With luxury auto makers—from Porsche to Aston Martin—poised to release electric sports cars that upend earnest eco-clichés, going green will soon entail going startlingly fast
Photo: PHOTO CREDIT: RIMAC
IF GEAR HEADS had any doubts about how ferocious electric sports cars can be, Richard Hammond destroyed them in June, along with a million-dollar prototype and some Swiss shrubbery.
- LIGHTNING FAST Electric cars are typically quick to accelerate but not fast. This limited-edition Rimac Concept_One, however, has a 220-mph top speed.
- FASHION FORWARD The car’s carbon-fiber midsection is meant to recall a cravat—an accessory that was invented in Croatia, where the Concept_One is hand-built.
- BATTS OUT OF HELL The Concept_One’s liquid-cooled battery pack, which was designed for track use, is capable of discharging a whopping 1 megawattof power during acceleration.
- POWER PLAY The four high-speed, oil-cooled magnet motors at each corner of the car can output up to 1,224 hp. A Chevrolet Corvette’s V8 generates 650 hp.
- THE WHEEL DEAL Each wheel has its own motor and gearbox. This allows them to be driven independently and cooperatively, for quicker response and higher handling limits.
The former “Top Gear” host was shooting an episode of the Amazon series “The Grand Tour” in Switzerland when he overcooked a corner and went over the edge in an all-electric, 1,224-hp Rimac Concept_One. The car, one of eight in the world, sailed 100 feet before impacting and violently tumbling to pieces. Mr. Hammond, who escaped serious injury in the accident, was extricated before the car burned to a lithium-ion cinder.
OK, so flammability might still be an issue.
In an interview after the accident, Mr. Hammond said he has struggled to describe the physical intensity of futuristic whips like the Rimac, a car with four advanced motors, all-wheel drive and liquid-cooled lightning: a battery capable of instantaneously discharging a full megawatt of power. “We need a new vocabulary,” Mr. Hammond said.
Car enthusiasts were left similarly speechless in May, when an all-electric supercar called the NIO EP9 knocked 6 seconds (6:45) off Lamborghini’s production-car record at Germany’s 12.9-mile Nürburgring test track, a universally recognized standard of performance. While a McLaren P1 LM (gas-electric hybrid) was able to nip the NIO’s record two weeks later, it’s clear that, between EV and gas, it’s on like Donkey Kong for the Nürburgring record.
But wait, you say, aren’t EVs (electric cars) weird-looking, pokey and riddled with range anxiety? You are thinking of the Nissan Leaf. The first mass-produced EV of the modern era, released in 2010, did for EVs’ sexiness what VW has done for diesel. The electron burners you will meet here are a whole different species.
Prototype designs for the fastest (and brawniest) electric cars
If your ankles are tingling, it’s because you are on the shore looking at a tidal wave of electric vehicles. In July, Tesla CEO Elon Musk handed over the key fobs to the first few Tesla Model 3s, the American company’s EV for the people (people with at least $35,000 and the patience to wait months to get their car). Tesla has about a half-million reservations for the Model 3 in hand and plans to ramp up production to 10,000 cars a week by the end of 2018. Deliveries anywhere near those figures would make it the best-selling car in America.
In September, the second-generation Nissan Leaf will debut (spy shots show a massive upgrade in aesthetics). With sales of more than 250,000 world-wide, the Leaf is already the most numerous EV in the world.
Out in the deep ocean of the global car business, even larger seismic anomalies have been detected. Perhaps the biggest was China. Combating the twin emergencies of urban air pollution and dependency on imported oil, the Chinese government last September unveiled sweeping, California-style mandates requiring that all car makers generate “EV credits”—including sales of EVs, plug-in hybrids and fuel-cell vehicles—equal to 8% of sales in 2017, 10% in 2018 and 12% in 2020. (Implementation may be pushed back to give car makers time to adjust.)
This lurch toward electrification in the world’s largest car market implies transformational economies of scale. Example: As part of its campaign for redemption, VW Group has announced plans for 30 new EV models by 2025, with global sales targeting 3 million units, mostly in China. To meet those targets, VW research and development chief Ulrich Eichorn estimates the company needs to source 200 gigawatt-hours worth of energy-storage devices. Mr. Eichorn told Automotive News Europe that if the global auto makers devoted just 25% of production to plug-capable vehicles in 2025, it would need 1.5 terawatts-hours—the output of 40 Tesla-like “gigafactories.”
“What is often forgotten is the current drive to EVs was initiated by Nissan, Mitsubishi[the i-MiEV] and Tesla,” said Aston Martin CEO Andy Palmer, who championed the Leaf program when he was a vice president of Nissan. “Without all three and VW’s Dieselgate, we would not be seeing this revolution.”
But having been more or less obliged to build such cars, auto makers still face the challenge of making them desirable and status-bearing. It’s comforting somehow that this part of the auto industry, at least, has not changed: You have to sell the sizzle with the steak.
Porsche’s all-electric halo car, currently named Mission E, is scheduled for full production by 2019. Long dismissive of the very idea, Porsche executives have done an about-face on electric propulsion. In June, CEO Oliver Blume said that by 2023 half of the legendary performance brand’s production would be electric.
With its 800-volt charging technology, the Mission E is targeting more than 300 miles of range and a 15-minute quick-charge good for 250 miles. Also: 600 hp, all-wheel drive, and 0-60 mph in 3.5 seconds, if that does anything for you.
In 2019 Aston Martin will begin delivery of the RapidE, a version of the Rapide super-sedan with EV tech developed with F1 masters Williams Advanced Engineering.
If you are wondering how eco-weenie mobiles got so mega, the simple answer is bigger, badder batteries and the systems that manage, support and cool them. The average specific-energy and power density of lithium-ion batteries has been rising steadily for the past decade. As they do, they allow more energy to be put in the bottle (to go farther) and widen the bottle’s mouth so more energy comes out at once (to go faster).
‘If you are wondering how eco-weenie mobiles got to be so mega, the simple answer is bigger, badder batteries.’
Indeed, it was inevitable, given the nature of the mechanisms, that battery-packing sports cars would eclipse their piston-powered forebears in performance, at least over short distances. By virtue of a comparatively lower center of gravity, EVs tend to corner flatter and harder without body roll. EVs also put torque to the ground more efficiently. Unlike conventional traction-control systems, an e-motor’s twist can be modulated hundreds of times a second, exploiting all available adhesion between tire and surface without spinning.
Most famously, electric cars enjoy a huge advantage in initial acceleration. This has been colorfully demonstrated about a million times on YouTube since 2012, when the Tesla Model S started handing out beatings to Camaros and Corvettes at drag strips.
For driving enthusiasts there is also a little game-changer ahead called independent torque vectoring. By virtue of their compactness, EV motors can be arrayed at all four wheels, allowing each to work independently and cooperatively, speeding up or slowing down to help the car in extreme maneuvering. As the driver heads for a corner, the inside front wheel slows, or even drags, the outside tire pushes harder, the rear wheels do the same, and the directional power actually bends the car’s path through the turn.
Independent AWD torque vectoring opens a new dimension in performance driving. “I would contest that with or without legislation, we would be investing in EVs,” said Mr. Palmer of Aston Martin. The design opportunity “has got both our engineers and designers excited.”
But is faster always better? “The power of an EV powertrain is not in question,” said Mr. Palmer. “The biggest step change is how it feels for the driver (and passengers) versus an internal combustion engine. Although we as a brand are loved for the sound of our engines, we don’t see any issue with the sound of silence.”