Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Sexy Green Car Show

Last month saw the return of The Sexy Green Car Show. More than a dozen major motor manufacturers descended on The Eden Project in Cornwall to demonstrate how they have selflessly and tirelessly devoted their time to saving the planet.

However, if you peel back the silly name and ignore the eco do-gooding, then it’s worth taking note of what remains. Even though nobody really knows what effect (if any) human beings have on the environment, the increased cost of motoring is depressingly real. A large part of this is due to the government jumping on the green bandwagon as a means of taxation. However, there are also genuine fears about the future availability of oil and the growing cost of extracting it.

Scarce or very expensive oil would pose an obvious problem to the enthusiast, but that’s where the ‘sexy green cars’ come in. Whilst I’m not sure anything will ever compete with the burble of a TVR V8 or the scream of a Ferrari V12, the basic concept will remain as long as there are four wheels and some form of motive power.

So - to the show… and frankly a lot of the cars on offer aren’t really that sexy. There’s the likes of the Citroen Grand Picasso and Peugeot 107. Hmm. However, there are some genuinely exciting cars here too. Take Lotus’ tri-fuel Exige, for instance. As well as conventional petrol it can run on bioethanol, methanol or any combination of the three. Despite a ‘carbon cycle corrected CO2 output’ (from the point the fuel is grown to when it’s burnt) of just 100 g/km, it actually produces slightly more power than the standard car. It does so, thanks to ethanol’s higher octane number reducing the tendency to knock, and its increased heat capacity cooling combustion.

For those who like their track machinery even more focused, Lola were on hand with the D1 biodiesel powered Le Mans car. It uses a 5 litre V10, based on the Volkswagen Touareg’s powerplant – no mean feat in itself. However, the interesting part is its fuel. It comes not from the usual sources of canola or soya beans – both of which compete for space with food production – but from the jatropha, a tree capable of growing in areas unsuitable for normal crops. Performance is predictably brisk with a top speed in excess of 200mph and it's hoped the car will compete with Audi’s diesel racer, the R10 Tdi.

At the other end of the scale, Axon Automotive were displaying their new (and as yet unnamed) hatchback. It uses a recycled carbon fibre skin around a foam core to produce a very light, tough car. With so little weight to carry around, the Axon is expected to return sub-80g/km CO2 emissions and over 100mpg even with a conventional petrol engine. Straight line performance, meanwhile, is said to be comparable to the MINI One.

What’s ‘sexy’ about Axon then? Well, the hatchback will be competing with mainstream city cars, which is a courageously bold move for an unknown company. It also proves that lightweight composite construction can be made to work economically. But currently the most exciting thing about Axon for the keen driver is their other project, the Eco-M.

It’s a special edition of the Caterham Roadsport that uses weight saving materials, aerodynamic drag reduction and low rolling resistance tyres to improve economy. It follows on from their Caterham-based 2007 eco-marathon winner, which achieved an incredible 131mpg under controlled conditions. Figures for the road car won’t be that high, but it’s said to reduce fuel consumption by around 20% in real world driving. Whatsmore, the idea of a perfectly balanced, rear wheel drive Caterham running on rock-hard, skinny tyres is sure to appeal to the hooligan within any car enthusiast.

Amongst the traditional (even ‘old fashioned’) internal combustion engined designs sat a futuristic expression of high technology from the Morgan Motor Company. Yes, that's right – that Morgan. It seems the Barbour jackets and flat caps are a thing of the past in Malvern. The company's trademark retro style remains however and the Life Car with its gorgeous art-deco lines is, if anything, a more coherent design than their other recent attempts. Under the skin sits an aluminium monocoque and double whishbone suspension, similar to the setup on the firm's Aero 8 sports car. Except, the Life Car only weighs 650kg and there's the small matter of hydrogen fuel cell power.

Electricity produced by the fuel cell (at around 45% efficiency) is fed to the wheels via four chassis-mounted electric motors. When they're not in use, the polarity is reversed for regenerative braking, which charges a bank of lightweight 'ultra capacitors', capable of supplying up to 1000 amps in short bursts. This enables the Life Car to cover the 0 to 60mph dash in less than 7 seconds. Top speed is somewhat more restricted at 85mph, but it does have a very credible 250 mile range, all the while emitting nothing more harmful than water and heat.

So, proof that there is a future for the car enthusiast, whatever the verdict on issues like climate change. As for whether or not the claims of human influence on climate change are justified or reversible, that remains to be seen. If, in a decade’s time, the whole debate is remembered as the 'great global warming swindling' and there’s a resurgence in big petrol V8s, then the green concepts of the noughties may be seen as technological curiosities. If not, they may just be seen as the saviours of the performance car. Only time will tell.

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