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Clemson students build clever six-seat hybrid sports car

Ever wonder what kind of car Gen Y would really like to drive?

Well, just have them design one for you.

That’s what Mazda has done by sponsoring a project at Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research, and the result is as outside of the box as they come.

Called Deep Orange 3, a team of graduate students working in conjunction with the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, used real world marketing data to conceive a compact, six-passenger hybrid hatchback that’s truly like nothing else on the road.

About the size of a Mazda RX-8 sports car, the vehicle’s aluminum chassis was built at the school using a patented technology known as Industrial Origami, which involves folding and riveting laser cut sheets of aluminum. Chris D’Amico, one of the students that worked on the project, says the process is so easy that they were able to shape and assemble the frame on the floor of their engineering center using tools you could pick up at Home Depot.

To it they attached a conventional Mazda four-cylinder, front-wheel-drivetrain with a manual transmission in the nose of the car and a battery-powered electric motor that drives the rear wheels in the back. A power control module developed at the school adjusts power split between the two ends as driving conditions dictate. The electric motor kicks in to help with acceleration and traction, while the internal combustion engine handles most of the high speed work.

Read: Student hybrid car project could bring millions to Tennessee university

Unlike most hybrid systems, which employ a generator attached to the internal combustion engine to charge the batteries, when needed Deep Orange 3 switches its electric motor into a generator mode that draws energy produced by increasing resistance at rear axle as the car is driven by the front wheels. Think of how a friction motor push toy works, but much cooler.

It's a simple solution that reduces the complexity and helps keep the weight of the car down. The result is performance that’s on par with a typical hot hatchback but more fuel efficient. The team estimates up to 49 mpg on the highway.

Perhaps more impressive is Deep Orange 3’s clown car-like ability to fit six passengers into a vehicle within the footprint of a typical 2+2. The trick is a staggered seating arrangement with the center seats slightly offset to the rear. D’Amico says the car was designed to comfortably accommodate four 95th percentile-size males along with two 50th percentile males in the center seats, who will be happy to know that there is no hump in the floor.

When not in use, the center seats can be folded down, which combined with Deep Orange 3’s hatchback design offers an added level of practicality, one of the core values of the target customer.

The bodywork was styled by Art Center of Design student Fred Naaman, whose proposal was chosen from 15 submitted to the project. It neatly incorporates Mazda’s latest Kodo design language into a chop top five-door form that will be added to the car in the coming weeks for a trip around the car show circuit.

The team has put an estimated price tag of $27,995 on the car, and is hopeful it can find a partner to put it into production. Mazda’s director of product planning and strategy Tim Barnes says there are no plans to introduce Deep Orange 3 into its lineup, but that “elements of its innovative engineering and packaging have strong potential to make its way into future new vehicles, which is really what this program is all about.”

“When we first began this project with Clemson, the directive given to the students was to design and engineer a vehicle that meets both the regulatory requirements and the needs of our customers.  We think the team did a tremendous job in engineering a prototype vehicle that achieves both of these goals,” Barnes says.

No worries. Whether or not anyone outside of the school ever gets to take it for a spin, the executive director of the automotive engineering faculty, Dr. Imtiaz Haque, says he ultimate goal of the effort was to give students big picture experience with systems integration and all of the disciplines involved in developing a car for market.

Of course, since young people are increasingly uninterested in traditional automobile ownership models these days, one of the next projects the school is working on is an urban vehicle designed with car sharing in mind along with a next generation idea for a campus bus.

Somehow, a six-seat sports car sounds like more fun, but what do we know?