10. Lightning Car Company
Take TVR's eccentricity and mix it with a high-tech all-electric drivetrain and the result would be something like Britain's Lightning Car Company. It seems like the whole world is trying to build an electric sports car, doesn't it?
The proposed Lightning GTS is a relatively large GT built around a tubular space frame and propelled by four 120-kilowatt brushless wheel motors (one for each wheel) that double as generators during braking to recharge the battery pack. The batteries themselves are "NanoSafe" units from Altairnano in the United States. They use nano-titanate materials instead of graphite. That should result, claims Lightning, in a battery pack that's safer, longer lasting and faster charging (full charging in about 10 minutes). Lightning says that its batteries will deliver several times more power per unit weight and volume than lithium-ion units.
Lightning's goal is to have production online in late 2009. That's not too far away, but the company hasn't yet finalized specifications or begun taking orders.
Trivia: A large bolt of lightning can strike with up to 100 terawatts of power. That's one million watts: 10,000 100-watt light bulbs.
9. Noble Automotive Limited
Noble Automotive Limited seems determined to carry on with the English tradition of eccentric motoring. Like TVR, Bristol, Morgan and a dozen other small British carmakers over the years, Noble cars aren't built to appeal to everybody, but are uncompromisingly engineered to appeal to a very select few. In short, they're the vision of one man: Lee Noble.
Noble is one of the few companies that is explicit in its philosophy. It builds simple, quick and pure sporting machines. And after a test drive last year, we can say the cars are blindingly quick and brilliant on a windy road.
Noble's first vehicle was the normally aspirated, underwhelming M10 midengine roadster that was powered by a Ford V6—it found a few buyers when it was introduced in 1999 but lacked star quality. Noble hit it right when the M10 evolved into the M12 hardtop during 2000. With a twin-turbocharged 2.5-liter Ford V6 providing 310 hp and minimal mass to move, the M12 quickly established itself as a raw-nerved, hardcore thriller. Over time it evolved into the intimidating M400 with 425 hp.
After selling off the rights and tooling for the M12 and M400, Noble is currently developing its new M15, which promises to be much less ragged than the M12, more usable everyday, and have 455 hp aboard from a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter Ford V6. Noble is predicting a 0 to 60 time of only 3.5 seconds and a top speed around 185 mph. It seems that eccentricity can be fun.
Trivia: Noble has established an end-of-life program in which the company will dispose of used-up Nobles in an environmentally responsible way for no charge.
8. Hybrid Technologies
When it comes to ambition no company has more of it than Hybrid Technologies, based in Las Vegas, Nevada. Go to their Web site and they list five different electric cars they're offering for sale, powered by lithium-ion batteries—plus two electric motorcycles, an electric moped,
and an off-road utility vehicle. If you want an electric Mini Cooper, PT Cruiser, Yaris or Smart Fortwo these are the guys to call. And if you want an electric sports car, the company claims its "LiV Rush" will rip from 0 to 60 mph in about 5.0 seconds, top out at 110 mph and deliver 150 miles of range.
Hybrid's business is basically taking off-the-shelf production vehicles and adapting electric motors and lithium-ion battery technology to do it. By concentrating on just the drivetrain, Hybrid saves itself the hassle of trying to engineer a complete vehicle.
Lithium-ion allows the company to use cutting-edge technology now available from several vendors—thanks to an influx of cash from the mainstream auto companies to develop batteries.
Trivia: Hybrid Technologies established a subsidiary in India to expand its research and development activities. Not a bad way to expand the market too.
Christian von Koenigsegg decided to go into the supercar business back in the early 1990s when he was only 22 years old. His company has succeeded in building some startlingly quick and capable machines.
Now based in Margretetorp, Sweden, Koenigsegg showed its first prototype, the CC, in 1997, and sold its first car, a CC 8S, in 2002.
The midengine sports cars responsible for the company's performance reputation—CCR, CCX and CCXR—are all developments on that first one. All are powered by heavily modified (to the point where Koenigsegg claims the engine as its own) supercharged versions of Ford's 4.7-liter, DOHC, 32-valve V8. In the current CCX the twin Rotrex centrifugal superchargers push output to a staggering 806 hp and in the CCXR (which can run on the E85 gas/alcohol blend or even E100 alcohol) that output grows to a staggering 1018 hp.
In the battle to build the world's fastest production car, Koenigsegg claims the CCXR will run away from even the vaunted Bugatti Veyron—and top out at well over 250 mph.
Koenigsegg aims to establish itself at the forefront of exotic carmakers alongside established legends like Ferrari, Lamborghini and Aston Martin. As such, if you need to ask how much a Koenigsegg costs, you can't afford it.
Trivia: During the running of the 2003 Gumball 3000 rally, it has been reported that a Koenigsegg driver received a ticket in Texas for driving 242 mph in a 70 mph zone. That's the biggest speeding ticket on record.
6. Shelby Supercars
Right now, Shelby Supercars (SSC) claims that its midengine Ultimate Aero, powered by an 1183-hp 6.3-liter twin-turbocharged V8, is the fastest production car on earth—256.14 mph according to the certificate it has from the Guinness Book of World Records. That's a mighty achievement for a small company in the state of Washington.
The Shelby in Shelby Supercars is 40 year-old Jerod Shelby, who made a fortune in medical devices before turning his inventive talents toward building, well, supercars.
He modestly expects that Shelby Supercars will be a household name within five to 10 years.
The Aero is assembled in a small town by a small company few have heard of. But let us, no, let Jay Leno tell you, the Ultimate Aero works well. The steel space-frame chassis is straight forward in its engineering, the all-independent suspension is well-executed, and the whole assembly is covered by a carbon-fiber-composite body that, while not exactly beautiful, has been honed through hours of testing in NASA's wind tunnel in Langley, Virginia.
In the future, SSC promises a high-performance four-door sedan that will be capable of speeds over 220 mph. But before that, there will be an all-electric version of the Ultimate Aero featuring "revolutionary green technology" that includes a 500-hp electric motor. And the company is promising to show its prototype next February.
Trivia: Legendary Carroll Shelby (no relation) is 45 years older than Jerod Shelby.
5. Ariel Motor Company
Ariel is reviving one of the great British automotive traditions: low-mass sports cars. Taking a cue from legends like the Lotus 7 and MG-TC, the Ariel Atom is built to be as lightweight as possible so that even a modest powerplant can produce extreme performance.
In fact in some ways the British-built Atom is even more extreme than the Lotus 7. The tiny, mid-engine Atom doesn't have doors, or side windows, or a radio, or heater or even a windshield. In fact, it doesn't even have any conventional body panels—the driver and single passenger are exposed to the elements through an exposed tube frame.
Compared to the Atom, a Lotus 7 is as luxurious as a Rolls-Royce.
But with a 245-hp 2.0-liter Honda Four aboard for propulsion, the Ariel Atom 3 will hustle its 1350 pounds from 0 to 60 in about 2.7 seconds (according to Britain's Auto Express magazine). That's nothing short of mind-boggling and quicker than any car PM has ever tested, the mighty Corvette ZR1 included. The Atom's talents don't stop there: Its race-car-style all-independent suspension has spectacular grip and the hyperquick manual steering provides the sort of feedback one expects from cutlery. Ariel isn't reinventing the sports car, but bringing it back to its roots.
Trivia: The name "Ariel" derives from Hebrew meaning "Lion of God."
4. Carbon Motors
Instead of trying to change the world, Carbon Motors just wants to change how cops patrol it. This small company is developing a purpose built police car that is supposed to replace all those Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptors that have become such a ubiquitous part of the American landscape.
Carbon recently displayed the prototype of its E7 and, at least at first glance, it doesn't seem revolutionary. Yes, all the cop goodies (lights, sirens, push bars) that are tacked on a Crown Vic or Dodge Charger to make it cop-ready are built into the E7, but it's still a four-door sedan about the same size as a Charger or Chevrolet Impala.
Like a Charger or Crown Vic, the engine is up front and powers the rear wheels. However, the E7's structure isn't shared with any other vehicle and, Carbon claims, it is fortified to last a full 250,000 miles even under the severe strain of police use. Power comes from 300-hp 3.0-liter six-cylinder turbodiesel engine built to endure that stress while propelling the E7 from 0 to 60 mph in just 6.5 seconds. And how can you not love the suicide-style rear doors? They're supposed to make putting suspects in back easier, but they're also plain cool.
Carbon plans on building somewhere between 10,000 and 80,000 units per year to serve the law enforcement market. The vehicle should be priced, the company says, in the same neighborhood as the Crown Vic and Charger when it goes on sale in "several years." If Carbon can revolutionize the police car market, what's next? Cabs? Fire-chief cars?
Trivia: The first factory "police special" was the two-door 1955 Buick Century 68. Buick built 270 for the California Highway Patrol—half with manual transmissions and half with automatics.
3. Fisker Automotive
Henrik Fisker is already well established in the automotive world as the designer of such iconic cars as the BMW Z8 roadster and the Aston Martin DB9 and V8 Vantage. But his ambitions stretch beyond designing. And now he's planning to build a high-performance hybrid sports sedan that looks, well, as stunning as his Aston Martins.
Fisker Automotive promises its big sedan, the Karma, will rip from 0 to 60 in under 6 seconds and have a top speed over 125 mph thanks to a plug-in hybrid technology it calls Q Drive. It's about the size of a Mercedes S-Class, Developed by Quantum Technologies for Fisker, the Q Drive is conceptually similar to the drivetrain in the Chevrolet Volt with a small gasoline engine aboard that turns a generator which in turn charges a lithium-ion battery pack that supplies amperage to an electric motor driving the rear wheels. Sounds enticing, if and when it goes into production.
Trivia: Fisker Automotive and the Karma shouldn't be confused with Fisker Coachbuild, another Henrik Fisker enterprise that builds the Tramanto (a re-bodied Mercedes SL) and Latigo CS (a re-bodied BMW 6 Series) sports cars.
2. Aptera Motors
If a car is going to be revolutionary it should look revolutionary. And no car looks the part better than the Southern California–built Aptera Typ-1 (now called the Typ-2) that graced PM's November 2008 cover.
In fact, the Aptera is not even, legally, a car. Based on a lightweight three-wheel layout, the Aptera is classified as a motorcycle, and that makes it much easier to jump through the legal hoops a company must clear to put a new car on the road. But that shouldn't diminish the audacity of the engineering both inside the Aptera and out—its radically designed composite shell looks more like a light aircraft shorn of its wings than a conventional automobile. There's no guarantee this is what the future will look like, but this surely doesn't look like the past.
Originally designed to be an electric vehicle—which we tested in prototype form over a year ago—the folks at Aptera will offer a version equipped as an extended-range hybrid. A prototype two-seat Aptera that used a small diesel engine achieved an astonishing 240 mpg at a steady 55 mph. Production Typ-2h plug-in hybrid examples, the company says, will have a small gasoline-fueled engine and a "commoditized" and "ruggedized" three-phase electric motor. The production Typ-2e, on the other hand, will be all-electric with a different battery pack.
It's still an open question whether Aptera can get its vehicles into production (the company said that will happen in the coming months) or will achieve its ambitious goals of 300 mpg (equivalent) on the production vehicle. But after hiring a team of auto executives from various tier-one car companies the future looks bright.
Trivia: An Aptera was spotted on the set of the upcoming new Star Trek movie.
1. Tesla Motors
For the past few months Tesla has been as much a soap opera as a car company. But get past the Silicon Valley–based company's various intrigues and personal vendettas, the financial shenanigans and layoffs, and the CEO office's revolving door, and Tesla is still the company to watch when it comes to electric car development.
The Tesla Roadster is now dribbling out to real, live, paid-for-it-with-cash buyers. Sure, the $100,000-plus, two-seat Roadster has been the subject of last-minute revisions (most notoriously the transmission) and it's hardly the car for everybody, but Tesla has delivered an electric sports car that works and works well. And that's an amazing achievement in itself, considering the company's small size and, by Detroit standards, minuscule development budget.
Will Tesla be able to deliver more practical and affordable electric vehicles in the near future? Will it be crushed under the onslaught of upcoming electrified vehicles from established manufacturers? As economic markets likely worsen before they improve, we'll soon find out.
Trivia: Tesla Motors namesake, inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), was celibate and obsessed with the number three and pigeons.
10. Lightning Car Company