Aptera's 200 MPGe 'Car'

“If you finish second, then you’re the first loser.”

That motto may have served Dale Earnhardt well as he racked up seven NASCAR championships, but for the team at California startup automaker Aptera, the opposite could turn out to be true.

At the finals of the recent Progressive Automotive X-Prize – a $10 million competition to design and build a commercially viable, 100 mpg car – the company’s ultra-aerodynamic three-wheeled electric vehicle lost its class in a tie breaker to an ultra aerodynamic four-wheeled electric car.

Aptera chief engineer, Tom Reichenbach, maintains that his entry came up short only because its battery pack wasn’t designed to meet the specific requirements of the final event and he wasn’t interested in putting in a different one. That’s because, unlike the winning one-off Wave II from electric car conversion specialists Li-ion Motors, Reichenbach says the Aptera 2e was designed for production, not just to win a contest. This from a guy who used to work on Formula One cars for Ford Racing.

Resembling the cockpit section of a cartoon airplane in search of a pair of wings, the teardrop-shaped coupe is unlike anything currently on the road. At a recent test drive event, one onlooker described it as “from the 22nd Century.” In appearance that may be true, but much of the technology behind it is from today. The electric motor that propels it is a modified version of the one found in a Chevy Tahoe Hybrid.

What makes it different is obvious, and less so. The complex, teardrop-shaped body has a very low aerodynamic drag coefficient of .15, which compares to around .30-.35 for most cars and .25 for the best on the road today. Just as vital in the quest for fuel economy, the 2e weighs only 1,800 pounds, 300 pounds less than an electric Smart Fortwo. The designers were able to achieve both of these goals through the use of a lightweight composite honeycomb monocoque structure similar to that of an aircraft. It’s cheaper than the carbon fiber used in racing cars, but still three times stronger than steel.

The result? According to Aptera, the 2e is four times more efficient than a Toyota Prius. Using a measurement known as Miles Per Gallon Equivalent (MPGe), which compares the amount of energy used by a vehicle regardless of its source – gasoline, hydrogen, electric, etc. – the 2e delivers close to 200 MPGe. Its 486-pound, 20 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion phosphate battery pack giving it claimed range of 120 miles per overnight charge on a 110v outlet.

It should also be as safe as any other car, which is important because its three-wheel layout means that the 2e is technically a motorcycle in the eyes of the federal government and most states including California, where it will initially go on sale. Nevertheless, Aptera CEO Paul Wilbur says that it was designed to meet the same safety regulations as an automobile, and he’ll be more than happy to submit it for crash testing. Better yet, since it has three wheels you don’t need a motorcycle license to drive it, and the roof means a helmet is not required.

The 2e that competed in the X-Prize is actually the second iteration of a vehicle that has been in development since 2005. Although it looks almost identical to the original, it’s larger inside and out, having been scaled up better to accommodate passengers and luggage. The wide flip-up doors make entering it easier than is the case with many conventional cars, while the cabin offers tons of head and legroom for two passengers.

As it is now, the interior is very simple, and reminiscent of the one in a Lotus Elise -- another car that values lightness, and is the basis of the electric Tesla Roadster. The fit and finish, if not the design of it, should change some before the 2e goes on sale, but isn’t too far off the mark now.

There’s no mechanical key or start button, just a wireless smart key and a four-way transmission selector topped by a knob that you twist to change the strength of the brake regeneration, which can be adjusted from 0 to 100 percent. Other than that, if you didn’t know the car was an electric three-wheeler, you wouldn’t know the car was an electric three-wheeler.

Even as you put it in drive and pull away, there’s no immediate indication that there’s anything dynamically odd about the configuration of the 2e. Driven at the speed limit, its handling is surprisingly conventional. Only once did I manage to get the single rear tire to skip out a little bit when I took a 90-degree turn much faster than anyone normally would, but the ensuing skid was probably no worse than if the car had four wheels. At the speed I was going, only one of the rear tires would’ve been on the ground anyway. I also clipped a few corners due to the deceptively wide spacing of the front wheels, which is on par with a full-size pickup truck.

I only drove the car for a few miles, so I can’t vouch for the claimed range, but the 82-kilowatt motor driving the front wheels gives it the performance of a typical economy car. Electric motors can produce maximum torque at zero rpm, and this one has 232 pound-feet on tap, which is twice as much as you get in something like a Ford Fiesta.

What is very apparent is how heavy the unassisted steering is, especially when trudging through parking lots, and how hard you have to push on the manual brakes if you’ve got the regeneration dialed down low. With it set to max you rarely need to use the brake pedal, and Reichenbach says that it can recapture 80 percent of the energy that was used to get the 2e up to whatever speed you’re slowing down from. Ideally, both the steering and brakes will remain without power assist because any extra electricity wasted on them will decrease the vehicle’s range, but further testing and consumer feedback could lead to some changes.

Wilbur sees a limited, but sizable market for this type of car of about 20,000 to 30,000 units per year. Aptera’s factory in Oceanside, Calif., will have an annual capacity of 22,000 vehicles that he hopes to sell at a base price of $25,000. That is, if it gets the money to start production.

The company is waiting to hear if it will receive a $184 million dollar loan from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program. One of the requirements for it is attracting matching funds from private investors, which Aptera is actively pursuing. Cleverly-named New Jersey-Based electricity company NRG is one of the first major investors to come on board.

And while this may suggest the beginnings of a plug-in version of the mythical conspiracy between big oil and the world’s large automakers that has kept us addicted to oil and out of water-powered cars all these years, after talking with NRG President and CEO David Crane, you get the feeling that its more like a grape farmer opening up a winery. Crane drives a Tesla. He appreciates the good things electricity can do in a car. If it turns out to be a conspiracy after all, so what? At least this one has the potential to be less polluting and get us off imported oil.

If the money comes through, Wilbur says that he can get the 2e on the road in less than a year, and he’s already planning for what happens after that. If the market wants it, a hybrid version known as the 2h is on the drawing board, and would work much like the Chevy Volt, carrying a small internal combustion engine to produce electricity on long trips so you don’t need to stop for several hours every couple of hours to recharge. After that a second factory with an annual production capacity of 130,000 vehicles is planned for an undisclosed location in the United States. Since that far outstrips the projection for 2e demand, it’s pretty obvious that another vehicle is in the works.

That one will have four seats, and, sadly, more than three wheels, but Wilbur will say no more about it than that. Considering that he once worked on another groundbreaking aerodynamic car, the 1986 Ford Taurus, one hopes he’s not already thinking about taking Aptera mainstream. Then again, he is trying to make his company a winner.