbH. Heuliez says it has capacity for 40,000-50,000 Cleanova conversions annually.