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Critical stuff

Exclusive Report

BACK TO THE FUTURE

Driving the worldfs fastest electric car

by  Peter Lyon

It doesnft require plutonium to power its flux capacitor. And it wonft travel through time when it reaches 88mph. And unlike Marty McFlyfs Delorean of Back to the Future fame, it requires nothing more than a power point to keep it running. Called simply Eliica, short for Electric Lithium-Ion battery Car, this radical 8-wheeled, 800hp rocket from Japan is proof that electric cars can be fast and fun to drive too. Boasting a 0-100kph sprint of 4 seconds flat and a 0-160kph time of just 7 seconds, the Eliica is faster than a Porsche 911 Turbo.

But if you could use the Docfs Delorean to go back 120 years, to a time when the first gasoline powered cars were surfacing, you may be surprised to learn that electric cars were the vehicle of choice in Europe and the U.S. In the 1920fs however, Henry Fordfs mass production technique and the need for longer range vehicles on better road systems saw the gasoline powered car replace the electric variety.

Professor Hiroshi Shimizu of the electric vehicle lab at Japanfs prestigious Keio University believes his team can bring the electric car back, back to the future. He feels that stricter emissions laws will favour these zero emissions vehicles. And to him, thatfs not a moment too soon. gIf we continue producing current levels of CO2, we will face a global-warming crisis well before 2040, a long time before fossil fuel reserves run out. We need to halve these emissions now.h

So what is the Eliica like on the road? As I tried to sit my 190cm-tall frame in the space-conscious cockpit, I soon realized that this car is built for speed. gWe built this particular car to show just how fast, stable and fun an electric car can be,h stressed Shimizu. Itfs over 5m long, shaped like a bullet and carries its batteries, software and motors in a narrow chassis bed giving it the lowest centre of gravity of any prototype anywhere. Headroom is extremely limited, built for no one taller than 178cm.                                            

 

At a secret high-speed test at Italyfs Nardo facility last August, the Eliica recorded a top speed of 370kph, although on a smoother surface, Shimizu says the car would clear 400kph. gWe need to reach 400kph to make an impact on a gasoline car dependent world,h said Shimizu. When youfre dealing with technology that is thought by most people to be too heavy, slow and lacking range, you have to do better than just equal the current crop of supercars. You have to outclass them.h

At this exclusive test drive held in the university facility just south of Tokyo, I disengaged the foot brake, punched the simple gDh button on the dash for drive, pointed the car down a straight stretch of road and flattened the accelerator pedal. With a faintly audible whir of eight in-wheel motors, the sprint to 100kph in just on four seconds (on my stopwatch) was smooth, effortless and quiet. And quite surreal.

The result was mind-boggling acceleration on a par with a 500hp GT racing car. The only difference being that no transmission meant no shift shock and perfectly linear acceleration as I was thrust back in my seat by an incredible 0.8Gs. With its ultra-low center of gravity, the car handles surprisingly well, has almost no body roll, suffers from no acceleration squat and has no nose-dive when braking. It turns in sharply with well-weighted steering through the front four wheels and gives adequate feedback. It doesnft feel as big as its 5.1m length might suggest, nor does it feel as heavy as its 2400kgs curb weight suggests.

 

The only downside, apart from the tiny cockpit, is that it takes 10 hours to fully recharge, and costs around US$300,000 in prototype form. Although a high density recharger could do the job in one hour according to Shimizu. The professor reminded me to look at laptops, digital cameras and iPods. gWith each generation, they get smaller, yet they have more memory and longer battery life. In a few years, car batteries will be lighter, smaller, have more power and have a longer life too. Itfs just a matter of time.h And a matter of interest, because the major carmakers like Toyota and Honda are not showing any | yet - as they go down the hybrid and hydrogen-powered fuel cell path. And to bring Shimizufs electric car back to the future, he needs a major companyfs financial power behind him and the whole electric movement.

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COPYRIGHT(C)2004 PETER LYON ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.