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.