300 MPG Or Conspiracy Theory?

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 300 mpg hybrid Aptera two-seater. Yes, you read that right. Three hundred miles per gallon. Really.

And even if he’s off by half, the mileage of the snarky little gullwing coupe would be at least double that of the best hybrid a major automaker ever delivered – the 70 mpg Honda Insight- and two to three times the best-case mileage of an ’08 Toyota Prius.

Wow.

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; Iran (and Iraq) would matter a lot less than they do right now. And whether you believe in global warming theory or not, the amount of CO2 we pump into the air would be reduced dramatically if this car became a mass-produced reality.

So, what’s the catch?

Surely it’s pathetically weak – barely able to gimp along at Jimmy Carter-like 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 – like GM’s pitiful EV-1 electric car? And price? It must cost a fortune – like the hottie (but totally unaffordable) six-figure Tesla electric car?

There must be… something. Right?

Actually, no. The Aptera is neither ugly nor ungainly nor cheesy kit car (see for yourself at http://www.aptera.com/). It’s not slow – zero to sixty comes up in 10 seconds; top speed is nearly 100 mph – plenty sufficient for even the fastest American highways and certainly adequate for stop and go commuting in urban/suburban areas.

It doesn’t conk out by the side of the road, either.

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 – in which case the fuel economy soars beyond 400 mpg, since the gas engine part of the Aptera’s drivetrain only “cycles” occasionally – and burns virtually no fuel to propel the car.

The difference between it and other hybrids, however, is weight. By using nothing but high-strength but ultra-light-weight composites for the shell, the car weighs a mere 1,400 pounds – less than half the weight of the 2,932 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 required by the 1.5 liter four-cylinder that propels the Prius.

Orders of magnitude less, in fact.

The Prius – as many owners have discovered – only delivers slightly better real-world mileage than a gas-only compact such as a Honda Fit. 48 city/45 highway’s ok – but it’s not staggering, especially given all the elaborate and expensive technology that went into the Prius.

No slam, just a reality check.

The Aptera also relies on superior aerodynamics achieved via its low-slung teardrop shape – a sharp contrast to the boxy profile of the Prius. The difference in CD (coefficient of drag, the measure of a vehicle’s “slipperyness” at speed) is also study in sharp contrasts – 0.11 for the Aptera vs. 0.26 for the Toyota. Sleek doesn’t cost anything (except, perhaps, headroom) so one wonders why a vehicle like the Prius — ostensibly designed for uber-efficiency — is shaped like a brick.

But is it a deathtrap? Nope. An F-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 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.

And the price? $30,000 — or only about nine grand more than the base price of the 2008 Prius ($20,950) and well within the range of most ordinary people — unlike the Tesla electric car or any of the multi-million-dollar “hydrogen economy” demo models that BMW and Honda are showing off.

So, it’s affordable, it’s safe, it’s roadworthy .

This isn’t 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 and not yet here GM Volt) it’s hard not to be suspicious.

Why couldn’t GM or Toyota build something like this? The closest was the 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 300 per gallon, that changes the dynamic considerably. 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 suspicious. If the Aptera’s not a complete fraud, then something’s fishy. If a lone engineer can build something like this – something even close to this – then it’s not possible 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 so many years ago.

Something stinks here. Trust no one.

Meanwhile, check this car out. It’s pretty exciting!

This is a guest post by automotive columnist Eric Peters, check him out on the web at www.ericpetersautos.com.

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