Are Three Wheels Better Than Four? Aptera Says Yes.

Last Updated Mar 13, 2009 3:47 PM EDT

The weirdness starts with the name, Aptera 2e, and the car itself looks like something out of The Jetsons. But the battery-powered Aptera achieves the equivalent of 200 miles per gallon. It can reach 90 miles per hour and go 100 miles on a charge.

Did I mention that the Aptera only has three wheels?

That last point is important, because it makes the aerodynamic car, which resembles an airplane without wings, ineligible for the Department of Energy's $25 billion Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Program. So far, no carmaker has gotten a piece of the pie, but applying for millions from the fund is a ray of hope for many electric car startups and battery makers starved of cash today.

California-based Aptera says its car will be in production in the third quarter of this year. The company is giving me the keys to a 2e in New York next week. But before that a delegation is headed for Washington to "work with legislators" (ie, lobby) in support of a bill (sponsored by two home-state California Congressmen, Brian Bilbray and Adam Schiff) that would make all ultra-efficient vehicles eligible for DOE loans if they achieve the equivalent of 75 mpg, even three-wheeled ones.

It's a little more complicated than that. The Aptera's three-wheel design allow it to be classified as a motorcycle, and thus not required to meet rigorous safety standards. "The challenge of three-wheel cars is the majority of them are being made to circumvent safety regulations," Chelsea Sexton of Plug In America told USA Today.

To the contrary, Laura Marion, Aptera's chief financial officer, says the car is being built with three wheels not to evade safety rules, but because four means more contact with the road and more friction. The car was designed to meet all automobile safety standards, she said, and will be crash tested.

The car, priced somewhere between $25,000 and $40,000, does have airbags, a front crumple zone and a racecar-like passenger safety cell. Aptera President and CEO Paul Wilbur claims that it is "as safe as any car on the road." But the company doesn't have to prove that statement, and some say that gives it a competitive advantage.

The Aptera will initially be sold only in California. It weighs only 1,700 pounds, and the company says the three-wheel architecture greatly improves aerodynamics. Together, these two things add up to 25 percent better highway efficiency, Aptera engineers say. A series hybrid version is planned.

Putting three wheels on an economy car is not a new idea. The 1950s motorcycle-engined BMW Isetta, for instance, had two wheels in front, one in back. The entire front end, complete with windshield and steering wheel, was hinged to form the only door. BMW is now talking about a new Isetta with a rear engine. Another three-wheeler is the much-slower and cheaper ($11,700) Zap Xebra (40 mph, 25 miles of range). The snazzier and faster (105 mph, 100-mile range) three-wheeled Zap Alias is reportedly on the way.

Here's an Edmunds video that gives you a closer look at the 2e: