200mph, 700bhp …. and 95mpg

April 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

If ever there were an invention guaranteed to enrage the car-hating lobby, you might think this would be it. It is a Porsche — the brand that in the 1980s became as synonymous with excess as red braces and bottles of Bolly. And with the price close to £700,000 you’ll need a City whiz-kid’s salary to buy it. Plus it comes with a V8 engine and 762bhp — enough to upset a whole colony of polar bears.

So far, so standard. But this car also has such low emissions that it will be exempt from the London congestion charge and road tax and — assuming funding is still on offer — be available to millionaire buyers at a £5,000 discount, courtesy of the government’s plug-in car grant. It’s enough to have environmentalists short-circuiting.

Called the 918 Spyder, it is a genuinely new thing: a green, plug-in hybrid supercar. Porsche knows it too: there’s a digital clock above the door of Dr Frank Steffen Walliser, the man behind the project, counting the days until its launch on September 18, 2013, and, according to Porsche engineers, it has been assembled with the tightest security they have experienced.

So it is with some trepidation that I strap myself into the low seat with a four-point safety harness. The car doesn’t look much: more a bolted-together collection of parts from the workshop floor than a sleek supercar with the price of a Mayfair flat. According to my driver, Holger Bartels, Porsche’s development engineer, this prototype is aimed at testing cutting-edge hardware, not turning heads. Styling will come later.

In any case, the bald figures are impressive enough. Porsche claims the car can manage the equivalent of 94mpg — better than almost any other car on the market today. It emits just 70g/km of carbon dioxode (less than the Toyota Prius) but has a top speed of more than 203mph and can accelerate to 62mph in less than three seconds — which puts it in the same performance bracket as the 13.2mpg Lamborghini Aventador. That said, the economy figure for the Porsche, as for other hybrids, benefits from the official testing method: fuel consumption is measured over only a few miles, which gives disproportionate emphasis to the car’s electric mode.

Porsche can nevertheless claim genuinely impressive performance and economy figures because the 918 doesn’t just have one motor, like a standard car, or even two, like a conventional hybrid, but three. There is the V8 petrol engine that can spin at up to 9000rpm (the fastest for a road-going Porsche), which is derived from a similar unit found in the company’s LMP2 Le Mans racing car. On its own it is capable of producing 562bhp.

There’s also an 80kW electric motor at the front of the car, powering the front wheels, and a 90kW electric motor, positioned alongside the V8 engine, driving the back wheels. The electric motors and petrol engine can operate on their own or in combination, allowing performance and economy to be tailored to suit the driving conditions. Not surprising, then, that controlling the three units takes the computing power of an unprecedented 55 ECUs (electronic control units). In full cry, with the engine and motors operating together, the 918 produces more than 762bhp, along with 552 lb ft of torque — Porsche says the exact figures have yet to be confirmed.

But we are going to start off slowly. Bartels sets the dial on the rough and ready dashboard to E-Power mode (one of five modes that determine how power is delivered). On this setting the car will run solely on the electric motors, powered by the 6.8kWh lithium-ion battery. Used on their own, the two motors give the car a range of 16 miles if you drive carefully — but substantially less if you drive fast — a top speed of 93mph and a 0-62mph acceleration time of 5.9 seconds.

Bartels demonstrates the electric-only acceleration by flooring the throttle. It’s a strange sensation to be propelled forward so rapidly without the usual engine roar. Instead, there’s a whine that rises in pitch. Yet even in this milk-float mode, the 918 accelerates faster than all but the hottest of hot hatches.

The 918 Spyder is built from carbon fibre, partly in an effort to keep the weight down, partly because it gives a stiffer structure (better for roadholding and safety) and partly because, well, it’s what the world’s wealthiest car collectors expect. The carbon echoes and amplifies the whirring sound from the electric motors. After being pushed back in my seat by the surge of acceleration, I half expect the car to have blown its party trick and to throttle back to a more restrained pace. But there are four more driving modes to play with.

Next, Bartels selects Hybrid mode. This allows the mid-mounted V8 engine to kick in when needed, but with an emphasis still on efficiency. When it does, the noise is unlike anything I’ve experienced in a Porsche. The company’s last supercar, the Carrera GT, had a V10 motor that howled like a banshee. This V8 doesn’t sound particularly tuneful, because the exhausts exit from the top of the engine to keep them away from the heat-sensitive battery pack, which needs to be kept close to 20C.

A turn of a dial and the Porsche is set to Sport Hybrid mode. Somewhere in the depths of the engine the configuration is changed again, so now the car is powered mainly by the V8, with the electric motors cutting in only under heavy acceleration to provide a short, sharp power boost.

By now I’m grateful for the bucket seats and harnesses. Because the 918 Spyder’s seats are so low — 30mm lower to the ground than in the Carrera GT — it seems to grip the road and bounces from apex to apex with barely any perceptible body roll. This is partly because of another innovation: an electrically operated rear-wheel steering system that allows the rear wheels to turn by up to five degrees in bends when cornering. At low speeds, the system steers the rear wheels in the opposite direction to the front; at higher speeds it steers the rear wheels in the same direction as the front, reducing the tendency for oversteer.

Bartels seems to be having the time of his life, spinning the steering wheel and crunching the throttle and brake pedals (like all hybrids, the Porsche has regenerative braking, encouraging you to brake hard: the more you slow down, the faster the battery recharges).

There are two remaining settings that I don’t get to experience. Race Hybrid delivers maximum continuous electric performance, using the V8 engine to charge the battery rapidly when the driver isn’t utilising all its power. Then, for hotshot drivers, there’s the Hot Lap button in the middle of the dial. This works much like the Kers button does on a modern Formula One car, giving bursts of maximum electric power to complement the V8 engine, but quickly draining the battery.

As I clamber out of the car, I reflect that it is truly one of the most remarkable pieces of engineering I’ve sat in. It’s fast, it’s clever and, assuming Porsche can translate the prototype technology to the production line, it’s a game changer.

There is just one problem — its weight. All the hybrid technology is heavy, particularly the battery, and the car has crept up from an envisaged 1,490kg (when the concept car was revealed in 2010) to 1,675kg. That’s nearly 300kg more than the Carrera GT that it will replace next year and means it inevitably loses some of the driving dynamics for which Porsche is famous.

Then again, given the seriousness with which Porsche is taking its supercar, don’t be surprised if, come September 18, 2013, the 918 has been on a high-speed diet.

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