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Electric 3-wheeler runs fast, cheaply

IT'S as if a spaceship had landed on Home Depot's parking lot in Vista, California. Within moments there's a clamoring crowd around the alien vehicle.

Being peppered with constant questions is the downside of driving a car of the future. The upside is the ability to travel 160 kilometers while completely avoiding those crowds at gas stations.

The all-electric Aptera 2e is a reality, the first product out of a San Diego-based startup.

A radical ovoid shape with a raised tail, the Aptera looks like a gigantic wasp or an aircraft without wings. It has three wheels - two in front, one in the back. The front wheels are encased in aerodynamic housings and attached at the sides by struts, akin to a Cessna, and the doors open upward like those on a Lamborghini Murcielago.

Carrying two passengers plus gear, the Aptera is incredibly sleek, slipping through the air rather than simply pushing it aside. The drag coefficient is 0.15 versus 0.25 for the new Toyota Prius. And it weighs a scant 771 kilograms.

Aptera promises an average driving range of 160 kilometers per charge and a price between US$25,000 and US$40,000. (The Chevy Volt, which uses a mix of gas and electric power and is to be released late next year, will go some 64 kilometers on an electric charge alone.)

The Aptera, classified in California as a motorcycle because of its three wheels, is to go on sale in the Golden State in the fourth quarter.

"We're following the old Toyota strategy, beginning here, then Texas, Florida and New York," Chief Marketing Officer Marques McCammon said.

Tesla Motors' public struggles have left many consumers and investors dubious about claims from upstart California car companies. Yet after one of the first drives of a pre-production Aptera prototype, I can report that the 2e is both real and impressive.

And to answer the most common question: even with just three wheels, it is indeed quite stable.

Lithium iron phosphate batteries power the electric motor, summoning the equivalent of 70 horsepower and a top speed of 145 kilometers per hour. Plugged into a standard 110-volt socket using a regular extension cord, it takes eight-plus hours for a full charge, half that with 220 volts. The cost per mile (1.6 kilometers), based on a national average utility rate, is 2 cents, executives say.

As for the three wheels, the configuration decreases rolling resistance by 33 percent yet still offers stability because of the wide and low stance, Aptera said.

The company was founded in 2006 by biotech engineer Steve Fambro and boat builder Chris Anthony. So far, Aptera has raised more than US$30 million, including startup capital from Idealab, and now is seeking another round of private funding.

The Aptera has a light and exceptionally tough silica-based composite body. Using a big hammer, I take a whack at the roof of an unpainted shell - which would severely depreciate the value of most cars - and it leaves neither mark nor dent.

I drive two prototypes: one with a full interior and an older suspension system, and a second, better-handling version. The cockpit is angled downward, with ample legroom and a great view out the wide, curved windshield. The gull-wing doors open elegantly, though the windows don't yet roll down, a design challenge.

The interior has an Apple-like aesthetic, with a start button like a laptop computer and door handles that resemble iPods.

An Internet-connected touch-screen calculates the car's range on a Google map (also available as an iPhone application), and the drive selector, a simple twist knob, lets you choose between most efficient, normal and most powerful modes.

Soon I'm zipping around neighborhood streets, the only noise a high electric whine and the occasional tire squeak. Surprisingly quick off the line, the Aptera makes 64 kilometers per hour speedily, though it takes some 10 seconds to reach 100.

The second version I drive has a much better weight distribution, the result of placing the battery pack in the front belly rather than the rear.

This gives it a 60-40 balance and eliminates the slight rear sway evident in the older model. An engineer shows off its stability by snapping around a tight corner in the parking lot at speeds of 60 kilometers per hour. The Aptera carves through the curve neatly, with little visible lean.

The rack-and-pinion steering is direct, the regenerative ABS brakes grabby and the slight understeer predictable and easy to control. The 2e is designed for efficiency, would be plenty of fun on a curvy road but the suspension transmits each road bump to your posterior. Ouch.

Will this really be the car of tomorrow? One wonders whether the low price is realistic and whether mainstream consumers will embrace the radical three-wheel design.


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