Top 10 tech cars 2010


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courtesy of IEEE Spectrum: IEEE Spectrum: SPECIAL REPORT: TOP 10 TECH CARS 2010


Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG

A tried-and-true trick in the auto industry is to resuscitate an old but elegant design while stuffing it with new technology. Daimler has pushed the concept to a whole new level with the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG. It’s a deliberate evocation of the most stunning design of all time, the 1954 300SL ”Gullwing,” whose doors opened like the wings of a bird (or an insect, if you want to get technical about it). Throw on another winglike structure that pops up at the back, pasting the wheels to the ground at speed and during braking and you’re definitely in supercar territory. Indeed, reports say the SLS AMG will be priced at around 175 000 in Europe, where it’ll be introduced this year, and somewhere north of US $200 000 in the United States, in 2011.

The car’s list of tech features is long: a lightweight aluminum chassis and body; a 6.3-liter V-8 engine generating 420 kilowatts (563 horsepower); a seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission; a carbon-fiber driveshaft that rotates at engine speed to power the transmission directly; ceramic composite brakes; and a dry-sump oil system that uses special pumps to scavenge oil, which allows for a smaller oil pan and lets Mercedes give the car a superlow center of gravity. That feature, plus a front-to-rear weight distribution of 48:52, means the 1620-kilogram car handles like a fighter jet.

The ultimate tech feature, though, will come later, in an all-electric iteration pegged to debut sometime between 2011 and 2013. That model will have an electric motor for each wheel, generating a combined 392 kW (525 hp).










Porsche Panamera

As my Porsche Panamera Turbo hits its stride on the German autobahn, there’s plenty to focus on, both inside and out. A V-8 engine is cranking 368 kilowatts (493 horsepower) to four churning wheels. The dual-clutch automated manual transmission fires off fast-twitch gear changes. A rear deck lid spoiler rises and widens at 90 kilometers per hour (56 miles per hour) to reduce aerodynamic drag, and then, as we cross the 200-km/h threshold, repositions like an airplane flap to boost downforce and stability.

But despite the mechanical marvels on display—and the voice in my head telling me to concentrate on the bends along this no-limit stretch of pavement—the most astonishing action is taking place in the backseat. There my driving partner remains blissfully asleep as I spur the Panamera to 300 km/h (186 mph to this Yank). That’s more than enough to show a pesky BMW M3 and a Mercedes-Benz diesel wagon—which had been ankle-biting my Porsche for the past 10 km—where they rank in the autobahn’s cruel pecking order.

Go ahead—call the Panamera ugly, ungainly, or just plain odd. You won’t be the first to take issue with Porsche’s fastback-roofed sedan, the first four-door car in the company’s storied history. A traditional sports sedan, says chief designer Michael Mauer, would have been too easy. Instead, his team imagined a four-door sports car mit hatchback, penciling backseat dimensions to fit the lanky frame of then-CEO Wendelin Wiedeking, who is 188 centimeters tall (6 feet 2 inches).

”The Panamera does take some getting used to,” Mauer says, even as he vigorously defends the beauty that derives from pure function.

Internal trickery runs the gamut: Adaptive Bi-Xenon headlights monitor vehicle speed and other parameters in order to swivel when going around curves; the lamps also automatically adjust their range and width to handle potentially dangerous situations, including two-lane back roads and foul-weather driving. A high-resolution screen holds a navigation system with 3-D renderings of buildings in major cities. The Burmester audiophile system has 16 speakers and more than 1000 watts.

The Panamera also raises the large-car performance bar to insane heights: Toggle up the electronic launch-control function and the US $133 000 Turbo catapults from 0 to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 3.8 seconds—as quick as the 911 Turbo, which weighs about 400 kilograms less—and covers a quarter mile in 11.7 seconds at 190 km/h (118 mph). That launch control requires getting the Sport Chrono option, which adds a fiddly lap timer and the all-important Sport Plus mode to the car’s myriad computerized performance systems.

Even the 294-kW (394-hp) Panamera S and all-wheel-drive 4S models squirt to 96 km/h in less than 5 seconds. That robust power stems from a 4.8-liter, direct-injection V-8 with dual turbochargers and extensive weight-saving materials, including magnesium valve covers and aluminum camshaft adjusters. Crankshaft and connecting rods trim a remarkable 2.3 kg (5 pounds) from those on the Cayenne S’s same-size V-8, reducing critical reciprocating mass for swifter engine response. The Panamera S retails for about $90 000 and the all-wheel-drive 4S adds another $4000 to that sticker price.

A less costly, 220-kW (roughly 300-hp) V-6 Panamera will go on sale this year. A Panamera hybrid will follow in 2011, mating a V-6 with an electric motor that together should approach 298 kW (400 hp).

In the V-8 models, the low-mounted engine drops the car’s center of gravity to enhance handling, an arrangement made possible by a lateral driveshaft that runs directly through the engine’s crankcase, rather than being positioned below it. Dry-sump lubrication, common in race cars, ensures that the Panamera gets a steady serving of oil, even when the car is undergoing extreme g forces that can starve an ordinary engine of lubrication. European models get a fuel-saving engine stop-start function, similar to that of hybrids, yet Porsche nixed the system for American owners. There, the Porsche still dodges a gas-guzzler tax, with the Turbo estimated at 15 miles per gallon in the city and 23 mpg on the highway (15.7 and 10.2 L/100 km).

The Panamera adopts the new Porsche-Doppelkupplung transmission, or PDK, a slick dual-clutch unit that’s far faster to shift than it is to pronounce. A driver can cruise in comfy automatic mode or shift manually over a range of selectable performance programs, using paddle shifters or the console lever. One clutch handles gears 1, 3, 5, and 7, the other gears 2, 4, 6, and reverse, with one clutch releasing a gear as the other simultaneously grabs the next successive speed, up or down. Other carmakers have implemented such a scheme, but Porsche’s refinements permit near-instantaneous gear shifts, along with a transmission that can downshift multiple gears (for example, from fifth to second) the instant you floor the gas pedal.

An adaptive air suspension features what Porsche calls a world first: air springs that adjust by adding or subtracting air volume. The feature relies on two things: a road-sensing calculator, called the Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM) system, and performance maps selected by the driver. In Comfort mode, each spring holds 2.2 L of air for a gentler ride. In Sport mode, valves close and reduce the volume to 1.1 L, firming the suspension for sharper control. That air suspension also lets the driver raise or lower the car’s body, including a maximum height to clear steep driveways or curbs or ultralow for high performance.

The acronym soup continues with a sophisticated active all-wheel-drive system (Porsche Traction Management, or PTM) and Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control (PDCC), which combines active antiroll bars with an electronic rear differential to keep the Panamera’s body amazingly flat when cornering at high speed. The antiroll bars feature hydraulic swivel motors that send pressurized oil to either side of the car, creating counterresistance on the body as cornering forces build. The rear differential divvies power among the wheels according to their relative traction and accelerative forces. In steady cruising, the roll bars are decoupled, boosting ride smoothness by allowing each wheel to respond more sensitively to bumps.

All a driver needs to know is that the Panamera makes the term four-door sports car a reality, not a marketing gimmick. About as wide as a Mercedes S-Class and topping 1900 kg, the Panamera Turbo is no Lotus lightweight. Yet crank up the Sport Plus setting and the Panamera boggles mind and body alike, cracking the 1 g barrier of lateral acceleration, among other feats. It’s also a license shredder, so luxurious and accommodating that it’s forever sneaking past 100 mph when you meant (honestly, officer) to go 75, making this Porsche the ultimate carpooling machine. For the autobahn, anyway.




Ford Taurus SHO (for “super high output”)

The top of this year’s Ford Taurus range is the powerful and jazzy Taurus SHO (for ”super high output”), a sport sedan. Chief among the technical bragging points is an optional safety feature known as electronically scanning radar. This guardian angel scans the highway far enough ahead to save you from rear-ending a fog-shrouded forerunner while going wide enough to catch any would-be lane changer that may be lurking in your blind spot. Because its microwaves penetrate fog, it beats the older, laser-based systems.

Ford crows that the device, supplied by Delphi, is derived from a radar used in the F-22 Raptor fighter jet. Of course this sort of thing can also be done by mechanical scanning—like a dish antenna sweeping the sky—but by steering the beam electronically you get not only better performance but also a far more compact package that’s a mere 5 by 8 by 18 centimeters long. That makes it easy to fit the radar’s forward-looking part into the car’s sleek front end. Other car companies offer such radars, but Ford gets our plaudit because it charges just US $1195, far less than any competitor.

In practice, the radar functions as part of a larger system of adaptive cruise control—a-baby step along the road to automated driving. When the radar senses the hint of a threat of an impending collision, it alerts the driver and precharges the brakes, so they’ll react that much faster to the driver’s foot.


Audi e-Tron

The Audi e-Tron all-electric sports car—a direct challenge to the much ballyhooed Tesla Roadster—is chock-full of gadgetry, including a heat pump (rather than a heater), an ultralight aluminum and composite body, and a shape-shifting exterior that deploys movable grilles and the like to reduce drag and to channel cooling air past the battery.

And, unlike most concept cars, the e-Tron actually goes. At least, that’s the word from automotive writers who’ve driven one. The machine packs plenty of motive power in the form of four motors, one for each wheel. Some automotive engineers would cringe at having to suspend and shock absorb all that unsprung, rotating mass, but this arrangement allows for a precise, fourfold, moment-by-moment split of torque among the four wheels.

And quite a bit of torque it is. Gearing in the front and back lets the motors, 230 kilowatts (312 horsepower) in all, churn out the equivalent of 2650 newton meters (3320 foot-pounds), more than the frame could bear if automatic controls didn’t set a limit way, way below that number. The result is still enough to kick you from 0 to 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour) in under 6 seconds. Audi estimates it can go 240 km (150 miles) on a charge of its lithium-ion battery pack, the usable portion of which is rated at 43 kilowatt-hours.

Clearly, Audi wouldn’t have made this concept car so immediately drivable if it weren’t planning on turning it into a production car. So is electricity the future of supercars? Perhaps. Everyone presumes that an electric car is good mainly for the environment, or for reducing an auto company’s average fleet fuel-economy rating. In fact, an electric car—with its stupendous torque—has the potential to beat many a gas burner in a sprint. It’s a natural technology for a supercar.



VW Up Lite

How do you build a practical car that’s highly fuel efficient? Easy: Make it small and light, give it a diesel engine, and make that engine part of a hybrid power train. Strangely, no such creature has yet hit the road. Several automakers are, however, fixing to correct that oversight. In particular, Volkswagen is testing the waters with its Up Lite concept car, which shares many components with VW’s ”New Small Family” of cars, which the company will begin offering buyers by 2012.

The Up Lite is, as you might expect, quite light: 695 kilograms (1532 pounds). VW shaved its weight by keeping it small (the car is just 3.84 meters long) and making many of its parts out of aluminum and carbon composites. Some axle components are even made from magnesium. Small and light? Check.

The Up Lite’s engine is a two-cylinder, turbocharged, direct-injection diesel of just 0.8 liter displacement—a truncated version of the larger turbo direct-injection diesels Volkswagen is well known for. Diesel engine? Check.

The Up Lite gains 38 kilowatts (51 horsepower) from its diesel engine and another 10 kW (13 hp) from an integrated electric motor, which, in addition to powering the vehicle and providing for regenerative charging of the car’s lithium-ion battery, replaces the usual starter and alternator. Hybrid power train? Check.

This engine-motor combination is connected to the wheels through a seven-speed ”direct shift gearbox”—think of it as an automated manual transmission—which is said to accelerate the car from 0 to 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour) in 12.5 seconds, to provide a top speed of 160 km/h (about 100 mph), and achieve 3.4 liters per 100 kilometers (70 miles per gallon) on the highway.

The Up Lite sports plenty of other eco bells and whistles, including rear-facing video cameras instead of drag-inducing side mirrors, a front grille that automatically adjusts to engine-cooling needs, and power-train settings that can be altered using a touch screen mounted near the center console.




Fiat Nuova 500

In July 2007, exactly 50 years after the original Fiat 500 rolled off the assembly line, Fiat unveiled its Nuova 500. The company was following what BMW and Volkswagen had already done for the Mini and Beetle—creating a modern vehicle styled after one of the iconic cars of postwar Europe. But Fiat is now taking a big technological step forward by putting an advanced new engine into its cute little retro car.

Later this year, Fiat will offer the Nuova 500 with its new Small Gasoline Engine, or SGE. Like the little putter in the original Fiat 500, the SGE has only two cylinders, giving a displacement of just 900 cubic centimeters, about the size of what you might find powering a Ducati.

But this is no ordinary motorcycle engine. It’s got a start-stop system to shut down the engine when the car is stationary, and some versions will include turbochargers, providing as much as 78 kilowatts (105 horsepower). And the engine will include Fiat’s new MultiAir variable valve timing, an electromechanical system that independently actuates each cylinder’s two intake valves, to let the engine deliver more power at high revs without sacrificing torque or drivability at low engine speeds.

Variable valve timing has been around for years. What distinguishes the MultiAir system is that it gives fine control of the intake valves using a solenoid and hydraulic pressure generated by the camshaft. It has two other slick features: It allows exhaust gases to be recirculated merely by opening the input valves during the exhaust stroke, and it eliminates the need for a throttle mechanism to reduce airflow into the cylinders.

In July 2009, Fiat said it would introduce the car to the U.S. market by early 2011. Adding to ecodrivers’ excitement, Fiat plans to follow up with a hybrid SGE along with a version that can burn compressed natural gas. So Fiat’s Nuova 500 combined this year with the company’s new SGE power plants will surely help to illustrate how, with the right technology, downsizing can be downright exhilarating.





As engineering achievements go, the world’s fastest SUV might seem on a par with a hydroelectric stapler or a self-buttoning cardigan: interesting, but pointless. Ignoring the howls of automotive purists and Sierra Club donors, BMW has bestowed on us the X6 M. Like BMW’s M3 and M5 sedans, this offshoot of the standard X6 crossover wears the ”M” badge that denotes the company’s explosive high-performance division. And while the X6 M looks more like Batman’s assault vehicle than a traditional sports sedan, there’s no disputing the engineering heroics that let this 2380-kilogram (5247-pound), 408-kilowatt (547-horsepower) beast thumb its Bavarian nose at the laws of physics.

The BMW imperils highway laws as well, which made track testing both welcome and enlightening. Over two separate weeks with the X6 M, I was impressed with the BMW’s Jekyll-and-Hyde personality: one part fleet, serene cruiser with room for four adults and decent cargo space, despite its slope-roofed styling; one part roadway killer that needs the curves at Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway or New York’s Monticello Motor Club to achieve complete and blissful self-actualization.

Detailing the BMW’s myriad technologies would require a dissertation, but let’s start with the Cliffs Notes: Using the 300-kW (402-hp), all-wheel-drive X6 as a starting point, the mad scientists at the M division drew up a new, direct-injection V-8 with pricey twin-scroll turbochargers and a patented, world’s-first ”crossover” exhaust manifold. A raft of computerized handling aids—including a sophisticated active rear differential—work magic in extreme cornering maneuvers. An automated launch control unit catapults the BMW to 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour) in 4.7 seconds, keeping up with a standard Corvette that weighs a ton less.

Twenty-inch wheels with ultrahigh-performance tires are grappled by shockingly large brake rotors—the ones up front measure 39.6 centimeters (15.6 inches)—whose two-piece composite design trims about a kilogram of critical unsprung weight from each wheel, boosting ride and handling. The body gets its own M additions to boost style, aerodynamics, and cooling, including front air inlets whose gaping nostrils seem straight off a Lamborghini.

The cabin of this ”sports activity coupe,” as BMW calls it, is equally chockablock with features. Driver-selectable performance settings adjust the engine, throttle, six-speed paddle-shifted automatic gearbox, and electronic suspension—the latter reading information from the road surface to adjust shocks at up to 400 times per second (really, couldn’t 350 have sufficed?). Amenities include a head-up display and a 16-speaker audio system.

The engine is a 7000-revolution-per-minute masterwork. Dual turbochargers and their catalytic converters are actually nestled between the V-shaped cylinder banks; BMW’s ingeniously compact layout has been used on no other production V-8 in history. The challenging design required exhaust valves mounted inboard and intake valves outboard, the opposite of the tens of millions of standard V-8 engines produced over the last century.

That reverse layout isn’t just for show: Power-boosting exhaust gases travel a much shorter route to the turbochargers and catalytic converters, meaning less wasted energy and superior emissions performance. The crossover manifold is another BMW first: Spent gases are routed through four pairs of cylinders on opposite banks, with each pair’s ignition separated by 360 degrees of crankshaft revolution. Each pair then feeds into an individual exhaust runner and turbocharger scroll; essentially, the engine works like a four-turbo design. Four exhaust runners of identical length mean that the turbines receive perfectly consistent pulses of exhaust gas, boosting gas velocity and virtually eliminating dreaded ”turbo lag,” the brief lapse between stomping the gas pedal and feeling the love when the turbos kick in.

For drivers, the result is a delightfully broad and ferocious power curve, with all 680 newton meters (501 foot-pounds) of torque fully on tap between 1500 and 5650 rpm. The engine’s unusual architecture also produces a one-of-a-kind sound, a mellow, baritone blat as opposed to the chesty roar of a typical V-8.

Next, the BMW’s xDrive all-wheel-drive system adds a feature called Dynamic Performance Control—the active rear differential that helps maintain stability and even nudge the vehicle around turns. Dubbed Vector Drive by its maker, Germany’s ZF Friedrichshafen, this complex arrangement of multidisc clutches and planetary gear sets act on speed and g-force information gathered from sensors at all four wheels.

Combining that data with complex algorithms from the electronic stability control system, the unit can vector full engine torque from one rear wheel to the other—a differential of up to 1800 Nm (1328 ft-lb)—in as little as 100 milliseconds. During a right-hand corner, for example, the left rear wheel speeds up, and the right rear wheel rapidly slows down, creating a pivoting force called a yaw torque. Those lightning-quick adjustments also keep the vehicle on the driver’s intended path, neutralizing both understeer—the tendency of a vehicle’s front wheels to skid—and oversteer, when a car fishtails from the rear.

The system may sound arcane, but the results are noticeable on road and track alike. On a damp track at Monticello, I could feel the active differential help pivot the BMW’s rear through fast corners, like a helpful football coach twisting a lineman’s hips to improve his footwork.

The unfairness of the situation, in both accelerative force and tech-enhanced traction, wasn’t lost on a colleague driving a 217-kW (291-hp) Mitsubishi Evolution all-wheel-drive sedan on Monticello’s snaking course. That colleague saw the usually formidable Evo get eaten alive by the hulking Bimmer—to the shocking tune of 10 seconds per lap. BMW engineers have also seen their most powerful M model confound expectations: At the legendary Nurbürgring course in Germany—for decades a testing benchmark for the world’s production and racing cars—the X6 M covers the 20.8-km (12.9-mile) circuit faster than the previous-generation M3 sedan.

The X6 M’s downside, as you might expect, is pitiful fuel economy. This 2.4-metric-ton Bimmer slurped premium unleaded at 1.6 liters per 100 kilometers (14 miles per gallon) during my testing, with the Environmental Protection Agency pegging official mileage at 12 and 17 mpg in city and highway use, respectively.

Yet ultimately, type A drivers with the means to buy this US $89 000 mildly sociopathic monster will also be the type to brush off social critics, preferably by tromping on the gas. Questions of relevance aside, those owners will be rewarded with an SUV of which NASA might be proud—for both velocity and technology.





Aptera 2e

The Aptera 2e is a Cessna cabin without wings—a teardrop with a sharply tapered tail slung between two outrigger front wheels. It’s a three-wheeled, two-seater, all-electric bug that slips through the air more easily than any other production car in the world.

So perhaps the most unusual thing of all about the Aptera is how normal it feels when you’re behind the wheel. The prototype I drove last year was far from the production model that’s scheduled to be unveiled in April. Still, it gave me a good sense of how the final car will handle on the road.

I took it through the curvy, rolling hills of the industrial park that houses the Aptera Motors headquarters, in Vista, Calif. The visibility through the car’s panoramic windshield was great, enhanced by a driver’s seat that sits higher than the car’s shape would suggest. Rearward visibility is another story. Reversing an Aptera is something between an adventure and a blind stab in the dark. With tiny side mirrors, an almost horizontal rear hatch, and high taillights, the view out back is likely to remain a challenge no matter how much glass is used. Aptera says a rear-vision video system will be offered as an option. My advice is, take it.

The car holds the road as well as any four-wheeler, with remarkably level cornering and less body roll than most mass-market cars. That may be due to the extra-wide distance between the prototype’s front tires, which will be narrowed to make the production car easier to park. The ride, however, was quite firm, with distinct clunking as the car went over ridges and heaves. Aptera electrical engineering project manager Brian Gallagher said the production car’s suspension will be considerably more refined. [See Gallagher’s profile in ”Dream Jobs 2010,” IEEE Spectrum, February.]

The car’s 75-kilowatt electric motor is powered by a 20-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. Performance feels brisk, especially in accelerating from a standstill to 50 kilometers per hour (31 miles per hour). I was even able to spin the inside front wheel accelerating out of a curve. With electric motors developing peak torque starting at zero revolutions per minute, all-electric cars like the Aptera and the 2011 Chevrolet Volt promise to bring new smoothness and performance to everyday stoplight sprints.

Aptera projects a maximum speed higher than any U.S. speed limit, and high-speed performance will clearly be helped by the 2e’s jaw-droppingly low drag coefficient of 0.15. If the company pulls it off, that will be the lowest ever achieved on a production vehicle. By comparison, GM’s legendary EV1 electric vehicle, also a two-seater, had a drag coefficient of 0.19, and the two-seat Honda Insight is rated at 0.25.

The shape of the 2e prototype will carry over into the final production version, but the door windows will be deeper and the triangular rear windows will be larger, Gallagher says, letting more light into the cabin. The fairing that covers the rear wheel (or wheels, because one prototype I saw had a pair of closely spaced wheels) will be longer, as will the rear window.

Entering an Aptera requires a bit of practice, because the car’s doors pivot up and out, gull-wing style, and the openings are smaller than a standard vehicle’s. Closing the door requires a reach for shorter drivers. Once inside, I found interior space to be perfectly adequate for two people. The tail contains a lot of empty space behind the seats, though the long, tapering shape of the space makes it unclear how Aptera will design this storage area to make it useful. Aptera says the production 2e will be about 10 percent larger than the one I drove and will be fully rechargeable in less than 10 hours on standard North American 110-volt current.

The development prototype had its share of creaks and groans, along with a largely unfinished interior. Its hand-laid composite body shell was smoothly finished, although lights, wipers, and mirrors will all be modified before production.

Aptera will test the 2e to ensure it meets all U.S. federal motor vehicle safety standards, including front, side, and rear impact tests. Indeed, its egg-shaped body is probably closer to the perfect shape for a strong monocoque than any other car on the road. But features requested by consumers have required some changes that were not reflected in the prototype I drove, including the addition of roll-down door windows to make it possible for drivers of Apteras to use the drive-through windows at fast-food joints and banks. That meant reengineering its curved doors to accommodate both strengthening beams and movable windows.

The Aptera has two kinds of braking: Friction brakes on all three wheels serve in short-distance stops and emergencies, and a motor, when reversed, serves as a regenerative brake. That is, the resistance the motor offers to forward motion gets turned into electricity that recharges the batteries.

Aptera says it will provide owners with the most complete and flexible platform available for ”infotainment” and the display of operational data, letting drivers analyze their energy usage in gory detail. The company is also pledging to make it possible for third parties to develop apps that add functions beyond those that come with the car, and Aptera expects drivers to cooperate by swapping tips and even to compete for the best energy-efficiency ratings. Regrettably, my test car had almost none of those features, with its onboard computer simply sending data to test equipment.

It must be said that the company has had financial problems and that it has deferred the car’s launch several times. But this is a review of a technical achievement, not an appraisal of a business plan. If deliveries of the 2e do launch on schedule, Aptera plans to start work on a plug-in hybrid model that will have a smaller battery pack combined with a small, highly efficient combustion engine to serve as a range extender for trips beyond the 2e’s guaranteed range of 160 km (100 miles).

But that’s still in the future; for now, all hands are concentrated on finishing development of the 2e. If the company can deliver production vehicles to the first of more than 4000 customers who’ve put down deposits, it will have beaten the odds and created a car that flies down the road like an airplane, powered by the swift silence of electricity.





Nissan Leaf

First a left turn, then a speedy stretch, and then a gentle, swishing zigzag through a parade of orange cones. The drive is nothing to report on, and that’s the story, because I’m running not on gas but on electrons.

I’m in an old train-station parking lot on a wintry morning in Vancouver, and I’m behind the wheel of one of this year’s most eagerly anticipated cars. Well, sort of. The car is actually what engineers call a test mule: It’s got the guts of a Leaf, Nissan’s first pure-electric vehicle, but the body of a Versa sedan, Nissan’s plain-Jane budgetmobile. Due out in parts of Japan, the United States, and Europe late this year, the Leaf will be the world’s first affordable, mass-market, all-electric car, Nissan says. And it’ll also be one of the first electric vehicles from a mainstream maker with state-of-the-art lithium-ion batteries. Nissan says it will have a range of 160 kilometers (100 miles) on a charge and will deliver a respectable 280 newton meters (207 foot-pounds) of torque.

Under the hood, the Leaf’s 80-kilowatt synchronous AC motor drives the wheels directly, without a gearbox, delivering maximum torque starting at zero revolutions per minute. Though Nissan declines to specify the acceleration, it claims the Leaf tops out at 145 kilometers per hour (90 miles per hour).

In Vancouver, Nissan also provided a look-but-don’t-touch model of the real Leaf. It looks a lot like a Toyota Prius, with a sloped front and a boxier back end. The interior has a futuristic feel, with a glowing blue console and, in place of a shifter, a mushroom-shaped controller (video gamers rejoice!). As a bonus, the car will be able to tell you where nearby charging stations are. It’ll even tell your smartphone when it’s finished juicing up.

But it’s the Leaf’s zero-emissions potential that has some of the attendees in Vancouver salivating. ”This will take my carbon footprint almost to zero,” one crows. Another declares, ”If you have two cars, this should be one of them.”

The Leaf is a big gamble for Nissan. Unlike other major automakers, Nissan has bypassed hybrids in favor of pure-electric cars. President and CEO Carlos Ghosn’s plan is to move fast to capture a sizable share of the market for pure EVs, which Nissan expects to account for 10 percent of global car sales by 2020.

Nissan will say only that the Leaf will cost about as much as a conventional gasoline-powered five-person sedan, such as its Sentra or Altima. That puts the car somewhere between US $15 000 and $25 000, although the company hasn’t made clear whether that price range will include the full cost of the battery. Nissan also says there won’t be a ”green premium”: Average drivers will spend much less on electricity than they would spend on gasoline in a comparable, conventional car.

And it’s smooth. In a Prius, there’s a slight thump when the engine kicks in. Not so in the Leaf, because there’s no engine. There’s just a satisfying punch when you stomp on the accelerator.

The car’s biggest novelty—the battery—lies beneath the back seat. Conventional lithium-ion packs consist of cylindrical cells encased side by side, creating air pockets that trap heat and require auxiliary cooling, which saps efficiency.

Nissan’s new batteries consist instead of sheets of lithium manganese and graphite, stacked in waferlike cells, each about the size of a manila envelope. Four of these cells get packed into a box the size of a textbook. Nissan managed to fit 48 such boxes beneath the seat and under the floor. Simple airflow is enough to cool them. The battery can deliver 90 kW of power and has an energy capacity of 24 kWh, about twice that of Nissan’s previous lithium-ion batteries of the same size. And Nissan’s already working on a version with a lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide cathode, which might double again the battery’s capacity.

A big pothole, though, may lie ahead for Nissan. It doesn’t matter how good the batteries are if you can’t easily recharge them. As with other electric cars, the biggest challenge for the Leaf is the charging infrastructure. ”If it’s not easy for customers, it’s not going to work,” acknowledges Nissan Canada’s marketing director, Mark McDade.

So the company is working hard to make it easy. Nissan recently announced that if you buy a Leaf, it will have a contractor install a charging station in your garage before the car arrives. With a 220-volt charger, you can replenish a fully depleted battery in 8 hours. Nissan is also prodding governments and electric utilities to deploy public charging stations, which could charge the battery up to 80 percent in just under 30 minutes to support long-distance driving.

Here in Vancouver, with snow threatening to fall any minute, I return to the test track one last time. I want to check a feature I’d forgotten to pay attention to: noise—or the lack thereof. All I can hear is a cool electric whine of the motor as I accelerate. When I stop, it’s totally quiet. So one last bit of advice for future Leaf owners: After parking the car, double-check that you’ve hit the ”off” button before walking away. You don’t want those precious electrons to trickle out.


Honda CR-Z

To wealthy environmentalists, hybrid cars have always been more than transportation: They are a roving statement of their convictions. Sadly for such drivers, though, the only mainstream hybrids available in North America are dowdy family cars and boxy SUVs. Anyone wanting a hybrid with more pizzazz has been out of luck. That’s about to change.

For the 2011 model year, Honda will be offering a hybrid sports car, the CR-Z. The car is modeled in both name and styling after Honda’s diminutive sports coupe of two decades ago, the CR-X, which was celebrated for phenomenal fuel economy.

Naysayers disparage the Environmental Protection Agency’s disappointing mileage projections for the CR-Z—31-city and 37 highway miles per gallon (7.6 and 6.4 liters per 100 kilometers, respectively) for the *standard-transmission version. But they should note that drivers of Honda’s new Insight hybrid can easily beat the EPA’s fuel economy rating around town by about a factor of two. So it remains to be seen what kind of mileage careful drivers will be able to eke out with a CR-Z in the real world.

Opting for the continuously variable transmission would help in that regard, because it is expected to provide an EPA-estimated 36 city and 38 highway mpg (6.5-and 6.2 L/100 km). But, come on now, what sports-car enthusiast is going to buy an automatic?

With the CR-Z, the driver selects one of three modes: sport, normal, or economy. The choice affects the setting of the car’s electric power steering, engine responsiveness, electric power assist, and air-conditioning -compressor, managing them so as to save gas to a greater or lesser degree. So the economy mode may provide very respectable fuel efficiency—and in a car that should have no problem impressing a date.