Aptera: It's Baaaaaaaaack! (We'll Believe It When We See it)

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Aptera 2e development prototype at company offices in Vista, California

Aptera 2e development prototype at company offices in Vista, California

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This story is now a couple of weeks old, but we haven't hurried to publish it.

The gist is that the unique Aptera three-wheeled electric car is supposedly going to be reborn, and will return to the U.S. market sometime next year.

A new company, Aptera USA, purchased the assets of the old Aptera after its December shutdown--including the designs and the trademark for the plastic-bodied 2e electric car.

That car had been put on the back burner back in January 2011, when the company turned its attention to a four-wheel vehicle in an ultimately futile attempt to win low-interest loans from the U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program.

The new company--initially to be named Zaptera, about which more later--plans to build the rolling shell of the new Aptera in China, it says, and install the lithium-ion battery pack and electric running gear in the States.

Weirdly, the Chinese builder, Zhejiang Jonway, competed against Aptera in the Progressive Automotive X Prize contest, which Aptera had high hopes of winning--and did not after a door flew open on the handling test.

Aptera 2e during Automotive X-Prize handling tests, from Consumer Reports video on YouTube

Aptera 2e during Automotive X-Prize handling tests, from Consumer Reports video on YouTube

Enlarge Photo

The new three-wheeler is said to use a 20-kilowatt-hour pack with cells from A123 Systems--which also provides batteries for the Fisker Karma and the upcoming Chevrolet Spark EV--powering a 82-kilowatt (110-horsepower) electric motor.

At some point this year, the new team plans to reactivate the Aptera website and begin taking deposits again, with priority going to previous Aptera depositors.

Ultimately, the new company plans to sell the car not just in California, as old Aptera planned, but across the U.S. and internationally. The projected price is around $25,000.

Frankly, we'll believe it when we see it.

We're glad, though, that the reborn Aptera is apparently not affiliated with Zap Jonway. Zap has a long and well-documented history of not delivering promised products on time; read the 2008 Wired expose to which we've linked for the whole sordid story.

But there are several factors working against the new Aptera.

Aptera 2e

Aptera 2e

Enlarge Photo

First, it's incredibly expensive and takes a very long time to start up a car company in the U.S. and get certification for any new vehicle. (Whether the company will certify the new Aptera as a three-wheel car or a motorcycle is open to question.)

Second, the market for two-seat vehicles in the U.S. has always been tiny, at 100,000 units or less out of a market of up to 15 million vehicles.

Third, the market for plug-in electric vehicles--which remain expensive to buy--is equally small at the moment, though it will grow over time.

Finally, it takes a special kind of owner to want to drive an all-electric two-seater that also has just three wheels and looks like a Cessna cabin shorn of its wings.

Don't get us wrong; we think the Aptera is a neat car and a thought-provoking exercise in ultra-efficient transportation design. But whether it's a viable business is a different question.

So while we're eager to learn more about the resuscitated Aptera, and certainly to drive a production version of the car ... we're not going to hold our breath.

As Domenick Yoney, our respected colleague at AutoblogGreen, wrote in an update to his original story:

Sometimes 1 + 1 ≠ 2.


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Comments (32)
  1. Wow, this really is a baffling exercise in skepticism against an EV initiative. Mind you, with ZAP involved there is every reason to provide some "context" but to make the "context" and one's personal reservations the topic after incredibly admitting not to be in any hurry share the initiative itself with your readers makes for an approach that's....let's say...rather unorthodox for an alt car blog.

  2. I love the Aptera (at least the concept). However, over time, it seems to have added a lot of weight and moved away from its initially amazingly low Cd.

    So I share Voelcker skepticism about Aptera on many levels 1) producing a vehicle is difficult, 2) qualifying a 3 wheeled vehicle seems to be a challenge (don't think it is legal in Massachusetts, 3) Getting things restarted with the staff all scattered will be a challenge.

    But I hope they do it.

  3. Thanks John, but I'm not naive. Clearly there is plenty of reason to be skeptic about an initiative like this, I just don't think it's a green car blogger's role to be the most skeptic of them all when it comes to green car initiatives. Even if the blog in question is specifically presented not to be an advocacy site.

    Not an advocacy site is not strictly true though. This site implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) tells us we should accept that oil is the future for decades to come.

  4. @Chris. That's why I am so intrigued by Tesla. They seem to be the only manufacture of EV's that are building cars that can compete with gasoline vehicles in their price range. First of all they are not severly range comprimized like the Leaf and actually the 300Kw motor is equivent of 400 Hp so its not going to be gutless like some of the electric clown car concepts of late. If Tesla can do it it will be a game changer and it could forever change our method of transportation away from total reliance on internal combustion engines.

  5. @Mark: Several few weeks ago I requested that another commenter no longer use the phrase "clown car" to refer to all electric models s/he didn't like. I'd like to make the same request of you, since it seems to appear in most or all of your comments on this article.

    IMHO, the phrase is derogatory and not helpful in arguing your case. And at this point, it's become a dreadful cliche on this site. What do you think?

  6. @John. You are correct. From now on I will no longer use that term to describe a small “totally impractical vehicle” based mostly upon my standards of what a vehicle should be. I will like others wait to see how well these small albeit unconventional vehicles will sell when compared to the more conventionally styled vehicles. In other words I will let the market decide which EV’s will be successful.

  7. John, Shortly the web site at aptera usa will be up and monthly newsletters will chart the progress of this vehicle through manufacturing the vehicle in China at Jonway Motors to assembly in Santa Rosa, California. Once we have our first vehicles ready for the public next year we want you to be one of the first to drive this vehicle so you can report it really is back, and just as good as originally promissed. This may be a niche vehicle but with its light weight and aerodynamic design we think it will be what a great deal of buyers will want. Time will tell, but we are dedicated to success. Thanks

  8. Definitely a niche vehicle, and glad you guys understand that. I will be really happy to see a few on the road in Silicon Valley when it happens!

  9. Someone correct me if they know otherwise, but I don't think this is legal in Massachusetts. They don't allow three-wheeled covered two passenger vehicles.

    Aside from that, as long as the efficiency is great, I would love to have one.

  10. http://www.mass.gov/rmv/alerts/scooter.htm
    Massachusetts RMV website in regards to 3 wheeled enclosed vehicles and motorcycles etc.

  11. As of October 2009 the Aptera 2e electric three-wheeler had been officially deemed a car in the eyes of the Department of Energy.

  12. I am personally glad this vehicle is coming back, even if it isn't legal in Mass., John. If they are honest with themselves; a two seat vehicle with a big trunk is all most Americans need. This vehicle, with its design, should get an incredible range between charges, and priced at $25,000.00; that is a fair price and affordable for working people. Right now, because of gas prices, most people cannot afford to go to work. With this vehicle they can pass up those roller coaster price gas stations with a big smile on their faces.

  13. I sure like how the door flies open during cornering *chuckle* Also a 3 wheeled vehicle is inherently more unstable that a vehicle with 4 wheels. John said that he doesn't believe they are even legal in Massachuetes. Remember the 3 wheelers atv's that were taken off the market in the mid 1980's and how many people were hurt when they flipped and went turtle on them. I for one am not impressed with the so-called futuristic design of the Apetera. Give me a sleek sexy 4 door sport sedan with a low aerodynamic CD value and it will sell like hot cakes if priced at the sweet spot of $20,000 to $30,000. Aptera is a niche product at best and remember that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing again and expect a different outcome.

  14. In fairness to Aptera, the trailing third wheel is a more stable form of three-wheeler than the leading third wheel. Though obviously, not as stable as having four.

    I think those ATVs you mention were a Honda design, and you're right, they were pulled pretty quickly (though honestly 4-wheel ATVs aren't much safer!). The leading front wheel also includes the Reliant Robin, Regal, Rialto etc from the UK, 1960s-1990s, and again, those were fairly unstable!

    Trailing-wheel 3-wheelers are a bit better though. It's no surprise that the trailing-wheel design has been more popular in small-volume sports cars, at least here in the UK.

  15. 3 wheeled vehicles are not unstable unless the configuration is one in front and two in back and as I stated above the Aptera 2e electric three-wheeler has been officially deemed a car in the eyes of the Department of Energy as of 2009.

  16. Finally, it takes a special kind of owner to want to drive an all-electric two-seater that also has just three wheels and looks like a Cessna cabin shorn of its wings.

    Don't get us wrong; we think the Aptera is a neat car and a thought-provoking exercise in ultra-efficient transportation design. But whether it's a viable business is a different question.
    Well said John Voelker. I am tired of all the people who want/expect EV's to look weird or be clown car. I do not want clown cars ie Renault Twizzy, or look at me I am an eviromentalist "Toyota Prius/Nissan Leaf. I am rooting for the pragmatic Ev's Ford Focus Ev and the Tesla Model S. Real cars that show how good an EV can be rather than these 3 wheeled glorified electric golf carts.

  17. Wow! Mark thats a narrow minded view, we are no longer in the last century when there was very little choice in vehicle design things have moved on.
    As for three wheel stability have a look at the three wheel tilting Carver. http://youtu.be/6cQETVQOYag

  18. No way is this three-wheeled vehicle going to be as stable as the ultra low center of gravity Tesla Model S or even a traditional gasoline luxury sport sedan. Remember the 3-wheeled Atv's and how they had to stop making them by the mid 1980's. I love technology but I don't buy into this so-called futuristic impractical no storage space 3 wheeled Cessna’s look alike minus the wings. I wonder how they will hold up with that pointy spike of a tail in the event of a rear end collision? Did you watch Revenge of the electric car? Bob Lutz was making fun of a little electric clown car by saying he would like to race it with his Corvette. I know you’re from the UK and like the Smart Fortwo. Heck I even like the Smart Fortwo better than the Aptera.

  19. @Mark: Actually, whether or not a 3-wheeler is stable has to do with where its center of gravity is located relative to its track and wheelbase.

    I wrote about the physics of three-wheelers for another publication a few years ago; the article's sadly not online, but the gist is three-wheelers are just as stable as regular cars if the Cg is low enough and within a certain portion of the footprint inside the wheels. Consider the Morgan 3-wheelers of the 1920s through 1950s: They're still raced today!

  20. I'm not from the UK I only live here! I suggest you do some research on three wheelers before coming to the conclusion you have without the knowledge to back it up. I personally do not like the Aptera set up because to prevent roll in cornering the front suspension has to be stiff. The result is the entire car rotates on a longitudinal axis producing a very unnatural and uncomfortable side to side jerking of the occupants.The logical approach for a three wheeler is one that tilts as in the video link I sent. It solves the stability problem differently plus it can be narrow like a bike and have a small foot print. There are more forms of transport than conventional cars and a lot of us like to think outside the box even if you don't.

  21. Why make a 3-wheeled vehicle so complex that it has to tilt just to achieve stability? A small 4-wheeled vehicle with a low center of gravity will be very stable just due to its very design. Also what would happen to your morning coffee in your beverage holder if you have to tilt all the time when you go around corners? I could see expensive sport sedans using an active suspension where the car has accelerometers on it as well as computer to determine the proper suspension adjustments to achieve the best handling. I have seen that well designed sports cars can achieve over 1 G of lateral acceleration with a well-designed suspension and proper tires and wheels. As to thinking outside the box thats fine, but how many people want tilting cars?

  22. The posted center of gravity for the Tesla Model S is 16-16.5" and the ground clearance for the Aptera 2E is 5" and the batteries are mounted in the bottom of the car, so I doubt that the Tesla has a lower center of gravity.

  23. Mark, the "clown car" Twizy is actually one of the most highly-rated EVs so far in the motoring press, largely because it fulfills the limited criteria set for it.

    It may not make much sense in America, but in places like Europe or Japan, those "clown cars" are a serious option for the future of personal transportation in car-unfriendly cities.

  24. @Anthony. I can see the Twizzy (poor name however) being a useful vehicle in a congested urban area like Tokyo (which I have been to in 2004) or London or Paris or used as a grounds vehicle at a resort like Sandals. However as the occupants are open to the elements it would not be a practical car in Minnesota. I am way more likely to buy a more conventionally styled 4 wheels on the ground type vehicle and even convertibles are fine as long as you can put the top up on them in order to not get wet. I do not necessarily dislike small vehicles only ones that are totally impractical by my standards. Over 20 years ago I even owned a 1978 Volkswagen Rabbit.

  25. Mark you can trash these vehicles or proposed concepts all day but in the end its just your personal choice and no one "really" needs to know unless its constructive criticism.
    AS pointed out you choose a conventional approach while others like to push the envelope. Pushing the boundaries is how we have advanced through the ages not by accepting the norm and standing still. These developing concepts are not for everyone just as a motorcycle isn't but like the bike are conceived and designed specifically for a purpose and our evolving needs.

  26. @Mark... the Carver tilting system is not really that complicated and banking into a turn is more natural than sitting upright in a four wheel car being thrown sideways by g forces.
    We naturally lean into turns when running,biking,flying,skating,skiing,etc. so sitting upright in a car being thrown in the opposite direction when cornering is the minority.Instead of a design like the Smart with all its foibles a narrow tilting enclosed trike is a better design.You have handling of a sports car,small footprint where two can run side by side in the space of a conventional car and ability to get through narrow gaps in the city.Finally the sheer thrill and fun of the driving experience of banking into a fast turn à la big bike, I would buy one!

  27. To all-Its nice to see so many people out there interested in the Aptera vehicle. I agree this is a niche vehicle and our goal right now is focussed in one direction, prove we are right, that we can produce the current version by manufacturing the vehicle in China and to quality control, assemble and sell from the US. The version we will produce will have later modifications but we do not want to overthink this but instead we want to show we can make this vision a reality not just a dream. When you have hundres of these cars on the road we will make modifications on such issues as weight. But remember what makes this car work is its light and aerodynamic. Yes, a little space like, but so are so many concept cars made over the years.

  28. Unlike most concept cars where one or two cars ever see an auto show, this vehicle will be available for those special people who want to join the ranks of a truly unique and vibrant alternative to the typical boxy electric cars being produced in the market today. This is a pioneering venture but one that has wings and our job is to make sure that the goals of those in California who designed this vehicle see their dream come alive. We at Aptera USA are committed to this process and we are a group of experience business professionals dedicated to success. Now lets get this vehicle on the road and than all can critique the results, but of a built version. Rick rderinger@apterausa.com

  29. Rick,
    I look forward to seeing it on the road. I have loved the Aptera since the beginning.
    Best of Luck.
    John C. Briggs

  30. I have not been a support of this car as it looks way to futuristic for the main stream. At a $25,000 price point however it becomes more interesting as with a $7500 tax credit that car is now $17,500 which is starting to get into a really great price range! All in all, I totally support EVs and hope the market grows a great day as you know John! I'm an Advocate! Long Live EVs! Thanks for the article John!

  31. The reason I think the Aptera will sell better than most EV's is not the love it or hate it styling but the price and mainly the astounding efficiency. The current crop of put an electric motor in a traditional car chassis EV's fall short because their 80-100 MPGe is overshadowed by range anxiety and battery cost. With the Aptera's 200+ MPGe it gets people thinking about the true bottom line of car ownership. Lets say you purchase an Toyota Camry for $22000 drove it for 150,000 miles your fuel cost for $3.50 gas would be $16500. Total ownership cost $38,500. Same for an $17500 after tax rebate Aptera, plus the $2650 for fuel cost puts ownership at $20,150. Difference of $18,350. Not even mentioning vastly reduced maintenance cost for an EV.

  32. How can you possibly compete with the Elio? Your price is 8 times higher?????????????

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