The Aptera 2e Is the Wildest-Looking Electric Car You'll Ever See

Aptera's 2e is the world's first electric two-seater on three wheels

This article is part of an IEEE Spectrum special report: Top 10 Tech Cars of 2010.

The Aptera 2e is a Cessna cabin without wings—a teardrop with a sharply tapered tail slung between two outrigger front wheels. It’s a three-wheeled, two-seater, all-electric bug that slips through the air more easily than any other production car in the world.

So perhaps the most unusual thing of all about the Aptera is how normal it feels when you’re behind the wheel. The prototype I drove last year was far from the production model that’s scheduled to be unveiled in April. Still, it gave me a good sense of how the final car will handle on the road.

I took it through the curvy, rolling hills of the industrial park that houses the Aptera Motors headquarters, in Vista, Calif. The visibility through the car’s panoramic windshield was great, enhanced by a driver’s seat that sits higher than the car’s shape would suggest. Rearward visibility is another story. Reversing an Aptera is something between an adventure and a blind stab in the dark. With tiny side mirrors, an almost horizontal rear hatch, and high taillights, the view out back is likely to remain a challenge no matter how much glass is used. Aptera says a rear-vision video system will be offered as an option. My advice is, take it.

The car holds the road as well as any four-wheeler, with remarkably level cornering and less body roll than most mass-market cars. That may be due to the extra-wide distance between the prototype’s front tires, which will be narrowed to make the production car easier to park. The ride, however, was quite firm, with distinct clunking as the car went over ridges and heaves. Aptera electrical engineering project manager Brian Gallagher said the production car’s suspension will be considerably more refined. [See Gallagher’s profile in ”Dream Jobs 2010,” IEEE Spectrum, February.]

The car’s 75-kilowatt electric motor is powered by a 20-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. Performance feels brisk, especially in accelerating from a standstill to 50 kilometers per hour (31 miles per hour). I was even able to spin the inside front wheel accelerating out of a curve. With electric motors developing peak torque starting at zero revolutions per minute, all-electric cars like the Aptera and the 2011 Chevrolet Volt promise to bring new smoothness and performance to everyday stoplight sprints.

Aptera projects a maximum speed higher than any U.S. speed limit, and high-speed performance will clearly be helped by the 2e’s jaw-droppingly low drag coefficient of 0.15. If the company pulls it off, that will be the lowest ever achieved on a production vehicle. By comparison, GM’s legendary EV1 electric vehicle, also a two-seater, had a drag coefficient of 0.19, and the two-seat Honda Insight is rated at 0.25.

The shape of the 2e prototype will carry over into the final production version, but the door windows will be deeper and the triangular rear windows will be larger, Gallagher says, letting more light into the cabin. The fairing that covers the rear wheel (or wheels, because one prototype I saw had a pair of closely spaced wheels) will be longer, as will the rear window.

Entering an Aptera requires a bit of practice, because the car’s doors pivot up and out, gull-wing style, and the openings are smaller than a standard vehicle’s. Closing the door requires a reach for shorter drivers. Once inside, I found interior space to be perfectly adequate for two people. The tail contains a lot of empty space behind the seats, though the long, tapering shape of the space makes it unclear how Aptera will design this storage area to make it useful. Aptera says the production 2e will be about 10 percent larger than the one I drove and will be fully rechargeable in less than 10 hours on standard North American 110-volt current.

The development prototype had its share of creaks and groans, along with a largely unfinished interior. Its hand-laid composite body shell was smoothly finished, although lights, wipers, and mirrors will all be modified before production.

Aptera will test the 2e to ensure it meets all U.S. federal motor vehicle safety standards, including front, side, and rear impact tests. Indeed, its egg-shaped body is probably closer to the perfect shape for a strong monocoque than any other car on the road. But features requested by consumers have required some changes that were not reflected in the prototype I drove, including the addition of roll-down door windows to make it possible for drivers of Apteras to use the drive-through windows at fast-food joints and banks. That meant reengineering its curved doors to accommodate both strengthening beams and movable windows.

The Aptera has two kinds of braking: Friction brakes on all three wheels serve in short-distance stops and emergencies, and a motor, when reversed, serves as a regenerative brake. That is, the resistance the motor offers to forward motion gets turned into electricity that recharges the batteries.

Aptera says it will provide owners with the most complete and flexible platform available for ”infotainment” and the display of operational data, letting drivers analyze their energy usage in gory detail. The company is also pledging to make it possible for third parties to develop apps that add functions beyond those that come with the car, and Aptera expects drivers to cooperate by swapping tips and even to compete for the best energy-efficiency ratings. Regrettably, my test car had almost none of those features, with its onboard computer simply sending data to test equipment.

It must be said that the company has had financial problems and that it has deferred the car’s launch several times. But this is a review of a technical achievement, not an appraisal of a business plan. If deliveries of the 2e do launch on schedule, Aptera plans to start work on a plug-in hybrid model that will have a smaller battery pack combined with a small, highly efficient combustion engine to serve as a range extender for trips beyond the 2e’s guaranteed range of 160 km (100 miles).

But that’s still in the future; for now, all hands are concentrated on finishing development of the 2e. If the company can deliver production vehicles to the first of more than 4000 customers who’ve put down deposits, it will have beaten the odds and created a car that flies down the road like an airplane, powered by the swift silence of electricity.

This article originally appeared in print as "Aptera unveils its all-electric, three-wheeled two-seater."

About the Author

John Voelcker, an IEEE Spectrum contributing editor, went to Vista, Calif., to try out the all-electric, egg-shaped Aptera 2e for “Top 10 Tech Cars.” A connoisseur of vintage British cars such as the Morris Minor and the Riley One-Point-Five, Voelcker sold his first automotive article at age 14. He has also written for Popular Science and Wired.

To Probe Further

Check out the rest of the Top 10 Tech Cars of 2010.

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