Sunday, December 23, 2007

Space-age Fuel Efficient Car coming next year

I want one of these for sure when the hybrid model comes out.

Aptera's Super-MPG Electric Typ-1 e: Exclusive Video Test Drive
Popular Mechanics hits the streets and gets looked at more than ever before, then heads to the shop for first-look details on a futuristic car so efficient it’ll make your jaw drop. The good news? It’s coming next year.

Three hundred miles per gallon and a Jetsons-style look are enough to get anyone excited. But ever since the word got out on it last month, Aptera’s innovative Typ-1 three-wheeler has been the target of relentless theorizing and conjecture across the Web. Is it real? Does it have what it takes to be a practical vehicle for daily transport? Is it stable enough to drive? Does it even actually drive? Well we wondered some of those things, too, so we scouted out if a drivable prototype really exists.

It does.

Aptera has two innovative models that are almost production-ready at $30,000 and below: for next year, the all-electric, 120-mile-range Typ-1 e that we drove; and, by 2009, the range-extended series gasoline Typ-1 h, which Aptera says will hit 300 mpg. A more conventional third model, called “Project X” or perhaps Typ-2, is now in the design phase, with plans for a four-wheeled chassis and seating up for to five passengers.

The Typ-1’s exposed chassis shows how the company has taken inspiration from aircraft, boats and high-performance cars. For durability as well as weight and cost savings, the majority of the Typ-1 is constructed from a top and bottom advanced composite structures bonded together along the midsection. With the top and bottom weighing in at a mere 160 and 180 pounds, respectively, the entire vehicle sits at approximately 1480 pounds today.

The chassis has steel reinforcements in key areas: at the roll hoop, along the bottom of the windshield, in the doors (for side impact protection) and, of course, in the front subframe (for the suspension system as well as the engine and battery cradle).

The rear-drive wheel is mounted to a steel swing arm similar to that of motorcycle—but with a design optimized to handle the Aptera’s loads. The rear wheel has 3 in. of up travel and 2 in. of droop.

A belt drive system connects to an electric motor that has regenerative braking to help charge the battery pack. The tires on the prototype are the same 165/65R14 tires from the Honda Insight.

The Typ-1 e is expected to have a target range of 120 miles per charge. A ful1 recharge of the pack will take about 4 to 6 hours with a standard 110-volt outlet. Aptera’s team is still evaluating lithium phosphate battery packs from a few suppliers, so the final specs of the 10-kWh batteries remain confidential. (The hybrid model will use a smaller battery pack.)

Think the Typ-1 looks funny? Well its shape is designed for maximum aero efficiency—the coefficient of drag is an astounding 0.11. Aptera founder and CEO Steve Fambro says sticking your hand out the window of an average car driving 55 mph creates more drag than the Aptera’s entire body.

The prototype’s wheel skirts may be modified in production for better aerodynamic performance, as well as for front-wheel accessibility. The front windshield is laminated safety glass, and so are the side windows. But the production car could use polycarbonate for the side windows, saving additional weight.

Aptera’s cabin comes furnished with sustainable EcoSpun materials on the dash, door panels and seats. You can toggle a small switch between the seats for Park, Drive, Neutral and Reverse.

Cooler still: the Typ-1 e uses a rearview system with three cameras that display images on small dash panels where analog gauges would normally sit. (Traditional rearview mirrors will still probably make it to production as well.)

The vehicle’s vital information (speed, battery life, etc.) is displayed on one of these screens, too. The large central screen, meanwhile, houses a navigation and audio system.

Aptera’s climate-control components are downsized from that of normal cars. That’s because the roof-mounted solar panel powers the A/C system when the vehicle is resting. It then pipes hot cabin air out through twin exhaust ports at the rear of the vehicle. The panels can also help charge the battery pack. The clamshell trunk can hold 15.9 cu.-ft. of cargo.

Swing open the gullwing doors, and you soon realize that getting inside the Aptera is like getting inside an exotic car. You slide your backside into the seat first, then swing your legs inside. Once you’re strapped in, the driving position is slightly reclined—and very comfortable, thanks to the tilted steering wheel.

The seats on this prototype are like those on a concept car—a little too hard and unsupportive. For production, Aptera will put in more traditional seats, plus windows that actually roll down. Typ-1 will also have a provision for a child’s seat mounted in the center of the vehicle behind the two front seats.

Turn the dial to the “D” position, and the Aptera accelerates like many other pure EVs, with a constant rush of torque. The powertrain pulls strongly up to 50 mph or so (the fastest the streets on our route would allow). Interestingly, when you floor the accelerator, there’s a moment when the reareand jacks up slightly as the torque is applied. It’s a slight feeling, as it is on some shaft-drive motorcycles—and it’s kind of fun. It makes the acceleration feel stronger than it is.

Our 20-mile test drive had a few higher-speed corners. And even while we were exceeding the street’s speed limit by a good margin, Aptera’s prototype felt stable and planted. The non-assisted rack and pinion steering takes a little muscle when parking (as most cars do); once you’re up to speed, however, Typ-1 e feels quick and direct.

The vehicle rides much like a soft sports coupe—composed but not overly stiff. Step on the non-power brakes, and they do require a bit of leg muscle. But they also stop Aptera’s car quickly. All of these calibrations will likely improve and evolve as the car develops. After all, this is a prototype.

The view through the windshield is panoramic. But it’s easy to forget that there are two front wheels sticking out 16 in. past the bodywork. We kept far away from right-side curbs until we got used to the wheel placement.

The large front windshield lets you see everyone and everything. And in this car, what you see is everyone staring back at you: Aptera’s three-wheeler attracted more attention than anything we’ve ever driven—anything. People will roll down their windows at every stoplight and want to know what this weirdly futuristic thing is. If you’re parked, they swarm the car. It’s really a lot of fun.

The rearview cameras provide a good indication of what’s going on behind you, but the Aptera does have a bit of a blind spot—so it takes some practice and planning to pass. And that was especially true for us, since this is a $1-million prototype.

Since the Aptera is a three-wheeler, you don’t need a motorcycle license to drive one (even though it’s technically classified as a bike). And since it has a roof, you don’t need a helmet either.

For now, Aptera’s plan is to first sell cars only in California, with distributors in San Diego, Los Angeles and Menlo Park. But they’ll also have a fleet of Dodge Sprinter biodiesel service trucks to maintain customer cars and provide quick-charge service.

Fambro says Aptera only needs to sell 300 vehicles to make the company profitable. So far the company has over 580 orders for the $27,000 Typ-1 e and the $30,000 Typ-1 h. Pilot production is set to begin with 30 Typ-1 e vehicles next year, though eventually Aptera expects to build 2000 vehicles annually. Sign us up for a long-term test.

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