First Drive: Aptera 2E

October 26, 2010
Every now and then something weird and wonderful comes our way. The Aptera 2E scores over the top in weirdness and, assuming a number of ifs can be fulfilled, it has the potential to be a wonderful alternative to humdrum automobiles.
Aptera 2e Front Three Quarters
The five-year-old enterprise attempting to raise funds to put this concoction in production began with a brainstorm. While stuck in southern California traffic, founder Steve Fambro dreamed of a car that could whisk around the normal clog in the high-efficiency lane. Collaborating with veteran boat builder Chris Anthony, Fambro set Aptera's wheels -- only three of them -- in motion with an emphasis on building and eventually selling something very out of the ordinary.
Over the years, this Oceanside, California, firm has matured and had the good sense to summon help from Detroit. Engineers, marketing brains, and management experts who joined the company have helped drum up exposure and interest from investors. One prototype scored well in the Progressive Insurance X-Prize efficiency competition which ended this summer.
The show car that appeared one sunny afternoon for a quick visit at Automobile has most of the latest engineering advancements and control system algorithms. The point of the three wheels is to save weight and to enable an ultra-low-aerodynamic-drag body. With a claimed drag coefficient of 0.15, modest frontal area, a target weight of 2225 pounds, and roughly 25-percent less friction than a 4-wheel car, efficiency in the hundreds of equivalent mpg is within reach. Note the word equivalent here. That's because the e in the Aptera's 2e name stands for electric. In other words, this is another soldier in the growing platoon of future cars that draws its energy from the electrical power grid.
Chief engineer Tom Reichenbach, a graduate of Ford's illustrious SVT department where he was a major force behind the Ford GT and Shelby GT 500, gave me a guided tour of the 2e's fine points. At its core there's a steel tubing space frame bonded to advanced composite body panels that aid the car's rigidity. Lithium-ion batteries supplied by A123 provide 20 KWatt-hour of energy storage (compared to Volt's 16 Kwh and Leaf's 24 Kwh). A 110-hp permanent magnet DC motor manufactured by Remy drives the front wheels through a Borg-Warner 6.5:1 reduction gear. As noted on the car's rolling billboard graphics, the tires are by Michelin, the brakes come from Ate.
The front suspension is a twin control arm design with a rocker connection to coil-over damper units. The single rear tire, which is larger than the front tires, is suspended by one well located trailing arm. The steering is unassisted rack-and-pinion.
Aptera 2e Front View
The exterior-hinged swan-wing doors are necessary to avoid fouling the front wheels which mimic the low-drag pods found on personal aircraft.
For such a compact design, the cabin is not only roomy but also readily accessible and surprisingly comfortable. The bucket seats are well shaped for support and their backrests fold forward to permit carrying a load of boa constrictors in maximum extension, rigor mortis form. Just in case that need arises. A long, nearly horizontal hatch provides access to the narrow and shallow cargo compartment.
As with all electrics, there is no start up drama, vibration, or engine growl. The electronic display cluster wakes to entertain you with a plug for Aptera before presenting pertinent speed, range, and state-of-charge information. On the center console, a circular mouse selects the mode of travel. Pressing it forward commands drive, pulling it back engages reverse, motion to the right places the powertrain in neutral, and a shove to the left puts you back in park. Twisting the mouse changes the amount of regenerative braking and your selection is displayed in the bright cluster.
The surge forward is not initially impressive. The 2e is quick enough to enter a hole in the traffic flow but hardly worthy of the passing lane, at least at city-street speeds. From 30mph and up, the enthusiasm is much more impressive. By 40mph, this car verges on fun with its strong response to a kick of the accelerator and what feels like a second wind. With regen set at 70 percent, the Aptera slows predictably and smoothly with every modulation of accelerator position.
Reichenbach warned me that the motor controller was programmed to block velocities above 72 mph to keep this experimental model in one presentable piece. What I didn't expect when I forged ahead with the accelerator locked down was that they whole system would go dead like a HAL 9000 throwing a hissy fit. We coasted into a parking area, Reichenbach fumbled for the hidden reset button located under his side of the dash and the system was rebooted and ready for more action in a few seconds. Once this programming foible is corrected, there should be no problem topping 100 mph.
Quick and accurate steering gives the Aptera 2e impressive agility. There's virtually no body roll or significant scrub from the front tires. The center point of the steering is a bit nervous so many small corrections are needed to maintain a dead straight path, but overall, the chassis feels ripe for prime time.
Aptera 2e Front Three Quarters 2
Try as I might, I could not make the solo rear tire misbehave. Flinging this car back and forth at a test or race track would be a worthwhile experiment to see if one of the front radials will lift before the back one slides. Reichenbach noted that masses were moved forward, suspension parts were reinforced, and the rear tire was increased in size so it never has to do more than one-third the work of keeping the Aptera stable.
The genuinely weird moment came when I instinctively attempted to straddle one of the all too common examples of road kill that litters Michigan rural roads this time of year. It takes extra concentration to place the Aptera just right to keep from messing up its smooth underbelly with dead meat.
The Aptera company line is that customer deliveries will commence before the end of 2011 if sufficient financing can be arranged through grants, loans, or venture capital benefactors by the end of this year. Those of you with an extra million or two burning a hole in your accounts should have no difficulty arranging a warm reception with these folks.
One more year will be needed to slip the fourth wheel under the chassis along with a couple more doors and seats. Watch for that to happen. Reichenbach and his bright colleagues are too smart to waste their time and talent on a fruitless venture.

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