Last week we listed seven of the most bizarre "green" cars (and some not-so-green) of the 20th century, most of which were rolled out in response to depression, war recovery, or out-of-control gas prices.
This week, we'll look at seven more from the 21st century, which seems to have had a concentrated share of attempts at innovation in response to war in the Middle East, high gas prices, and deep recession.
One notable difference is that this century's cars mostly run on electricity, or at least offer an electric option.
They're hardly any more normal, though.
Most are answers to a question that few people ask, but one which Dan Sturges, the designer of the "trans2," the progenitor of our first oddball car this week asks continually: "Why does everybody need a 3,000-pound car capable of driving 70 mph on the highway for hours on end just to go to the store and pick up a few bags of groceries."
We don't know, Dan, but we're not sure whether any of these cars are the answer, either.
Early GEM e2
The G.E.M., for Global Electric Motors, is perhaps the original bizarre green car of the 21st century, even though it was conceived in the 1990s and may be the most commercially successful car on our list.
It was G.E.M. that lobbied the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to create a whole new category of cars designated as Low Speed Vehicles (more commonly known as Neighborhood Electric Vehicles) that have seat belts, windshields and wipers, lights, and turn signals, but can't go faster than 25 mph. The plan was to get regulations revised to allow them on roads with speed limits up to 35 mph so the neighborhood cars could travel between neighborhoods, but not on highways. That law was never passed federally, though most states now allow it.
In the end, G.E.M. has sold more than 50,000 of the vehicles sometimes derided as "glorified golf carts" in two-passenger pickup, four-passenger, and six-passenger configurations, with doors or without. Some stand in for regular cars in gated neighborhoods, many more serve as transit shuttles or gardening carts at resorts.
Now owned by snowmobile and off-road machine maker Polaris, G.E.M. sells the cars with batteries good for up to 100 miles.
The Tango is designed to solve traffic congestion as well as to save energy. In profile, you could mistake it for any other tiny car—until you start to walk around the front or back. The Tango is so narrow—3 foot, 3 inches—that you can fit two to a lane, or a parking space. Two passengers sit front to back. When the car entered the Automotive X Prize, it was called the "two-dimensional car."
The Tango's maker, Commuter Cars, calls it "arguably the safest car on the road" despite not having air bags or being crash tested. Partly that's because in when the car entered the Automotive X Prize competition, it was able to complete the "moose test" avoidance maneuver administered by Consumer Reports faster than any other car or motorcycle in the competition. The safest accident is one you don't get into.
How is such a narrow car not tippy? It's 2,000-pound battery pack sits under the floor, 4 inches off the ground. Commuter Cars claims it has the lowest center of gravity of any car on the market. It's tubular roll bar passed muster with the FIA race agency that sanctions Formula One.
The Tango has two 100-hp electric locomotive motors with 1,500 ft.-pounds of torque each. It will hit 60 mph from a standing start in 3.2 seconds.
The Tango sells for $240,000—without the battery. Various size lithium-iron phosphate batteries are available that can give the car from 60 to 240 miles of range at 60 mph. The batteries sell for an additional $5,000 to $20,000, or Commuter Cars will rent them for $75 to $300 a month.
The company has sold 12 Tangos, but says it has a waiting list for more than 2,000 at lower prices. Actor George Clooney reportedly bought one. The Tango is street legal in Washington state (where it is built), California, New Zealand, and Australia.
Peraves E-Tracer, winner of Progressive Automotive X-Prize. Photo: Stefano Paris.
The Peraves MonoRacer is an enclosed motorcycle, with a side-tilting cockpit door overhead and outrigger wheels on each side that the driver deploys at low speeds to keep the vehicle from tipping over. Passengers sit front to back, like a motorcycle, but can't put their feet down at stops. Peraves started building these enclosed bikes with BMW motorcycle engines in Switzerland in 1987, and originally called them the MonoTracers, after their mono-track wheel layout.
Peraves converted two of its bikes to electric power to enter into the X Prize and won the prize for the alternative tandem class, achieving more than 100 MPGe, which seemed like an accomplishment a couple of years before the first electric cars hit the market. Originally called the e-Tracer, the electric bikes are now sold simply as the MonoRacer electric. It costs about $100,000, and Peraves has built about 10.
Using a 20-kwh battery and a 200-hp electric motor, they can go up to 180 miles on a charge. Passengers inside even get heated leather seats, air conditioning, and a stereo. When Peraves tried to import one to the United States, it got hung up in customs by the EPA. Now that the company has been bought by Czech investors, the original MonoTracer has dropped its "T" to become the MonoRacer.
Aptera 2e production intent vehicle
Aptera Motors started out as a California startup company that was planning on building a three-wheeled electric car that looked like a Cessna cabin on wheels, to sell as a motorcycle. The company was far enough along on the car's development when the Automotive X Prize started in 2010 that many observers thought it would be a shoe-in to win the competition—that is, until the door flew open in the "moose test" avoidance maneuver when the driver was thrown sideways and the latch didn't hold.
The company was also one of the most famous failures of the government Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing program. Although Aptera's main model, known mostly as the 2e, was designed with three wheels so it could qualify as a motorcycle and not be subject to safety regulations designed for cars, Aptera applied for the ATVM loans, and reportedly received approval for them. The loans required that the company make the car compliant with all federal safety standards, which is a notoriously expensive proposition, as well as to raise $80 million in matching private investments. Although Aptera said it had 5,000 customers who had put down deposits, it was unable to raise the matching private funds before it ran out of money.
Scoot Quad (nee Renault Twizy) tested in San Francisco, Oct 2015
Renault calls the Twizy, with its two tandem seats (or one and a trunk), and four wheels a quadricycle. Two versions are available, one, basically for children without a driver's license has 5 hp and can reach a top speed of 28 mph. Another, for $9,300 has 17 hp and can hit 50 mph. Perhaps that's when drivers will need the four-point seat belt in the Twizy. The car weighs just over 1,000 pounds. It's 54-inches wide, or almost 40 percent wider than the Tango.
Buyers can pick one up in Europe starting at about $8,200, but if you want a battery you'll have to pay extra. Renault leases the 56-mile, 6.1-kwh battery packs for 12, 24, or 36 months. It has sold more than 20,000 Twizys, including some in a car sharing fleet in southern France.
Not your typical Toyota, the iRoad is a tilting, rear-steering three-wheel single seater (or two-up in Europe) that leans in turns like a motorcycle. As it leans, the front wheels swivel up and down, complete with their little pointy-topped fenders. Made of carbon fiber reinforced plastic, it weighs just 600 pounds. At less than 3 feet wide, it's even narrower than the "two-dimensional" Tango.
Computers control the amount of lean, starting with none at low speeds. and working up to a pretty aggressive cornering angle nearer to the iRoad's top speed of 37 mph. Turn too hard when you're going too fast, and the steering wheel vibrates to warn that the car is in danger of falling over. It can turn in half the space it takes a Smart car.
So far iRoads are only used in a car sharing program at Toyota's Toyota City factory, as well as in Grenoble, France. The company hasn't released a target price and calls the car a "concept," though it has given demo rides.
Paul Elio with 5 successive prototype Elios
Paul Elio with 5 successive prototype Elios
The Elio brings us full circle back to the gas-powered bubble cars of Germany in the 1950s, designed to bring efficient, affordable transportation to the masses in the midst of the Great Recession in America. Ten years and a booming economy later, it's not clear how many of the masses are still waiting for the car to go into production, though the company claims to have 65,000 pre-orders.
Unlike many of the other bizarre green cars on our list, the Elio is powered by gasoline. It's expected to have a 3-cylinder engine that will give it up to 84 mpg on the highway and 49 in the city.
The most interesting thing about Elio is the way company founder Paul Elio has proposed to finance it. Initially, buyers were expected to make a small down payment for the $7,300 car and finance the rest by buying gas at marked up rates from Elio. Elio has acquired a former General Motors factory in Louisiana to build the car, but has been unable to raise financing to equip the factory. The latest gambit is to attract investors by issuing a new cryptocurrency.