Were the Conspiracy Theorists Right?

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Maybe the conspiracy theorists were right after all.

That was the first thought to pop into my head as I read about an engineer named Steve Fambro – and his 400 mpg hybrid Aptera two-seater. Yes, you read that right. 400 MPG.

Really.

The mileage of the snarky little gullwing coupe is about five times better than the mileage posted by the best hybrid a major automaker has ever delivered – the 70 mpg Honda Insight (mark I, the small two-seater built back in the early 2000s, not the current model) and makes a new Toyota Prius look like a ’69 Chrysler Newport with two dead cylinders, a slipping transmission and a trunk full of bricks.

Fill-ups could be a once-a-month deal. Your gas bill by cut by two-thirds. For all practical purposes, we’d back to the days when fuel cost less than a buck per gallon since we’d need to buy it so infrequently. OPEC’s meaty fingers would no longer be crushing our windpipes. What goes on in Iraq, Libya and Iran would matter a lot less than it does right now.

Is there a catch?

Surely it’s pathetically weak . . . barely able to gimp along at Jimmah Carter-esque speeds? Or it’s got no legs. Maybe 70 miles before it croaks by the side of the road until you recharge its feeble batteries for a couple of hours, like GM’s pitiful EV-1 electric car?

No? Well, then it must cost a fortune. Like the sexy (but six-figure) Tesla electric car?

There must be… something.

Actually, no. The Aptera (see for yourself at http://www.aptera.com/) isn’t slow. Zero to sixty takes about 10 seconds (quicker than a 2012 Prius). It’ll do 100 mph – more than sufficient for American highways and stop and go commuting in urban/suburban areas. Nor does it need an electric umbilical cord to make it farther than 30 miles or so, one way. It’s not preposterously expensive, either. About $30,000 retail – without subsidy – so roughly the same price as a loaded Prius and within the range of most ordinary people – unlike the absurd six figure Tesla electric car or the $44k (and comfortably subsidized) Chevy Volt.

Like other hybrids, the Aptera’s tandem gas-electric powertrain is a closed system that recharges (and boosts) itself, no need to feed it current. It can, however, be plugged in to a household 110 volt outlet – and is capable of running on pure electric power alone for as much as 60 miles, which beats the snot out of the Prius – which can only go for a couple of miles, at most, on just its batteries alone.

And if you’re just burning gas? How’s 100 MPG grab you? That’s the worst-case scenario. Twice the best-case real-word mileage of a new Prius.

As they say in Russia: How is possible?

One huge difference between the Aptera and other hybrids is weight. There is much less of it. By using nothing but high-strength, ultra-light-weight composites for the shell, the Aptera weighs 1,400 pounds – just a few hundred pounds more than a fully dressed Honda Goldwing motorcycle and less than half the weight of the 3,042 pound Prius. This allows the Aptera to achieve comparable acceleration and top-speed capability – but with a far smaller, far more fuel-efficient single-cylinder internal combustion engine that requires only a fraction of the fuel consumed by the 1.8 liter four-cylinder gas engine that propels the Prius when it’s not operating on its batteries/electric motors.

Orders of magnitude less, in fact.

The ’12 Prius rates 51 city, 48 highway – which is certainly good compared with what else is available right now. But it sucks when you compare it with an Aptera.

In addition to being about half as heavy as a new Prius, the Aptera also relies on superior aerodynamics achieved via its low-slung teardrop shape. The difference in CD (coefficient of drag, the measure of a vehicle’s “slipperyness” at speed) is also startling – 0.11 for the Aptera vs. 0.26 for the Toyota.

Well, all right. It goes a long way on not much fuel. But surely the Aptera’s a deathtrap? Nope. An F1-style safety cage and advances such as airbags-in-the-seatbelts provide occupant protection that exceeds current DOT/NHTSA standards.

Ok, so this has to be a pie-in-the-sky prototype. Right? Nope again. The Aptera is a fully developed, fully operational vehicle that’s about to go into serial production. Aptera has even complied with all the necessary rigmarole to qualify as a vehicle manufacture with both the federal Department of Transportation and the California state DMV. It can issue VINs and sell cars just like Ford or GM – though at at first, the Aptera will only be sold in California.

The Aptera’s not another an incremental improvement – it’s a revelation. And it’s so superior to anything either offered or even contemplated by any major automaker (that includes the much-hyped GM Volt) it’s hard not to be suspicious.

Why couldn’t GM – or Toyota – build something like this? The closest was the old (and now deceased) Honda Insight – which like the Aptera was also a two-seater but which unlike the Aptera delivered only 70 mpg. Good, yes – but not sufficient to mitigate against the practical limitations of the two-seater layout. Honda cancelled the Insight because it didn’t sell. People – reasonably – weighed the 70 mpg capability against the limited usefulness of such a small car that was mainly serviceable only as a commuter. But when you up the MPG ante by four-fold to 400 per gallon (100, worst-case) that changes the equation. Especially as gas prices today are much higher than they were during the Insight era (it got canned before the price of unleaded regular shot to $3 and more per gallon) and apt to stay there – or go even higher.

Count me among the conspiracy mongers. If the Aptera’s not a complete fraud, then something’s fishy. If a lone engineer and a small start-up company can build something like this – something even close to this – then it’s hard to to believe that a major automaker with literally billions in R&D facilities and teams of engineers could not do at least as well. And should have been able to do it at least as well years ago.

Something stinks here. Trust no one.

Meanwhile, check this car out. It shows what could be done.

Reprinted with permission from EricPetersAutos.com.

Eric Peters [send him mail] is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his website.

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