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Consider this: It could be argued that we have reached the limit on performance from a gasoline internal combustion engine.
Currently, the most powerful street-legal production supercar is the Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport, which produces 1200 hp and 1106 lb-ft of torque at 3000 rpm. It has a 0-60 mph time of 2.6 seconds, which is about the same as an F1 car's. (The ultimate in power output is a top-fuel dragster, which produces up to 10,000 hp, but that engine lasts for only a few miles before it needs rebuilding. So let's stick to production cars.) Anyone who has driven a brutally powerful car like the Veyron knows that all that power is not easy to control. Modern electronic aids such as launch control make things easier, but unskilled drivers still get into trouble-numerous YouTube videos attest to that.
If we believe we've reached the limit for a drivable supercar powered by a gasoline engine, could an electric supercar outperform a gasoline-engine one? Is there reason to believe than an electric car, with its immediate torque availability, has a higher speed ceiling and will one day surpass gas-powered supercars?
Electric-powered racecars are beginning to make their mark. Sebastian Loeb might have won the famous Pikes Peak International Hill Climb this year in his 875-hp Peugeot, but an electric bike won the bike class for the first time, and the electric cars showed tremendous improvement in performance. Many Pikes Peak veterans, such as Rod Millen, who was driving a Toyota TMG EV P002 electric car this year, say an electric car will take the overall win sometime in the near future. (Pike's Peak is a special case, however, as the high altitude causes combustion engines to lose power as they climb. Electric cars have a special advantage here because they don't lose power.)
Off the Line
Anyone who drives a Chevrolet Spark EV or a Tesla Model S for the first time is amazed at the performance. It's because of the torque that's instantly available when you push the accelerator. Okay, the Spark EV is no sports car, but its 140-hp motor has a torque rating of 400 lb-ft, pitching it in the same league as a Ferrari 458 Italia. The top-of-the line Tesla Model S has a power output of 416 hp and a torque rating of 443 lb-ft at 0 rpm. Its 0-60 mph time might be only 4.6 seconds, but its midrange acceleration from 50 to 70 mph is on par with a Bugatti Veyron's.
For a performance car, an electric motor offers many advantages over a gasoline engine. Mitsubishi engineers, who brought two MiEV Evolution II electric cars to Pikes Peak, said that the linear torque curve of an EV makes it much easier to handle high output, and makes it easier to control wheel spin. Regenerative braking also helps decelerate the car, which puts less strain on the brake rotors and pads.
Steve Wickham, the project manager for Toyota's effort at Pikes Peak, agrees: "With current technology, the main advantage for an electric supercar would be in initial throttle application for launch and corner exit, and also the benefit in not having to change gears." EVs have some performance advantages in the packaging of components, too, he says. "These include aero[dynamics], as no combustion air is required, and also a lower center of gravity. Electric motors can be long and thin, keeping the mass down, and batteries can be kept very low with clever design such as Tesla has shown in the Model S." And, Wickham says, coming developments in more efficient electric motors and power inverters, which convert the battery's DC voltage to AC and vice versa, will edge power densities of an electric car closer to that of a high-end motorsport engine.
The biggest problem for an electric-powered supercar is range. (Though, if we're honest, most owners of supercars never drive their cars very far on any given trip.) For the near future, the range issue will be solved by hybridization. To Wickham, high-performance electric technology is currently best suited to work in conjunction with a high-boost combustion engine to get the best of both worlds, as evidenced by the new slate of hybrid sports cars and supercars. "This is illustrated in the McLaren P1 and also in the Jaguar Concept car CX-75, both of which marry a high boost turbo petrol engine with several hundred electric horsepower to fill in the turbo lag, and also give zero emissions capability for short durations."
As Fast as Gas?
When we asked Mitsubishi if it would be possible to build an electric supercar to beat a Bugatti Veyron, the engineers kindly ran some simulation data for us. They reckon "Bugatti performance can be achieved, perhaps with an enhancement on the motor as well as the battery pack based on what we used this year at Pikes Peak. Ultimately, the biggest challenge is the weight and the size of the car if we were to create an EV supercar that can put out this amount of power."
Is this all talk? No. In fact, there is already an electric supercar on the market: the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Electric Drive. It is based on the regular SLS AMG, with the gasoline engine replaced by four electric motors that produce 730 hp. Its performance is almost the same as that of the regular SLS AMG. Imagine if this car had been designed from the ground up as an all-electric supercar rather than being a conversion. Those who've driven the SLS AMG Electric Drive marvel at the way it handles, a result of precise control of the motors at each wheel. And the range, about 150 miles, is at least functional.
There is one common complaint with the electric SLS—it does not sound as exhilarating as the gasoline-powered version. Perhaps the lack of noise, and not the lack of range, will be the characteristic that lessens the appeal of an electric supercar even if it can deliver more performance.
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