Cars, Bikes & Boats

The fast and the virtuous

Can the latest eco supercars satisfy a committed petrol head’s need for power and speed? Simon de Burton reports.

June 09 2009
Simon de Burton

The annual Baselworld watch show means more to me than just a chance to catch up on the latest horological happenings – I also use it as an opportunity to take myself off on a damned good drive. In recent years the format has been to board the Eurotunnel train from Folkestone to Calais at the crack of dawn, make it at least halfway to Basel before lunch and polish off the remainder of the 450-mile journey in plenty of time for a pre-dinner nap.

At the show’s end a few days later, my ideal is to head down to a little place near Carcassonne in south-west France for a week’s R&R (around 550 miles, stopping only for fuel), before heading home to London, adding a further 650 miles to the car’s odometer at the briskest practical pace.

I’ve made the journey in a variety of vehicles, ranging from an M-series BMW to a Porsche 911 and an AMG-tuned Mercedes-Benz S-Class. But the cars that have seemed to me to provide the best combination of pace, comfort, flair, driving fun and relative fuel frugality have both been Maseratis – last year the two-door Gran Turismo and most recently the new Quattroporte S.

But this April, as I delighted in the Maser’s mighty V-8 surge, mellifluous exhaust note and cosseting interior, I was forced to face up to the reality that in the not too distant future it’s just not going to be the done thing to make journeys such as this in petrol-engined supercars. It made me rather sad to think that my two-and-a-half-year-old son might never get to rev a flat-six Porsche engine up to full wail or enjoy the spine-tingling howl of a 12-cylinder Ferrari. By the time he can drive, the chances are that the soundtrack will be somewhat more anti­septic – the faint rush of wind and the barely discernible hum of an electric motor.

At least, that was the vision put forward at April’s Top Marques Monaco supercar event, which – since its inauguration in 2003 – has come to be regarded as the greatest show on earth for wealthy enthusiasts on the hunt for the latest, most exclusive four-wheel road burners. In the early days, the vehicles seen at Top Marques were almost all petrol-engined, but as the eco-car revolution has gathered pace, so the show has embraced the performance cars of the future.

In 2008, Top Marques featured several cutting-edge cars designed to demolish the myth that fast cannot also be eco-friendly. Highlights included the British-built Concept Climax (about £103,000), a two-seater designed to run on ethanol fuel and evoke an earlier era with its aero windscreens and hand-beaten aluminium bodywork, and Hybrid Technologies’ L1X-75 GT ($125,000) and C-Linx models that combine lightweight, carbon fibre bodywork with advanced electric motors for maximum performance.

This year, visitors were treated to exotica such as Ruf Automobile’s eRUF Greenster, an all-electric Porsche-based prototype (with a planned starting price of €180,000) that accelerates from 0 to 60mph in less than seven seconds and has a top speed of 155mph – but perhaps its most impressive statistic is that it will travel up to 199 miles on a single charge of its lithium-ion battery pack.

There was also the Swedish Koenigsegg Quant (about £310,000). Powered by a pair of alternating current induction motors, it feeds the equivalent of 512hp direct to the wheels for blistering acceleration. Then there was the stunning hydrogen-powered Scorpion from America’s Ronn Motor Company ($175,000) and the Fisker Karma hybrid sports sedan ($87,900), both offering planet-conscious speed and style.

Entrepreneur Laurie Lewis, the former chairman of trade exhibition company ITE Group plc and the brains behind Top Marques, says the number of environmentally friendly cars being showcased at the event looks set to grow exponentially as motoring enthusiasts gradually come to accept that fuels such as electricity and hydrogen undoubtedly represent the future of high-performance driving. “At Top Marques every manufacturer gets 100sq m of exhibition space, no more, no less. As a result, the type of small companies who tend to be at the forefront of green technologies but can only afford to spend €20,000 on a stand get just as much exposure as the giants who might spend €1m at one of the major, conventional shows.”

The quantity of green sports cars on display has now risen to 20 per cent of the total exhibit, double what it was last year. “To highlight the extent to which eco-friendly performance cars are becoming accepted by the upper tier of buyers, I can reveal that Fisker took no fewer than 47 orders at the show,” says Lewis. “This tells me that, as a result of conscience or inevitability, wealthy people are starting to accept that alternative propulsion systems are going to become the norm. Although some of the cars on show are admittedly still at the prototype or experimental stage, they are nevertheless the supercars of tomorrow, not the supercars of 20 years’ time.”

If you want the supercar of tomorrow today, however, there seems to be just one option: the Tesla, which is presently the only large-scale production, highway-capable electric vehicle on sale in the US or Europe. Boasting a 0-60mph time of 3.9 seconds and a top speed of 125mph, it is based on a Lotus Elise chassis.

Its energy comes from no fewer than 6,831 small, lithium-ion batteries linked together in a single pack stored behind the seats. Why 6,831, you ask? Good question. And the answer is that 69 multiplied by 99 equals 6,831 – clearly a crucial calculation since the majority of the intellectual property rights lie in the configuration of this battery pack.

Anyone who uses a laptop will know how hot lithium-ion batteries can become in a short space of time and overheating has proved to be a major stumbling block to makers of high-performance electric vehicles. When the batteries overheat, the car stops working, and the more often they overheat, the shorter their lifespan becomes. Tesla has overcome this by developing its own liquid cooling system and incorporating intelligent technology that will actuate fans even when the car is garaged overnight in order to preserve the optimum temperature. As a result, each Tesla is sold with a three-year/60,000-mile guarantee.

So far around 400 cars have been delivered to satisfied clients (including George Clooney, Dustin Hoffman and Leonardo di Caprio) and with 1,000 more orders on the books, anyone who places a deposit now will have to wait until November to get on the road. Apart from the fact that it actually works, and costs just one penny per mile to run, part of the Tesla’s appeal lies in its relatively reasonable price – $120,000 in the US, €99,000 in Europe and £94,000 in the UK – minus, of course, any local credits that apply for buying an eco-friendly vehicle, such as the electric car incentive of up to £5,000 announced in the last UK budget.

Another reason for the Tesla’s success is that it is one of the few electric supercar projects to have enjoyed sustained and substantial financial backing from the outset. When the company was incorporated in the summer of 2003 its CEO, PayPal billionaire Elon Musk, pledged to throw a cool $75m at it, a sum that has been backed with around $125m from venture capitalists.

“There is often talk of a conspiracy between the automotive industry and the big oil companies to hold back the development of electric vehicles,” says Tesla’s senior communications manager Rachel Konrad. “But in reality, the only reason so few electric cars make it to the production stage is simple – it’s not an easy thing to perfect. It takes a long time, a lot of work and a lot of money.”

Another myth about electric cars is that they are “silent”. Get behind the wheel of a Tesla, however, and you quickly realise that this is not the case. Everyone has their own interpretation of the sound which is a combination of light wind, tyre noise and the “whizz” of the motor. Some say it’s akin to driving a rocket. I would describe it as more turbine-like, especially when considering the “push-in-the-back” acceleration that results from electric motors making their peak torque, or pulling power, from zero revs.

Recharging, meanwhile, takes around 16 hours at a standard UK household socket – sufficient to have enabled a Tesla to set a recent world record distance for an electric vehicle at the Monte Carlo EV rally where it travelled 241 miles on a single charge with 36 miles’ worth of power still to go.

Probably the Tesla’s nearest competitors are the 135mph Venturi Fetish (€287,000), which first appeared at the Paris Motor Show in 2004, and the British-built Lightning GT, a dramatic design with a powerful electric motor at each wheel providing the equivalent of 700hp – more than an Aston Martin DBS or a Ferrari 599. The impressive output of the four motors is said to be able to push the car to 130mph and enable it to complete a 0-60mph sprint in just four seconds. Orders are now being taken, but you’ll need to stump up a £3,500 deposit and expect to pay a balance of around £120,000.

According to Jay Nagley, publisher of CleanGreenCars.co.uk, one obstacle faced by manufacturers is the number of deposits needed to enter production: “Tesla is currently the only company in this field to be taken really seriously. The cars are engineered by Lotus and there’s strong financial backing. Usually, people are sceptical about this sort of project. Getting a car to go fast using an eco-friendly powerplant is the relatively easy bit. It’s getting the detail right that is difficult – keeping down wind noise, getting everything to fit together properly and ensuring it stays that way are what usually cause the problems.”

What Nagley means, of course, is that prospective electric supercar makers need only do one thing to be certain of success – and that is to follow Tesla’s lead.

See also

Sports cars, Speed