2020 Drako GTE First Drive Review: The 1,200-HP EV Sweetheart
The GTE looks to revolutionize performance driving as we know it.
Andy Pilgrim, Automobile's resident professional racer, hurtles the two of us around WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, the speedo climbing past 125 mph on the track's main straight before he knifes the camouflaged prototype through the quick Turn 1 kink and brakes hard for the tight Turn 2 hairpin. Despite a damp track surface from a recent rain, as we exit the 180-degree left-hander, Pilgrim is quickly back on full throttle, and we gun hard toward Turn 3. The lap continues like this—we're making some serious speed—but everything feels weird.
"When you lift the hood of our car, you'll think, I've never seen anything like this!"
For one thing, Pilgrim seems to be driving not a 10/10ths hot lap but instead a relaxed Sunday afternoon cruise; he barely moves the steering wheel as we dive down the tricky Corkscrew, the car tracking through the apex with zero countersteer or other corrective inputs as he hammers on toward hairy, off-camber Turn 9. Also, it's eerily quiet in here. Instead of an internal-combustion scream, the audio is a muted mixture of turbinelike whoosh and the moans of g-loaded tires tasked with performing improbable feats.
"You can see that I really just need to turn into the corner, and the car does the rest," Pilgrim says as we flash through Turn 10, his voice hushed as if the two of us were conversing in a library. And then he late-brakes into the final, hard-left Turn 11, mashes the throttle, and once again we're pinned back in a gently furious blur of straightaway speed.
"Geez," I think to myself as we leap flat-out over the main-straight hill, Pilgrim looking every bit as tranquil as a koala after a eucalyptus bender. "This almost doesn't seem fair."
"This is a new type of driving," says Shiv Sikand, executive vice president and co-founder of Drako Motors, a Silicon Valley-based startup. "I believe we're on the cusp of a revolution with the use of four-motor electric cars. And we aim to lead that charge."
Company president and CEO Dean Drako says he started working with Sikand around 2002, after a friend suggested the two engineers and tech entrepreneurs "would make a good team." After starting a software company that's still going strong, Drako and Sikand—both avowed car crazies—turned their attention toward building a car of their own.
"I have a couple Ferraris, a BMW M5 or two," says Drako. "But I've always been a fan of the electric car, always wanted to have an electric that has the track-capable performance of a traditional sports car. But I'm disappointed with the look of so many electric cars. They look funny. And the makers say, 'Well, it's a different thing.' But the reality is nobody wants a different thing. They want the same thing but better. That was a lot of the motivation for building our car."
"It's amazing how well the front end sticks, and the final balance point we arrived at produced a very impressive, high-performance feel. "
Sikand agrees. "We want to evoke the passion, the sexiness, of long-bonnet, V-12 sports cars," he says. "We want to show that you can have beautiful, inspiring cars that are high-tech. When you lift the hood of our car, you'll think, 'I've never seen anything like this!'"
That car, unveiled during last August's Monterey Car Week after roughly six years of development, all done in remarkable secrecy, is the new Drako GTE. It's based on a Fisker Karma platform, but every panel except the doors is new. Indeed, the sensational, sensuous lines of the carbon-fiber bodywork were penned by Lowie Vermeersch, who helped create such stunning shapes as the Ferrari 458 and the Alfa Romeo 2uettottanta concept car before founding his own design house, GranStudio, in Turin, Italy. Yet, as striking as the GTE's exterior is, the sculptured look is merely an appetizer. It's indeed what lies underneath—namely, an innovative battery, four electric motors, and proprietary Drako DriveOS software to run it all—that truly sets this new supercar apart.
The GTE doesn't mark the first-ever use of such electric architecture, mind you. In 2013, Mercedes-Benz unveiled the four-motor, 740-horsepower SLS AMG Electric Drive, a car so freakishly quick and competent that legendary racer and rally driver Walter Röhrl, after testing it, claimed it "melted my brain." The SLS set an electric car record lap around the Nürburgring Nordschleife of 7:56—handily beating the Audi R8 E-Tron—yet after selling fewer than 100 examples of its half-million-dollar supercar, Mercedes essentially abandoned the program.
Andy Pilgrim pilots Arthur St. Antoine on a series of eye-opening hot laps around Laguna Seca in the GTE prototype. At right: co-founder Shiv Sikand tells the author, "Drako's control methodology is our obsession. "
The Drako GTE aims to pick up where the SLS Electric Drive left off—while also taking the four-motor concept to a new level. But to get there, Drako and Sikand first had to search the car world for an engineering partner equal to their lofty aims. Finally, in the fall of 2014, they found what they were after. In Finland.
"I was working as a professor of applied sciences at Helsinki Metropolia University," Sami Ruotsalainen says, "and with my students we created a four-motor electric race car—including building the chassis from scratch. We entered it into the 2010 Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize, which ran in Michigan, and finished second in our class. Then, after visiting the Nordschleife several times over the years, lapping and continually tweaking our car, in 2015 we finally beat Mercedes with a lap of 7:49. It was a dream come true for me." (The record has since been broken several times, with the electric Volkswagen ID R racing prototype recently posting an astonishing lap of just 6:05.)
Drako Motors had already begun working with Ruotsalainen prior to the 2015 record, Sikand having first seen the Helsinki university team's car at a tech fair in Munich. Soon after, Drako and Ruotsalainen joined forces on the GTE project. The focus of the endeavor: four electric drive motors, each one individually operated for unprecedented yaw control, handling precision, and vehicle stability.
There's a fascinating in-car video of the Ruotsalainen car—known as the Electric RaceAbout and now running Drako DriveOS—setting the 2015 Nordschleife record next to another in-car view of the SLS Electric Drive posting its previous record time (search YouTube for "Nürburgring electric vehicle lap record holders side by side"). In it, the Mercedes driver works the wheel fairly hard through the track's endless corners, catching little slides and making course corrections when necessary. In contrast, the RaceAbout's pilot, Finnish ace Markus Palttala, moves the wheel mostly in gentle arcs, barely countersteering at all, while at the same time steadily pulling ahead of the Mercedes. That seeming effortlessness at the wheel is the Drako GTE's secret sauce. Maybe it could melt Röhrl's brain even more.
"Our obsession has been the new control methodology," Sikand says. "With e-motor propulsion at each wheel, you can apportion the torque any way you want. Now, we've seen this—Porsche has their torque-vectoring rear axle, for example—but it's still fundamentally primitive. Or these e-diffs that control clutches electronically—you're still doing retardation with hydraulic brakes, and the latency is long. With our system, you've got a virtual triple differential with no brakes needed. There's zero latency. And our system is proactive. We're computing a new torque value every 10 milliseconds to all four wheels, taking into account steering angle, slip angle, wheel-speed sensors, accelerator, and brakes. The tech is not only intuitive for race car drivers, but for the general public you can build a very safe car, particularly for inclement conditions."
Roomy enough for four, the GTE cockpit includes controls that enable the driver to dial in as much understeer or oversteer as desired.
Ruotsalainen recalls one memorable test. "I was driving on a frozen lake in Finland, and I was literally able to throw the car sideways—almost a full 90 degrees, which would be impossible to recover in any normal car. But then I just turned the steering wheel and it corrected right back to straight." Ruotsalainen laughs as he remembers the moment. "The system can almost control the car as if it were a tank, with the track on one side moving in reverse to turn the tank on a dime. Our car can essentially do that." Four switches in the console—what Drako calls the Quattro Manettino—allow the driver to adjust the torque vectoring level, front-to-rear power distribution, regen braking level, and settings for six different road surface conditions.
The GTE offers 12 pre-selected paint jobs, though buyers can opt for whatever color they'd like. The launch vehicle's Electric Red hue is produced with an 18-layer process for phenomenal color range and depth.
Naturally, to deliver its extreme performance—including a claimed top speed of 206 mph—the GTE needs one helluva battery. It has one. It's a 90-kW-hr, 450-volt unit made up of 10,000 cells, capable of producing 1,800 amps of continuous power with a 2,200-amp peak. (The SLS Electric Drive, in comparison, used a 400-volt, 60-kW-hr battery.)
"This is not a 100,000-mile battery," Sikand admits. "The cells have a limited lifetime. Instead, the battery is built for power. It's similar to a Tesla battery in concept, except we use a highly parallel cooling-tube design to manage the very high thermal loads [and the battery is water-cooled]. We want the car to keep right on accelerating until it hits its 206-mph Vmax. The cells are going to deliver very good range, and they're definitely going to give you very strong, non-degrading performance."
The specs, on paper at least, are head-spinning: 1,200 combined horsepower through four permanent-magnet hybrid synchronous motors.
The specs, on paper at least, are head-spinning: 1,200 combined horsepower through four permanent-magnet hybrid synchronous motors (225 kW each, housed inboard of the wheels to reduce unsprung weight) and four direct-drive gearboxes. Drako claims a max total torque output of 6,500 lb-ft, but that's "wheel torque," which means various multiplying gears are involved, making the figure more of a pub brag than a meaningful data point. Just know that the GTE is monstrously potent. At the same time, though, the car can recharge using conventional EV protocols (such as J1772), while a 100-kW DC fast charger in a pickup truck will also be available for buyers who intend to run their GTEs at the track.
The GTE's game-changing objective: massive performance plus unprecedented control and all-weather stability.
The company will build 25 cars at about $1.25 million each. (Retired racer and car dealer Bruce Canepa, a Drako board member, will be the exclusive distributor.) Drako took the first reservations at the August premiere, with deliveries expected to start mid-2020. "The primary customer is going to be tech-savvy car aficionados who appreciate the performance and uniqueness of what we've created," Drako says. "It's really like I've built this car for me."
And if the GTE proves a success, what's next? "Our next car, which we can do in about a year, will be targeted at around 4,500 pounds," Sikand says. "We'll build 99 of them, at half the price of the GTE. That puts me squarely in Lamborghini Aventador and Ferrari 812 Superfast territory. And I can eat those cars." Sikand smiles at the thought. "That's what we're going to do: provide cars that are just amazing to drive, totally guilt-free, and fast as hell."
Keep watching, tech fans. We'll do whatever we can to get our hands on a production GTE as soon as possible—and see if our brains melt, too.
"It's Quite Addictive"
Our own contributing writer and professional racer Andy Pilgrim did much of the development driving for the Drako GTE prototype, and he came to know the car's on-track dynamics better than anyone.
"It's amazing how well the front end sticks," Pilgrim says. "I worked with the engineer to finesse the torque-vectoring system, and the final balance point we arrived at produced a very impressive, high-performance feel. Approaching corners, as soon as I was slowed enough and on my desired line, I would aggressively pick up some balance/maintenance throttle, the torque vectoring helping the front and rear stay in line while accelerating. By the end of the test, I could aggressively accelerate ridiculously early after the apex yet still hold my line.
"Huge brakes are a requirement, as the car is heavy, but on the track the way the brakes stayed with me was really impressive. The engine power pull is very turbolike, comes in with a big hit, and keeps on trucking—similar to how a Porsche 911 GT2 RS feels.
"The torque vectoring has transformed the car from a GT to a sports car. The most fun for me is being able to twist the car midcorner, almost at will, which allows me to immediately increase the throttle. It's actually quite addictive."
|2020 Drako GTE Specifications|
|POWERTRAIN||Four permanent-magnet hybrid synchronous motors (225 kW each), 1,200 horsepower combined|
|TRANSMISSION||Four direct-drive gearboxes, 5.56:1 reduction ratio|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 4-passenger, four-motor, AWD coupe|
|RANGE||250 miles (est)|
|L x W x H||201.0 x 81.3 x 51.4 in|
|WEIGHT||5,300 lb (est)|
||2.9 sec (est)|
||206 mph (est)|