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Speed Freaks: The 10 Fastest Green Cars on the Planet

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Old 05-21-2008
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Speed Freaks: The 10 Fastest Green Cars on the Planet
: Photo: Karl JacobAmong old-school gearheads, conventional wisdom is that gasoline is where the fun is, was and always will be (until the pumps run dry). Alternative-fuel automobiles -- hybrids, diesels, electrics and the like -- are dorky, cumbersome and slow. But a growing body of evidence suggests environmental consciousness doesn't have to mean boring. To wit: 10 cars -- funky, fun and each the fastest for its power source, from an American-built ethanol-fueled roadster that runs like the wind, to a three-seat urban buggy from France that runs on the wind.
Left: Here's proof that the farmer and the racer should be friends. Chicago-based mod shop SVS Power decided to demonstrate that when it comes to performance potential, premium-grade gasoline has nothing on corn-derived E85 (a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, currently available at close to 1,200 U.S. gas stations).
The company took a 2005 Dodge Viper roadster, upgraded its already-fearsome 8.3-liter V-10 with twin turbochargers, and modified the fuel and engine-management systems to run on ethanol. The result: a street-legal, 1200-horsepower animal that positively smashed the standing-mile speed record (which had belonged, coincidentally, to a highly modified, gasoline-powered Viper coupe).
Power: ethanol
Top Speed: 220.7 mph
: Photo: British Steam Car ChallengePoised to break a 101-year-old speed record (127.659 mph) set by a Stanley Steamer on the sands of Daytona Beach, this steam-powered racer is appropriately named Inspiration. If the car's slick looks aren't enough to silence doubters, the Inspiration's pedigree speaks for itself: It's built by the team that created the first land vehicle to break the sound barrier, the twin-jet-engined ThrustSSC.
Within this single-seater's carbon-fiber-and-aluminum body, water flows into a liquid-propane steam generator, where it's pressurized to 500 psi and superheated to 725 degrees Fahrenheit. From there it spins a two-stage Curtis turbine to more than 12,000 rpm. The result? At least 300 horsepower. Which should be sufficient to slingshot the Inspiration past 200 mph when -- if development goes well -- it reaches Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats next year.
Power: steam (via liquid-propane)
Top Speed: 215 mph (est.)
: Photo: Ford Motor CompanyPower: Hydrogen fuel cell
Top Speed: 207.3 mph
From out of left field, the Ford Motor Company rolls out this demonstration of its commitment to (or at least PR-driven interest in) the future of hydrogen-powered vehicles. Touted as the "world’s first production-based hydrogen-fuel-cell race car," the Fusion 999 is named for Henry Ford's own 1904 land-speed-record car, the "999."
The Fusion is a true group effort: design work by Ford engineers, fabrication and assembly by Roush Racing, fuel cells by Ballard Power Systems, and a 770-horsepower electric motor from a troupe of engineering students at Ohio State University. The OSU students brought a 315-mph battery-powered blur called the Buckeye Bullet to Bonneville in 2004, and they're currently developing (with Ford's assistance) the fuel-cell-powered Buckeye Bullet 2.
Power: hydrogen fuel cell
Top Speed: 207.3 mph
: Photo: Audi MotorsportLong a purveyor of diesel-powered (and by extension, biodiesel-powered) passenger cars, German luxury automaker Audi raised plenty of eyebrows in the motor-sports community when it replaced its all-conquering, gasoline-powered R8 prototype endurance racer with the biodiesel-fueled R10 TDI.
Skepticism has long since given way to adulation, as Audi's diesel masterpiece -- powered by a 650-horsepower, 5.5-liter, twin-turbocharged direct-injection V-12 -- has eclipsed its predecessor in almost every way. Running on a special race-formulation biodiesel developed in conjunction with Shell, the R10 easily whuffed past the 200-mph mark on the famed Mulsanne Straight on its way to victories in the 2006 and 2007 Le Mans 24 Hour races. And you thought diesel was just for dump trucks.
Power: biodiesel
Top Speed: 204.5 mph
: Photo: ToyotaTopping Al Gore III's 100-mph allegedly doobie-fueled sprint in a production Prius, Toyota's own Landspeed Prius cracked the hybrid speed record on a run at Bonneville. Starting with the car's stock Hybrid Synergy Drive system -- a 1.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine and 50 kw permanent-magnet electric motor -- the Toyota team gave the transmission a taller final-drive ratio and beefed up the inverter charge from 500 to 550 volts. With lowered suspension, roll cage and moon-disked wheels, the 130-mph Landspeed Prius looks, dare we say, almost sexy.
It's worth noting, however, that the $104,000 Lexus LS600hL, which packs a 438-horsepower V-8-based hybrid system, is capable (says the company) of 170 mph. But it's electronically governed to 130 mph in the United States.
Power: gasoline-electric hybrid
Top Speed: 130.8 mph
: Photo: Tesla MotorsIt may have an extension cord, but the Tesla Roadster is nobody's golf cart. Jointly designed with British sports-car maker Lotus, the Tesla picks up -- in spirit, at least -- where GM's innovative but ill-fated EV1 coupe left off in 2002. The vehicle's powertrain comprises a 248-horsepower electric motor, more than 6800 laptop-style lithium-ion batteries and a two-speed manual transmission.
The 2,700-pound Tesla will find 60 mph in a Ferrari-esque four seconds and quietly press on to a deeply illegal top speed -- all the while returning the equivalent of 135 mpg. Perhaps most amazing: For $98,000, the stunning Tesla Roadster can be yours. But you'll also need a good deal of patience: The first year's production is sold out, and the preferred wait list is now more than 10 months long.
Power:Plug-in Electric
Top Speed:130 mph+ (est.)
: Photo: Hans Peter van VelthovenThe Nuna4 is fourth in a line of single-seat racers built to conquer the annual Panasonic World Solar Challenge, an 1,865-mile sprint across Australia's vast sun-soaked outback. The three-wheeled Nuna4's 65-square-foot upper surface is encrusted with 2,318 photovoltaic cells. The cells charge a 66-pound lithium-polymer battery pack, which juices a 7.5-horsepower direct-drive electric motor in the rear wheel.
To sustain 80 mph, the Nuna4 (a slight 420 pounds, plus driver) uses no more electricity than a household vacuum cleaner. Its alien design is the work of 11 students at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, where people know the importance of maximizing the sun's rays. This year's Solar Challenge gets underway on Oct. 21, springtime Down Under.
Power: Solar
Top Speed: 80 mph (est.)
: Photo: Volvo Cars of North AmericaLooking for all the world like a soapbox derby racer for the 21st century, Volvo's wind-tunnel-shaped Aria rolled to victory in the 2005 Extreme Gravity Race. Nine feet long, three feet wide and controlled by a fully recumbent driver, the four-wheeled Aria features feather-light fiberglass bodywork over a stiff tubular-steel chassis.
The engineless Aria is handily capable of 50-plus mph, so the driver is fortunately protected by an array of safety equipment, including five-point racing harness, full roll cage, and fade-free ceramic brakes. This is, after all, a Volvo.
Power: gravity
Top Speed: 54 mph
: Photo: HumanCar, Inc.The lovechild of a railroad handcar and a rowing machine, the FM-4 HumanCar is the inspired creation of Seattle-based hot-rodder and engineer Charles Greenwood. The open-air FM-4 (Fully Manual 4-passenger) features a steel-tube chassis that's strong enough to carry 1,000 pounds, and it's rated (optimistically) to a top speed of 100 mph.
A bi-motion transmission converts oscillatory motion (rowing action) into rotational motion, turning the wheels fast enough to allow the HumanCar and a determined crew to keep up with urban traffic. To steer, occupants lean left or right, motorcycle-style, which actuates the steering mechanism and turns the front wheels. Greenwood is currently accepting pre-orders on the production model, which will be priced somewhere between $5,000 and $17,000. Eat your Wheaties, commuters: This is really a muscle car.
Power: human
Top Speed: 30 mph cruising / 50+ mph downhill (est.)
: Photo: Venturi AutomobilesFurther evidence that the French do things differently, the three-passenger Eclectic urban runabout, from boutique automaker Venturi, arrives (quietly) as the world's first fully autonomous automobile. Inspired by NASA's Lunar Rover, the loony Eclectic uses a single 22-horsepower electric motor to drive the rear wheels.
A petite, roof-mounted wind turbine (use only when stationary) and photovoltaic cells that line the translucent, canopy-style roof team up to charge 240 pounds of nickel-metal-hydride batteries. For calm and cloudy days, however, the Eclectic can also plug into a standard household outlet. Unfortunately, the Eclectic is speed-governed to just 50 km/h (31 mph), and its modest, 30-mile range will keep road trips on the short side. It's on sale now in France, priced at about $33,000. Sun and wind not included.
Power: wind / solar
Top Speed: 31 mph (electronically limited)

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