Friday, September 13, 2013

Race Cars Go Electric

The world's fastest cars are becoming eco-friendly. Charge up with these sleek, new rides from Porsche, McLaren and Ferrari
PORSCHE 918 SPYDER | As its name suggests, Porsche will produce only 918 of the Spyder model, which retails for $845,000 and features 887 horsepower derived from its three engines.Courtesy of Porsche Cars North America
LISTEN CAREFULLY TO the newest, costliest, most technologically out-there supercars and you’ll hear the new timbre of automotive supremacy: the whirr of electricity. Over the coming months, dealerships from Shanghai to Silicon Valley will receive a trio of exotic hybrid models from manufacturers Porsche, McLaren and Ferrari. Supercars are plugging in—and not just to score eco-points.
Arguably the most mechanically complex of the new wave of hybrids is the built-from-scratch Porsche 918 Spyder. The plug-in roadster derives its sub-three-second, zero-to-60 acceleration by pairing a 4.6-liter V8 gas engine with two electric motors—which together produce an impressive 887-system horsepower. The car is a rolling showcase of the kind of luxury automotive technology that may trickle down to less expensive Porsches in coming years: push-button boost, four-wheel steering and, most tellingly, an “E-power” mode that allows it to drive on batteries alone for up to 18 miles.
Similarly eco-minded is the aerodynamic McLaren P1, a carbon-fiber creation that can be driven on electric alone for 6 miles, emission free. When the driver’s foot isn’t pushing the gas pedal, energy is collected from its compact but powerful twin-turbocharged 3.8-liter V8; it’s returned via an electric motor to eliminate turbo lag and smooth out gear changes.
Ferrari’s electric offering, the LaFerrari, doesn’t plug in at all. Rather, its calling card is a gas-powered V12 powerplant paired with an electric motor charged by energy returned from both the brakes and from excess torque created by the gas engine. Unlike the Porsche or McLaren, it doesn’t have an electric-only mode, which would hush the brand’s signature wail. Silence, it seems, is a line Ferrari won’t cross. “Can you imagine a car with this kind of shape, with those aerodynamics, moving at a low speed without the sound of the engine?” asks the brand’s technical director, Roberto Fedeli. “I don’t think it would be possible. Nor do I think it would be fair.”
Indeed, not every car fanatic is thrilled by the move toward electric. According to three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, the extra machinery (and pounds) that electric cars require can get in the way of a driver’s interaction with the vehicle. “Look, for most people, clever electronics will help drivers access more of the performance that these cars are capable of. My good friend ordered up all three of [the new supercars], and I can understand the attraction,” says Franchitti. “I guess I’m a purist, though, because all this has me hunting for the old stuff—minimal and lightweight.”
Driving a supercar in silence? It a whole new thing. Just as having a hybrid and going insanely fast are no longer mutually exclusive. “Sure, you could put it into the grid of Le Mans,” says Dr. Frank Walliser, the 918 Spyder’s chief engineer, of the new Porsche. “But on Sunday morning you can drive it to the bakery, too.”