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Top 10 Tech Cars 2011

Automakers double down on technology

22 min read
Top 10 Tech Cars 2011
Photo: Ferrari

After being pummeled by economic storms, the world’s major automakers are bruised but still standing. You’d think they’d be playing it safe, but many of them are actually doubling down on technology, seeing it as the only way to seize a competitive edge and thereby avoid the fate of Pontiac, Hummer, Mercury, and other brands that went extinct because they couldn’t keep pace.

As this year’s top 10 list reveals, companies are continuing to pile their chips on electricity, hoping for a jackpot down the road. And decades from now, 2011 may well be remembered as the year when plug-in cars finally went mainstream.

Even with the first Chevrolet Volts and other plug-in models just trickling into showrooms, no one can yet predict how widespread their welcome will be. Regulations around the world may decree guillotine cuts in carbon emissions and leaps in fuel economy. But in the United States at least, the price of gasoline has been a far more reliable dictator of which cars and trucks people actually buy.

That means that the technological match is far from settled. One compromise solution, the so-called mild hybrid, seemed a dead end not long ago. But the advent of lithium-ion batteries and slicker electronic controls saw companies revive the mild bunch, so impressively that an example from Buick fought its way into our top 10.

As ever, high technology often means high prices, which explains the provocative presence of a certain Italian stallion, as well as a German racetrack beauty with an energy-scavenging device that recalls Doc Brown’s flux capacitor in the movie Back to the Future. They’re joined by a Japanese thingamabob that defies easy categorization, except for being the most affordable car here, reassuring evidence that hot technology eventually trickles down to the masses.

Ferrari 458 Italia
This unashamedly internally combustive car showcases technology from the damn-the-expenses world of Formula One

As i gun the Ferrari 458 Italia around a racetrack in the Catskills region of New York state, I get caught up in sheer sensation: The urgent, braap-braap shriek of its V-8 engine, the chest-squeezing g-forces as it rockets to triple the normal speed limit down the back straight, followed by whoa-Nellie deceleration to hospital-zone speed to negotiate a tricky uphill right-hand turn.

The seduction continues when I step from the cockpit to admire Ferrari’s latest prancing pony, its carbon-ceramic brakes emitting waves of heat in the pits at the Monticello Motor Club. Even in shimmering repose, the 458 Italia—the successor to the estimable F430—pulls off a neat trick. It looks even more modern and technically advanced than the F430, yet also more beautiful.

It’s plain to see why Luca di Montezemolo, Ferrari’s chairman, was inspired to name this car after his homeland: The Italia plays up those sensuous Mediterranean curves, the classic Ferrari-ness that the company had sacrificed in recent years to remorseless function in supercars like the US $650 000 Enzo.

Although the Italia leaves casual admirers slack-jawed, its triumph ultimately comes from what’s under that hubba-hubba skin: technology. Specifically, Formula One technology, developed in that cost-is-no-object racing series and now trickling down to the real world—well, as close to "real world" as a quarter-million-dollar supercar can be (although compared with the ridiculous $1.3 million Bugatti Veyron 16.4 or even the $375 000 Lexus LF-A, this Ferrari is a deal).

In contrast to Ferrari’s front-engine, V-12–powered Gran Turismos, the Italia represents the more hard-core branch of the family: V-8 Berlinettas—two-seat, midengine coupes with intimate cockpits and track-ready performance.

Ferrari enlisted Michael Schumacher, the most successful driver in motor-sports history, with seven Grand Prix titles, to guide the transfer of Formula One technology to the street-going Italia. The company wanted to ensure that amateurs could safely explore the car’s uncanny capabilities but didn’t want to dumb down the thrills.

The Pininfarina-designed body manages to direct air for cooling the engine, gearbox, and brakes, while applying aerodynamic downforce and smoothing rear turbulence—all without an unsightly profusion of scoops or spoilers. Tucked discreetly inside the front air inlets, a pair of winglets deform slightly under air pressure at high speed to reduce drag.

Beneath that smooth shape lies an aluminum space-frame chassis, which includes extrusions originally developed for the aviation industry. Stiff and lightweight, the chassis helps the Italia to weigh in at barely 1380 kilograms (just over 3000 pounds), less than a Corvette or Porsche 911.

Behind the driver, the literal centerpiece of the car sits on glorious display beneath a clear cover: A flat-crank, dry-sump V-8 that generates 425 kilowatts (570 horsepower) and 540 newton meters (398 foot-pounds) of torque from just 4.5 liters of displacement. That’s a new production-car record for both power- and torque per liter from a naturally aspirated engine.

The result is a street-legal race car that howls to 9000 rpm, reaches 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour) in under 3.4 seconds, and keeps going to a top speed of 325 km/h. By that point the Italia is generating more than 3500 newtons of aerodynamic downforce, the equivalent of three NFL linebackers sitting on top and gluing the Ferrari to the pavement.

Inside, the dash contains Ferrari’s first-ever digital displays, which allow the driver to adjust performance settings, audio, and navigation systems. The readouts have struck some critics as looking more Motown than Modena, but at least they work, if a bit awkwardly.

The fantasy continues with a straight-from-the-racing-pits steering wheel that houses critical controls, including the manettino, Italian for "little lever." That tiny switch adjusts settings for Ferrari’s fearsomely complex F1-Trac stability system; its attendant E-Diff, an electronic, multiclutch rear differential, which monitors handling forces and allocates power between rear wheels; and an active suspension with shock absorbers that contain a magnetorheological fluid. That’s a fluid that instantly changes viscosity when subjected to a magnetic field, providing adjustments to changes in the road surface.

The latest F1-Trac and E-Diff, Ferrari says, allow a driver accelerating out of a turn to apply 32 percent more force to the pavement than was possible with the F430 model. The seat of my pants doesn’t argue: On Monticello’s 6.6-km, 22-turn course, the Italia tangos on the knife edge of a skid, yet feels so poised that I’m encouraged to go faster.

Even turn signals and wiper controls are on the steering wheel: There are no control stalks—the one boy-racer element that seems gimmicky and awkward on public roads. But as I accelerate, LEDs trace the radius of that gorgeous wheel to alert me (if the banshee wail hasn’t already) to that insane 9000-rpm redline.

That wheel also connects drivers to Ferrari’s latest F1 dual-clutch, seven-speed gearbox. Operating on separate input shafts, one clutch operates even-numbered gears, the other odd-numbered. That means there’s no interruption of torque to the wheels when the car lets go of one gear and grabs the next. This paddle-shifted plaything, notoriously clunky a few years ago, now operates smoothly, even in city traffic, and can burst into action with shifts in as little as 60 milliseconds.

Toggle the Ferrari’s manettino into its racier settings and driving feels like a video game come to life, even if you stay in full automatic mode, which allows the Italia to sense and shift for itself. When I brake into the turns—the Ferrari’s electronic brain knows they’re coming—it rips off a series of neck-snapping downshifts, holding the gears at up to 8000 rpm to avoid unsettling the car through corners. As its signature three-outlet exhaust crackles and roars, it sounds so aggressive that I’m actually compelled to dial back the performance settings to avoid undue attention when driving on public roads.

There’s only one real downer: No manual transmission is available. Some drivers, myself included, might still prefer an old-fashioned clutch pedal and shifter—and the physical involvement they afford.

But I appear to be in the minority. At the track, a Ferrari technical advisor suggested that only 2 or 3 percent of buyers would opt for a manual anyway. And so equipping the Italia would mean giving up the F1-Trac and gearbox, expensive goodies included in the price. (When I suggested offering a manual anyway and chopping $30 000 off the tab, the look I got said, "Silly American.")

I suppose if Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso Díaz can live without a manual transmission, so can Italia owners. Give the Ferrari credit for techno-wizardry done right: Italia drivers will have an unprecedented glimpse of what it feels like to be competing in Formula One.

Porsche RSR Concept
Instead of a battery, it uses a flywheel

Teenagers and tech buffs were equally agog at Detroit’s auto show in January, where Porsche’s 918 RSR concept was the pedestal-worthy smash. An orange-tinted cocktail of the 911 GT3 R racer and the upcoming, superpricey 918 Spyder hybrid street car, the RSR incorporates the GT3 R’s novel hybrid system to suck up braking energy and spit it back to the pavement.

Porsche calls the RSR its experimental race lab on wheels. Inside its rigid carbon-fiber monocoque structure, a V-8 engine develops 420 kilowatts (563 horsepower) at a heady 10 300 rpm, further juiced by a pair of 75-kW electric motors attached to the front wheels. Those motors can also provide torque vectoring to the front wheels, varying power to them independently to improve handling.

A bloated battery would be all wrong for this flyer. Instead, a flywheel accumulator rides shotgun next to the driver; this third fast-acting electric motor spins at up to 36 000 rpm to store power. It may not be much, but it’s all on tap, all the time. The driver can exploit that bottled-up oomph by pushing a button and hanging on tight: The flywheel shoots its energy back through the motors, delivering an 8-second surge for exiting turns or overtaking a competitor. Consider it a nitrous-oxide boost but on a million-dollar budget. Hit the brakes into a curve and the electric motors attached to the wheels reverse function to generate electrical energy, which is then transformed back into mechanical energy in the flywheel.

As with Audi’s high-mileage diesel racers, which have dominated recent 24 Hours of Le Mans races, the Porsche’s efficiency could translate to fewer pit stops or smaller, weight-saving fuel tanks, thereby saving critical seconds. Porsche spokesman Dave Engelman notes that the system wouldn’t be useful on family-focused models like the Cayenne. "There aren’t many places on the street where you can even use 8 seconds of wide-open throttle," he says. But given a Porsche, a stoplight, and this magic button, it would be fun to try.

Jaguar XJ
This jungle cat’s muscles hang elegantly on a skeleton lighter than a Mini Cooper’s

It’s not often that a car leaps several decades in one feline flash. But the Jaguar XJ, a hidebound symbol of the British Establishment since 1968, has been reborn as a modern showstopper. Conceived by Ian Callum, the former chief designer at Aston Martin, Jaguar’s flagship is as sexy and athletic as anything in its full-size sedan class. With automakers looking to put cars on a diet to meet strict fuel-economy standards, the Jaguar’s all-aluminum chassis and body makes it the class featherweight at barely 1860 kilograms (4100 pounds).

As I put the car through its paces, in Versailles, France, chief engineer Andy Dobson told me the XJ’s chassis weighs less than the steel bones of the tiny Mini Cooper. Combine slender weight with an advanced V-8 engine—including 350- and 380-kilowatt (470- and 510-horsepower) supercharged versions—and the Jaguar is one ferocious cat, hitting 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour) in 4.4 seconds. Keep sprinting to 240 km/h and the 350-kW XJ is a mere second slower than a Mercedes E63 AMG, a smaller, 386¿kW supersedan. For a US $72 500 base price, the Jaguar will also brake from 110 km/h in less than 50 meters, matching a $140 000 Porsche Panamera Turbo.

The six-speed ZF transmission is an eager servant, and its unique rotary knob rises automatically from the console like the Armageddon button in a James Bond movie. Jaguar’s continuously adaptive suspension reads the road surface 500 times per second, reducing body roll by 20 percent and helping the XJ to gobble curves like a British BMW.

Inside the posh cabin, the sound track for your adventure comes courtesy of a 1200-watt, 20-speaker Bowers & Wilkins system that tailors sound to each of four seating positions. A thin-film-transistor display screen replaces the traditional analog driver’s gauges, to the dismay of Anglo purists. But switch into Dynamic driving mode and those gauges glow in a "red mist," while seat belts cinch occupants tighter for high-speed action. One bit of technology could use further grooming: The central infotainment touch screen is frustratingly slow and awkward. But that hiccup aside, the XJ ushers Jaguar into the 21st century with unexpected grace.

Buick LaCrosse
Mild, yes, but satisfyingly fuel-efficient, too

Compared with full hybrids like the Toyota Prius, yesteryear’s so-called mild hybrids offered puny levels of electric assist in return for a modest price tag. But the half-hearted designs barely put a dent in fuel consumption, and the public rejected them.

Now, though, modern lithium-ion batteries have breathed life into the mild formula. Models like the Buick LaCrosse are the affordable result.

Indeed, it’s so affordable that GM will add its new eAssist system as standard equipment to the four-cylinder 2012 LaCrosse this summer. That LaCrosse, a restyled version of Europe’s Opel Insignia, will be priced identically to the V-6 model, starting at roughly US $30 000.

Like GM’s original system, eAssist is mechanically simple: A belt-driven motor-generator links to the engine, replacing a conventional alternator. The system shuts down the 2.4-liter, 136-kilowatt (182-horsepower) engine at stops, and regenerative brakes capture energy that regular brakes would waste. But with a lithium-ion jolt, eAssist delivers more than five times the power boost—at a peak 11 kW and 107 newton meters (79 foot-pounds) of torque—and captures three times the braking energy of the previous nickel-metal-hydride battery system.

Just like that, LaCrosse becomes America’s stingiest full-size sedan, at an estimated 9.4 liters per 100 kilometers (25 miles per gallon) on city streets and 6.4 L/100 km (37 mpg) on the highway. That’s a 25 percent gain over the current four-cylinder Buick.

There’s also no need to stuff the car with enormous batteries that exact a toll in price, performance, and mileage. The entire eAssist system, including the tiny 0.5-kilowatt-hour battery, weighs just 29 kilograms (65 pounds).

Other fuel-saving tricks include low-rolling-resistance tires and aerodynamic underbody panels. Shutters in the grille close electronically at higher speeds, further reducing drag. The result is a Buick that should save a typical owner more than $800 a year in gasoline compared with the V-6 version—without demanding a pricey technology investment up front.

Nissan Juke
Cutting-edge automotive technology is generally costly. Here’s a happy exception

Automotive high technology usually comes at a high price. That makes the Nissan Juke a cool splash of trickle-down tech: For less than US $20 grand to start, this endearingly geeky crossover—essentially a high-riding hatchback—is by far the most affordable car here. And though you won’t find infrared night vision or other indulgences, the Juke amasses an impressive roster of gear for its diminutive size and price.

Nissan’s new turbocharged 1.6-liter DIG (direct injection gasoline) engine spools up 144 kilowatts (188 horsepower) and an eager 240 newton meters (177 foot-pounds) of torque. That’s mated to a continuously variable transmission, which maximizes acceleration and fuel economy. The car leaps to 97 kilometers per hour (60 miles per hour) in 6.8 seconds; it uses 8.7 liters per 100 kilometers in the city (27 miles per gallon) and does 20 percent better on the highway. Optional all-wheel-drive provides up to a 50:50 torque split between the front and rear wheels; it also incorporates a torque-vectoring system to boost stability and handling, a technology that until now had been limited to luxury cars.

True, Nissan’s system isn’t as sophisticated as the one from BMW: It automatically applies a single rear brake (on the inside wheel during a turn) to help pivot the car around a corner, rather than sending more torque to the outside wheel through a complex array of wet clutches and planetary gears. But a brake-based approach, also adopted by Ford on its 2012 Focus hatchback, gets the job done with less cost and mechanical complexity. Inside, cool details include a candy-apple-red center tunnel that recalls the Mini Cooper.

Performance recalls the Mini as well: The Juke is ideal for city denizens, with its shoebox size and taxi-baiting handling. Another welcome surprise is the optional six-speed manual transmission, something you won’t find in cutesy Scion or Kia crossovers.

Nissan’s I-CON (Integrated Control) is the final inspired touch. It appears just to manage climate controls, but press a switch and the backlit displays transform, allowing you to adjust throttle, steering, and transmission settings for Normal, Eco, or Sport driving. (Adjustable performance settings and dual-personality displays? What is this, an Aston Martin?) The I-CON screen even features fun little meters that show turbo boost or g-force loads—added entertainment when you’re leaving rival crossovers in the weeds.

Ford Explorer
Clever engineering brings hybrid-class fuel economy to a gasoline-powered vehicle

Once the king of the American suburbs, the Ford Explorer was rudely deposed when buyers rejected primitive truck-based SUVs. Now the Explorer has been reborn as a car-based crossover. And if that’s not heresy enough, try this: You can buy one with a four-cylinder engine instead of the model’s former V-6 and V-8 guzzlers.

With seats for seven passengers, the Explorer’s standard V-6 engine delivers fuel economy that’s truly excellent for its size: 14 liters per 100 kilometers (17 miles per gallon) in the city and 9 L/100 km (25 mpg) on the highway. That’s aided by a wind-cheating shape, variable valve timing, a six-speed automatic transmission, and fuel-saving electric power steering.

The Ford will save more fuel with that optional upcoming four-banger, a first in a full-size SUV. The EcoBoost engine mates direct injection and turbocharging to deliver roughly 174 kilowatts (237 horsepower) and 339 newton meters (250 foot-pounds) of torque from just 2 L of displacement. And it’s expected to deliver 8.4 L/100 km (28 mpg) on the highway, which would match Toyota’s smaller Highlander Hybrid.

A new four-wheel-drive system incorporates a bit of artificial intelligence, letting drivers dial up settings for street, snow, sand, rocks, and more. And Ford’s new Curve Control is the latest refinement of electronic stability-control systems: Head into a bend too quickly and the Explorer’s sensors begin applying individual brakes and easing back the throttle, cutting speed significantly in less than a second. I found the Explorer’s handling to be outstanding, easily matching far-pricier SUVs from Mercedes-Benz, Range Rover, and other brands.

The Explorer sports the first inflatable seat belts in a production automobile. Triggered by crash sensors, the tubular belts in the second row of seats fill with cold compressed air through a specially designed buckle. The belts spread crash forces over five times as much of the body as conventional belts, which is especially valuable for children or older passengers, who tend to be particularly vulnerable to chest, torso, or neck injuries.

Inside, the Sync system with MyFord Touch—codeveloped with Microsoft—allows voice or touch-screen control for phones, MP3 players, navigation, audio, and climate controls. Say your street address and bingo, it’s set as a destination.

Yes, the badge still reads "Explorer." But this Ford is so modern, agile, and stuffed with technology that old fans will barely recognize it.

Chevy Volt
GM unveils the highest tech of today’s hybrids

After two years of awe and adulation, scoffing and skepticism—and with a General Motors bankruptcy and a federal rescue in between—the Chevy Volt has finally hit the streets.

And backing up a two-year PR spectacle that LeBron James would have blushed at, this plug-in hybrid turns out to be the potential game changer that Chevy promised. As expected, the Volt is a technical extravaganza. Featuring the world’s most advanced hybrid drive system, it can and will deliver higher overall economy than any gasoline or diesel car sold in the United States.

But when I road tested the Volt, what really struck me is how ordinary it felt, and I mean that in a good way. This is a car that your computer-phobic grandparents could drive—and possibly fall in love with—without giving a thought to the liquid-cooled battery, planetary gears, and 10 million lines of proprietary computer code churning within. (A Boeing 787 Dreamliner, in comparison, makes do with 8 million lines.)

Nor will owners ever worry about driving range or places to plug in, something that can’t be said for pure EVs like the Nissan Leaf, which must pause for multihour recharges after covering as little as 95 to 115 kilometers (60 to 70 miles). That’s because the Volt offers a security blanket, a tiny 1.4-liter gasoline engine that generates electricity to power the car when the battery becomes too deeply depleted. So the Volt promises to usher in an era of electrified transport, while acknowledging that many drivers will still need to burn gasoline for longer trips.

After roughly 4 hours on its 240-volt home charger, the Volt’s 16 kilowatt-hour lithium battery pack and dual electric motor-generators (let’s call them motor A and motor B) propel the car for roughly 65 km (40 miles) on electricity alone. Driving especially gently, I actually managed 80 km. But go heavy on the gas or crank up the climate control and that range can plummet; the Environmental Protection Agency credits the Volt with a 35-mile electric range.

As Chevy notes, 75 percent of Americans commute 65 km or less round-trip. Those drivers could charge the Volt overnight and rarely burn a drop of gasoline. Install a charger at work and you’ll double the daily range.

The Volt uses only about 65 percent of the capacity of its 16-kWh battery to ensure long cell life, which means that the car actually uses about 10 kWh. Recharging isn’t 100 percent efficient, so a depleted battery draws closer to 12 kWh of electricity per charge.

The EPA says the Chevy returns the equivalent of 2.5 liters per 100 kilometers (93 miles per gallon) during all-electric driving. (That’s using the EPA’s formula, which equates 3.8 liters, or a gallon, of gasoline with 33.7 kWh of energy.) My own testing, however, puts it at an eye-popping 1.8 L/100 km.

Based on the U.S. electricity rate of 12 cents per kilowatt-hour, on average, the typical Volt owner will spend about US $1.50 to drive 40 miles, compared with the nearly $5 that the owner of a 25-mpg gasoline car will shell out.

When the Volt’s 197-kilogram, 1.7-meter-long battery is 65 percent depleted, the car automatically enters its "extended range" mode. The near-silent gas engine begins providing energy for the front wheels in one of three modes: First, the Volt can operate as a series hybrid, generating electricity through its 55-kilowatt (74-horsepower) motor B. The larger, 111-kW motor A then uses that electricity to propel the car. At higher speeds, the Volt works more like a Toyota Prius or other conventional parallel hybrid, in which the engine not only keeps generating juice for the primary motor but also helps drive the wheels directly. In this case, the engine provides two-thirds of the motive power and the electric motor the remaining third. Finally, as with any hybrid or EV, the Volt uses regenerative brakes to help replenish the battery.

When I tested the Volt in its extended-range mode, relying on its smallish 35-L gas tank, it showed a hybridlike 5.3 L/100 km (44 mpg), nearly 20 percent better mileage than its EPA estimate. Even figuring a conservative 6 L/100 km, the Chevy can deliver over 560 kilometers (350 miles) per tankful, in addition to those initial EV miles. Most critically, the Volt can then stop at any gas station, refill in five minutes, and keep cruising, just like the car you own today.

Mash on the gas, er, accelerator, and the Volt hums from 0 to 97 km/h (60 mph) in a reasonable 9 seconds, whether in battery or gas mode, and can reach 160 km/h. Handling is serene, if not sporty, and more nimble and confident than that of the Prius or the Leaf.

All told, the Volt delivered a combined real-world 3.6 L/100 km (65 mpg) when I averaged its electric and gasoline mileage, which is 30 percent better than a Prius, previously the nation’s most fuel-efficient car. And that’s based on a mere 50-50 split between electric and gas miles. Most owners, I suspect, will do better: They’ll be striving to max out battery miles, avoid gas stations at all costs, and brag to the neighbors that they’ve gone cold turkey on Middle East oil.

Inside, this comfortable four-passenger hatchback offers an iPod-like center stack and interactive LCD screens, which coach drivers on how to maximize fuel economy. Smartphone applications let them remotely program charging times, receive alerts on charging status, and preheat or cool the car while it’s plugged in, rather than wasting precious battery power once under way.

The Volt costs $40 280 to start, though a generous $7500 U.S. federal tax credit drops the freight to $32 780. And the Volt’s sweetheart lease price of $350 a month—about half as much as the payments on a typical five-year loan—remains well within the reach of middle-class buyers.

Late this year, European buyers will find a spin-off model in showrooms: The Opel Ampera (or Vauxhall Ampera in the United Kingdom) is virtually identical to the Volt except for its sportier styling. And it will be interesting to see the reception to the Volt and Leaf in Europe, where drivers have endless choices in economy cars powered by clean diesels.

Although the Volt is frugal, owning one is not about saving money, at least not until economies of scale slash the cost of lithium-ion batteries. If saving dough is your sole criterion, you’d be better off with a five-year-old Honda Civic.

Certainly, the Volt is not for everyone, least of all people who see gas guzzling as an American birthright. But for early adopters and committed greens, or Americans who have come to view energy independence and conservation as a patriotic act, that old Civic can’t touch the Volt.

And my hunch is that each time one of those buyers sails past a gas station, Chevy’s pathbreaking new car will seem worth every penny.

Fisker Karma
Behold the Mega-Volt

If the Chevy Volt seems too tame, too utilitarian, another plug-in hybrid is looking to amp up the style and performance: the Fisker Karma.

Created by the Danish-born Henrik Fisker, whose previous designs include the lovely Aston Martin V8 Vantage and BMW Z8, the Karma is a luxury sports sedan in an eco-friendly mantle. Its visual drama and power will set you back a cool US $95 900 (before the federal or state tax breaks available to U.S. buyers). The Karma has been delayed many times; now it’s supposed to reach dealers late this year.

Shown in final production form at the Paris Auto Show last October, the Karma’s low-slung curves, 5.9-second sprint (in Sport mode) from 0 to 97 kilometers per hour (60 miles per hour), and 200¿km top speed put it in a different league from the Volt. Yet it adopts the Chevy’s range-extending approach and even some GM hardware: A 2-liter, 193.8-kilowatt (260-horsepower) turbocharged Ecotec engine spins two powerful rear-mounted electric motors. Drawing from a 22-kilowatt-hour battery sitting below the floor, those motors send 300 kW and a brutal 1330 newton meters (981 foot-pounds) of torque to the rear wheels.

Fisker says his battery baby should deliver 80 km of all-electric range, following a 6-hour recharge on a 240-volt dock. As in the Volt, the gas engine is then tasked with generating current, allowing drivers to clock another 400 km before filling up or plugging back in.

Designing the car’s curved solar roof proved a challenge. That photovoltaic panel can soak up enough rays to add 4 to 8 km of additional driving range per week, Fisker claims. The Karma also features an industry-first haptic feedback touch screen to control navigation, audio, and other key functions.

Tree huggers will demand the optional "Eco Chic" interior, with leather seats that use 85 percent of the cow’s hide—scars, stretch marks, and all—and wood trim from reclaimed forest-fire timber, sunken logs, and other guilt-free sources.

The Karma is to be made in Finland, and Fisker hopes to build more than 100 000 cars per year. Orange County, Calif.–based Fisker and another California dreamer, Tesla, have together scored $1 billion in Department of Energy grants on the condition that they use it to develop lower-priced, made-in-America models. To that end, Fisker has secured a mothballed Saturn plant in Delaware—clearly imagining a brighter future than the one decreed for that now-defunct GM brand.

Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell
It runs on hydrogen, which packs more energy per gram than gasoline

It seems the ultimate quixotic quest: a car that runs on hydrogen, a clean, endlessly renewable fuel, with water vapor its only by-product. But from Mercedes-Benz to Honda to General Motors, a corps of true believers has continued to tinker away, convinced that hydrogen-fuel-cell cars will find their way to showrooms, and sooner rather than later. These engineers and scientists are equally convinced that, when Earth’s oil grows scarce, hydrogen will become a dominant fuel to keep people and goods circling the globe.

You can count Vance Van Petten among the believers. In December, the Los Angeles resident became the first American to take the keys to a Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell. He’s one of only 200 people in California and Europe who will lease this rare hydrogen-powered hatchback for two years of beta testing.

Van Petten is an environmental advocate, who as executive director of the Producers Guild of America backs strategies to reduce the carbon footprint of film and television productions. He’s now paying US $849 a month, which includes unlimited hydrogen fill-ups, to drive the F-Cell, now parked alongside his Ford Escape Hybrid.

He’s already enamored of his F-Cell for its clear evidence of the Mercedes obsession with detail and safety, for its nearly 400 kilometers (250 miles) of driving range, and for hydrogen’s squeaky-clean potential.

"I’ve been reading about fuel cells for years and was delighted to find that Mercedes was making one," Van Petten says. "I’ve lived with smog all my life, and cars have a huge impact on that."

Like other fuel-cell vehicles, the Mercedes (based on the company’s conventional B-Class hatchback) generates electricity on board from a chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen to form pure water vapor. And unlike the overstuffed hydrogen cars of just a few years ago, it fits all the drive components neatly into a compartment below the cabin, called a sandwich floor; that way, they’re safeguarded from collisions and don’t intrude on interior space.

The components include the fuel-cell stack, three pressurized storage tanks that each hold 3.7 kilograms of hydrogen at 690 times atmospheric pressure, an electric motor that sends 100 kilowatts (136 horsepower) and 290 newton meters (214 foot¿pounds) of torque to the front wheels, and a small 1.4-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery.

Compared with the earlier, A-Class F-Cell, which has undergone trials since 2004, the system is 40 percent smaller and 30 percent more powerful, consumes 30 percent less fuel, and has more than double the driving range. Cold-start capability, once a tricky issue, is now down to –25 °C, thanks to a humidification system with hollow fibers that prevents water from freezing in the fuel-cell stack. In another advance, special seals on the tanks prevent the loss of any hydrogen—a particularly gaseous gas, by far the hardest to contain. The seals work even if the vehicle sits unused for long periods.

Hydrogen’s advantages are inarguable, said Sascha Simon, manager of advanced product planning for Mercedes-Benz USA. When the gas is compressed, its energy density is about 300 times that of today’s best lithium-ion batteries, and three times that of gasoline, itself a notably energy-dense fuel. And the fuel cell’s thermodynamic efficiency—its ability to convert energy into mechanical work—is roughly 90 percent, more than double that of the best diesel internal-combustion engines.

Unlike an EV, a fuel-cell vehicle has a range undiminished by cold weather. More important still, it isn’t saddled with huge, hefty, and relatively inefficient batteries. Compare the F-Cell’s tiny 1.4-kWh battery, used mainly to capture energy from regenerative braking, with the 408-kg, 53-kWh monster that drives the two-seat Tesla Roadster.

Because of that insurmountable battery burden, pure EV technology (as opposed to gas- or diesel-electric hybrids) is currently unfeasible for pickups, SUVs, cargo haulers, or mass transit. Fuel cells, however, can easily be scaled up: Mercedes already combines two F-cell systems to power city buses. Yet Simon notes that the F-Cell is ultimately an electric car and that every technical advance in EVs, from motors to software, will lift all boats and bring fuel cells closer to reality.

"I want everyone to drive an electric car," he says. "But as a company that also builds trucks, we have to look at technologies that can power more than a small, city-sized vehicle."

Problems remain. While automakers have swiftly cut costs—from roughly $1 million per car a few years ago to perhaps the low six figures today—those costs continue to pose a chicken-and-egg challenge. To get the required economies of scale will require far more customers than this technology has attracted yet.

Also, although hydrogen cars can refuel in minutes rather than the hours that battery-powered cars need, there aren’t a lot of places that can fill them up. The electrical grid already blankets every corner of the developed world, making recharging EVs straightforward, but there is essentially no infrastructure for creating and distributing mass quantities of hydrogen and dispensing it to drivers.

Mercedes-Benz is among the automakers that belong to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, which is laying the groundwork for a commercial hydrogen network. The Los Angeles area has about 16 hydrogen filling stations, the most in the world, according to the partnership. Another handful are currently planned, including in the San Francisco Bay area.

Home fueling is a possibility. To run its own hydrogen-powered FCX Clarity, Honda is on its fourth generation of what it calls a Home Energy Station. The system uses a natural gas line and steam to form hydrogen, supplying the vehicle while the station’s own fuel cell provides home heating, hot water, and electricity, dramatically trimming household energy costs and carbon emissions. Honda has also developed a compact solar station that could electrolyze hydrogen from water.

Far from home, the perky Mercedes hatchback embarked on the F-Cell World Drive in January, its aim to circumnavigate the dry parts of the globe, spanning four continents in 125 days. That tour is meant both to demonstrate the viability of fuel-cell cars and to beat the drum for a refilling network.

Van Petten is doing his part. At a fenced-off Shell dispensary in Culver City, Calif., he punches codes to gain entry and to operate the pump. He’s not sure who else uses it, or for what vehicles. Although it’s in LA County, the dispensary is a bit out of his way. But to him it’s well worth it.

"People complain that the technology is not convenient or too expensive," Van Petten says. "But I think it’s our duty to invest in green technology and share the burden. Because if we don’t, the Earth is going to kick us in the butt."

Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid
Decouple the engine—and "sail"

Call it the prodigal Porsche. The Cayenne, once a shameless SUV guzzler, has returned, this time as a hybrid. It’s still plenty fast and agile, but with a reduced appetite for unleaded.

Every 2011 Cayenne, including a striver’s-choice V-6 gasoline model, which starts below US $48 000, benefits from the redesign. The body is toned and taut, and a plush new interior, inspired by Porsche’s Panamera sedan, finally gives you the luxury you’d expect at such high prices.

The Cayenne S Hybrid’s goodness is grounded in that redesign: Porsche trimmed nearly 180 kilograms (400 pounds) across the lineup—enough to balance the gear it had to add to make the car into a hybrid. The company eliminated the low-range, off-road gearbox that most drivers never used, slimmed the chassis, body panels, and power train, and used more aluminum and composites.

The $68 675 hybrid sandwiches a 35-kilowatt electric motor-generator between a supercharged, 248-kW V-6 and a fuel-saving eight-speed automatic transmission. Below the cargo deck is a tidy 288-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery.

The upshot is 289 kW and a burly 579 newton meters of torque, with peak torque on tap at just 1000 rpm. I breezed to 97 km/h in a 6.1-second burst, 1.3 seconds quicker than it would take in the V-6 model, and only a half second behind the thirsty V-8 version. And the rear torque-vectoring system and Porsche’s active suspension management together noticeably improve cornering.

But Porsche’s hybrid twist is an electric clutch between the engine flywheel and electric motor, which can decouple the engine from the transmission. That boosts electric scavenging from the regenerative brakes and lets the car coast with its engine off—Porsche calls it "sailing"—at up to 156 km/h.

I managed to sail only at speeds below 120 km/h, though; any faster and the engine would come back online. Still, the results were evident: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rates the Cayenne at 21 mpg (11.2 liters per 100 km) in the city and 25 mpg on the open road, but I whipped those numbers. Going easy on the throttle, I kept the Cayenne at 7.8 L/100 km on the freeway, remarkable for this 2200-kilogram SUV. Even at a 120-km/h cruise, I saw 8.7 L/100 km. City miles returned a healthy 10.7 L/100 km, aided by the Porsche’s ability to cruise short distances on electricity alone.

Expect to see more automakers adopt similar hybrid decoupling systems, as a virtually free-lunch way to save fuel.

About the Author

For more about the author, see the Back Story, "A Car for the Man Who’s Driven Everything."

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