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Charging Forward

Patrick C. Paternie

At Porsche, a marque that has been building variations on the same 911 model year after year for nearly five decades, history tends to repeat. But no true car enthusiast would ever complain about that annual exercise in déjà vu. And certainly none was griping in March, when the carmaker unveiled the 918 Spyder Concept at the Geneva International Motor Show and thereby triggered flashbacks to 1975.

That year marked the first time worldwide concerns about auto emissions and fuel conservation seriously threatened the future of high-performance sports cars. Porsche responded with the 930, a turbocharged version of the 911 that harnessed exhaust gases to provide a performance jolt so stunning and powerful that the term turbocharged became synonymous with exceptional strength and was adopted by the advertising industry to hawk everything from laundry detergent to vacuum cleaners.

Thirty-five years later, high-performance sports cars again appear to be an endangered species as automakers hedge their future in a carbon-conscious world by developing both hybrid and electric-powered vehicles that, with a few exceptions, are directed toward commuters, not driving enthusiasts. This time, Porsche’s response is not quite as contrary as it was 35 years ago, but it is nonetheless bold.

In concept form, the 918 Spyder is a two-seat, high-performance sports car that can combine both electric and gas propulsion to produce about 720 hp while also squeezing approximately 78 miles from a gallon of fuel and exhaling considerably less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than that icon of the green automobile movement, the Toyota Prius (70 grams per kilometer versus 89 grams per kilometer, as measured by the New European Driving Cycle test). Porsche emphasizes that all of those figures are subject to change for the production version of the car.

If enthusiasts do have any complaints about Porsche or the 918 Spyder, those grumbles will likely involve the car’s arrival time. Porsche has not announced any specific plans, but most speculation points to 2014 as the production start date, to 1,000 cars as the production limit, and to about $650,000 as the price—perhaps less a $7,500 federal tax credit like that being offered to Chevrolet Volt buyers.

It stands to reason that Porsche would build a superior green car, when you consider the brand has a hybrid-engineering pedigree that stretches back more than a century. In 1899, the marque’s namesake, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, developed a zero-emissions vehicle while working for Viennese coachbuilder Jacob Lohner. It featured hub-mounted electric motors powered by batteries. A year later, Porsche added a gasoline engine—a supplemental generator for the batteries—and the Lohner-Porsche Mixte Hybrid was introduced. The vehicle, sold with a two-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive configuration, remained in production for about five years. It weighed more than 3,000 pounds and was propelled by no more than 14 hp from the batteries.

The 918 Spyder derives considerably more muscle from its three electric motors (one for each of the front wheels and one for the rear axel); together they produce 218 hp. The motors can power the 918 on their own or in conjunction with the gasoline engine, which is mounted mid-chassis to optimize the car’s handling balance.

The gasoline powerplant reflects another part of the company’s heritage: endurance racing. The 3.4-liter V-8 does more than simply charge the battery cells for the electric motors. It generates more than 500 hp, which, when combined with the maximum electrical-power output, transforms the 918 Spyder into an approximately 720 hp rocket.

When it goes into production, the 918 Spyder will join a lineup that already includes the 911 GT3 R Hybrid racecar and the 2011 Cayenne S Hybrid high-performance luxury SUV. Porsche also is experimenting with three different electric-drive versions of its Boxster sports car.

But for now, if you will pardon the expression, all of the buzz surrounds the 918 Spyder, which in some respects can be considered the successor to the Carrera GT supercar that Porsche produced from 2004 to 2006. Porsche ceased production after building 1,259 examples (618 of which came to the United States), claiming that new U.S. air bag regulations necessitated an extensive redesign of the model that would have made manufacture infeasible.

A comparison between the Carrera GT and the 918 Spyder reveals how far Porsche’s ultimate expression of road-car engineering has evolved in the last 10 years, since 2000, when the Carrera GT made its debut as a concept at the Paris Motor Show.

Both cars are mid-engine two-seaters meant primarily for open-cockpit motoring, hence the Spyder designation in the 918’s moniker. The Carrera GT was the offshoot of a car originally developed to race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, until budget constraints curtailed the racing program. The Carrera GT featured a 5.7-liter V-10 that produced 604 hp at 8,000 rpm and drove the rear wheels via a 6-speed manual transmission. A carbon-fiber monocoque chassis that originated with the racecar made the Carrera GT lightweight (3,042 pounds) yet extremely rigid.

Although the 918 Spyder emphasizes a carbon-conscious conscience, racing also plays a key role in its design. The side-exit exhausts and the lower rear air diffuser, for example, are obvious transfers from racecar to road car. Porsche says the overall styling and shape of the 918 are reminiscent of the 917, its legendary endurance racer that gained renown for more than its extensive racing credentials when it costarred with Steve McQueen in the 1971 film Le Mans.

The 918’s monocoque body is made of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic (CFP), magnesium, and aluminum, making it stiff and nearly as light as the Carrera GT; it weighs 3,285 pounds, just 243 pounds more than the Carrera GT. This is a remarkable feat considering the 918 Spyder’s more complex power train and the weight of the components that Porsche had to add to meet current safety regulations.

The 918 Spyder’s gasoline engine comes directly from Porsche’s latest prototype endurance racer, the RS Spyder, which amassed an impressive string of victories in the American Le Mans Series under the direction primarily of Roger Penske’s racing organization. Porsche has yet to announce the specifics of the V-8 that it will place in the production-series car, but the 918 Spyder’s 3.4-liter, 504 hp V-8 has a maximum redline of 9,200 rpm, and, per 2009 American Le Mans Series rules, it features an intake air restrictor. The engine is equipped with direct fuel injection and is tuned to burn, as required by the rules, E10 or any other non-gas fuel containing 10 percent bioethanol.

Just as the 5.5-liter V-10 in the Carrera GT concept car was expanded to 5.7 liters in the production car, this V-8 probably will undergo some changes before a production version of the 918 Spyder reaches showrooms. But for now, Porsche remains reticent about the engine and many other production-car specifics.

It is likely that the transmission will be the company’s highly regarded 7-speed Porsche Doppelkupplung (PDK), with which the concept car is equipped. It transmits both the power of the V-8 and the rear-drive electric motor to the rear wheels. Electric power is delivered to the front wheels via direct drive.

The fluid-cooled lithium-ion battery cells located behind the passenger compartment supply power to the electric motors; you can recharge the cells by plugging the car into an electrical outlet. And when you drive the car, braking creates kinetic energy that is converted into electric energy, which is cycled back to the battery cells for continuous charging.

In the cockpit, an arch-shaped center console houses a touchscreen with which you control such features as the Range Manager. The Range Manager is linked to the navigation system and allows you to select the optimal power source for reaching your destination.

The car has four power options. The E-Drive mode utilizes electric power only and offers a range as far as 16 miles. The standard Hybrid mode uses both electric and combustion-engine power. The Sport Hybrid setting engages both systems, but it directs most of the power to the rear wheels. That is when the Porsche Torque Vectoring (PTV) system demonstrates its value. It monitors the steering angle and yaw by selectively applying braking to the inside wheels while cornering to keep the rear wheels in line and thus eliminate understeer. The system first appeared on the 2010 911 Turbo, and the current 2011 Cayenne models feature a version of this system that has been modified to accommodate the SUV’s heavier weight. The system is also available as an option on the Panamera models.

The fourth option is Race Hybrid. In this mode, you can experience the kick of E-Boost, which is similar to what IndyCar racing fans know as the push-to-pass button. Assuming the battery cells are sufficiently charged, pressing the E-Boost button summons a surge of electric power that you can use to overtake another car on the track or just to widen the grin on your face.

Patrick Long, the young American Porsche race driver who has spent considerable track time utilizing a similar system in the 911 GT3 RS Hybrid, says the intensity of the E-Boost power surge depends on the car’s steering angle and speed; all of the power may arrive when the wheels are pointed straight ahead, but the car’s computer system will limit the surge if the car is turning through a corner.

You select the power source by pushing a button on the steering wheel, a husky-rimmed, three-spoke component with a green racing-style stripe that lies vertical when the wheels are aimed straight ahead. The steering wheel is equipped with large paddle shifters instead of the ergonomically challenging push buttons that you find in other Porsches.

Porsche claims that the 918 Spyder has a top speed of 198 mph and is 0.3 seconds quicker than the Carrera GT in the zero-to-62-mph sprint, reaching that speed in 3.2 seconds. Even more impressive, the 918 Spyder completed a lap around the treacherous Nordschleife loop of the Nürburgring faster than the Carrera GT did.

Remember, this is from a car that, in concept at least, gets better gas mileage and emits less carbon dioxide than the Prius. So when it does go into production, the 918 Spyder is sure to add another exciting, if not novel, chapter to Porsche’s history.

Porsche, www.porsche.com

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