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Intrepidation

2010 Aptera 2e First Drive and Video

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Driving the Prototype of the EV Three-Wheeler

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Wearing a black jacket, she could be a cop, alerted by nosy neighbors to the funny-looking vehicle tearing around the suburban streets.

She certainly is staring at us intensely as we pilot the bright-white three-wheeled craft down the street, gingerly depressing the brake pedal to make sure we're under the 30-mph speed limit.

Then we're around the corner, she disappears from our rearview mirror and we hit the accelerator.

That's the beauty of the 2010 Aptera 2e electric vehicle — you can speed away from the scene and the cops won't know it, with just a quiet hum as the electric motor winds up and a feeling of satisfaction as the torque presses you deep into the seatback.

An Electric Fan

Turns out, though, she isn't a cop but instead a personal fitness trainer. Lisa Lawn is also a big fan of electric transportation, and she follows the 2010 Aptera 2e to its new assembly plant in Vista, California.

"What is that?" she asks, pointing to the teardrop-shape prototype of the Aptera 2e we're driving. After all, this composite-bodied two-seater isn't a vehicle that looks much like any other earthbound passenger car you're likely to encounter.

This is an aerodynamic tour de force designed by a boat builder and a biotech engineer who were swept away by the idea of a commuter vehicle that would be both fun to drive and environmentally friendly.

This pre-production prototype of the 2010 Aptera 2e weighs in at a mere 1,700 pounds (1,500 pounds in production trim is the goal) and has a 0.15 coefficient of aerodynamic drag, which compares to the 0.25 Cd of the 2010 Toyota Prius. (The Prius engineers were celebrating a big victory when they managed to shave their car's Cd by 0.01 for 2010; they must be crying themselves to sleep after learning about the Aptera's Cd.)

The Aptera 2e ("2" for the number of seats, "e" for electric) borrows its sleek lines from aviation aerodynamics and looks for all the world like a private plane sans wings, propellers and tail assembly. Indeed, company co-founder and Technology Chief Steve Fambro chose aptera from the Greek because it means "without wings."

What Is It?

So call it a wingless airplane, a flightless bird, a three-wheeled teardrop — all have been used to describe it. But don't call the Aptera a car.

In almost every state in the union, a motorized three-wheeled vehicle is classed by law as a motorcycle, even if it has a fully enclosed and surprising spacious cabin with front, rear and side windows; two doors; side-by-side bucket seats; a steering wheel; seatbelts; and airbags. But because it's technically a motorcycle, the Aptera doesn't have to meet the same safety tests as a four-wheeled vehicle. Even so, Aptera executives say that computer simulations show that their vehicle would pass the requisite crash tests with flying colors.

Our EV enthusiast loved the 2010 Aptera 2e a little less when we told her that the market-ready version of the prototype would probably start at about $25,000 and would travel about 100 miles before its batteries would have to be recharged, a process that could take up to eight hours using a standard 100-volt household outlet but half that on a 220-volt line.

That, Lisa Lawn said, would not be practical for someone who drove as much as she did each day. Yet it would be practical for more than half the nation's commuters, says Marques McCammon, Aptera's marketing manager. He cites a number of studies that have shown that a majority of motorists drive less than 40 miles per day during the week.

The Push Is On

Aptera's future appears to be encouraging.

The initial finding has come from serious investors, including Idealab, the business incubator of entrepreneur Bill Gross, as well as google.org, the green-investments arm of Google.

Both Fambro and Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony have turned daily management over to Paul Wilbur, a professional from Detroit, whose career spans stints at Ford and Chrysler, as well as ASC, where he directed production of the Chevrolet SSR hot rod. The company so far has been operating on just $30 million in start-up financing. It says it has more than 4,000 orders — $100 million in retail sales — and needs to sell only 2,000 vehicles to break into the black.

First, though, Aptera has to raise more operating funds and get a retail-ready model completed. That's going to take some work, especially if Aptera is to meet its twice-delayed launch date, set now for October.

The wingless bird at this stage is not quite a fledgling. The present prototype, called PP4 for "pre-production 4," was barely sprouting its first pinfeathers when we drove it.

Punch in a Parking Lot

Fortunately, Aptera also has "Punch," a suspension and handling mule named after an interior color scheme long since ripped out and replaced with a utilitarian black racing seat. While not as nicely outfitted as PP4, Punch is mechanically much closer to final production specs.

For reasons of their own, the crew at Aptera would let us drive the handling mule only in the company parking lot, so we took PP4, with its more civilized appointments but less finished powertrain and suspension tuning, out onto the city streets.

Merging notes on our two drives, we can report with some confidence that if Aptera manages to stuff the mechanicals from Punch into the next pre-production prototype with all the other changes that are promised, the result should be one heck of a machine.

With the suspension dialed in and the motor and the power electronics set for maximum performance, Punch is fun to drive. Piloting PP4 is merely an interesting experience. Both show rather quickly that a well-made three-wheeler like the Aptera makes you believe that there is no need for a fourth wheel.

The major benefit of shedding one wheel, says Aptera Chief Engineer Tom Reichenbach, is that it provides an immediate 30 percent gain in efficiency. It is also amazing how stable a three-wheeler can be. Standard traction control on this front-wheel-drive machine also helps.

Powerslides

We never got Punch above 60 mph in the confines of the parking lot, but were able to sling it at that speed into a series of tire-screeching turns around the building. The Aptera engineers tell us that shifting the heavy battery pack toward the front makes all the difference. The PP4 has a weight distribution of 40 percent front/60 percent rear and it's twitchy; Punch has a weight distribution of 65 percent front and 35 percent rear and it's sure-footed.

Aptera says its proprietary battery-powered powertrain can propel the slippery craft from zero to 60 mph in under 10 seconds (it feels quicker, though) and top speed is electronically limited to 90 mph.

The 2010 Aptera 2e draws its power from a 200-pound pack of lithium-something batteries (the company says it is still working with suppliers on final battery chemistry) that are arrayed in a long line down the center of the vehicle under the cabin floor.

The 75-kilowatt motor, motor controller and single-speed transaxle are packaged up front, cradled in a steel subframe and accessible by lifting the entire nosepiece, which is hinged at the front.

Change Is Good

Punch and the PP4 prototype represent an impressive midpoint in development, but Reichenbach (formerly head engineer for the Ford GT and Shelby 350 GT programs at Ford) says that only about 30 percent of what we see in PP4 will be in the final production version.

That's good news. A lot of changes are needed:

  • The wide A-pillars limit your view through the windshield; the outside mirrors are too small by 50 percent; the side windows don't roll down; and the narrow rear window restricts rear visibility. Also the prototype windshield glass is predictably rippled and wavy.
  • There's still a lot of road noise inside the cabin, underscoring the need for good acoustic insulation.
  • Ride quality is about halfway between what you'd expect from a decent small car and the bounce and jounce you'd expect when taxiing a small plane on a dirt runway.

The plans for the 2010 Aptera 2e are at once sensible — slow corporate growth at first — and grandiose — 100,000 vehicles a year at peak production, with a variety of powertrains and even a four-seater in the mix.

But we think the ingredients are there, and if the business Fambro and Anthony started in a Los Angeles garage just three years ago can pull them all together, the three-wheel Aptera looks like an EV that will make it to market, where it will join the Tesla Roadster as an example of what an electric vehicle can do if given the opportunity.

The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.

Insideline

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Awesome! Been kind of following this for a while now. Glad to see it come to fruition.

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I think it is very cool as well. I love the origin and I think the designs is off beat and neat. Reminds me of a wingless plane.

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