I am behind the wheel of Virginia Tech’s extended-range hybrid version of the Saturn Vue, the school’s entry in the hard-fought three-year EcoCAR competition. Sitting beside me is Lynn Gantt, the team leader, and he’s just graduated with an engineering degree and a job — he reports to General Motors’ expanding Alternative Energy Center in Michigan next month.

Gantt is one of six Virginia Tech team members headed for GM, one of the program’s main supporters. It’s a sign that GM gets something more than goodwill out of these inter-collegiate competitions — it also gets a steady stream of talented young engineers. The Virginia Tech car, which can run 50 miles in pure electric vehicle mode and achieves 84 mpg equivalent with its 2.4-liter engine burning E85 ethanol, was very impressive. This Vue looks ready for the assembly line — fast, responsive, rattle free, with very professional student-designed displays (the computer science nerds were pulled in).

EcoCAR: The NeXt Challenge,” is the latest in a 20-year series of student vehicle competitions sponsored by the Department of Energy and automakers. All the schools, and 16 are involved in EcoCAR, are given the same vehicle, which they can turn into a hybrid, plug-in hybrid, natural gas car, fuel-cell vehicle or even run it on wind-up rubber bands if the faculty advisor approves.

I told everyone who would listen that Virginia Tech was going to come in first, and in fact the school did — followed in second place by Ohio State (also deserving) and the University of Waterloo (one of two hydrogen entries).

The competition stages are frenzied, all-night sessions to get the cars running before the judges see them. Most of the colorfully painted entries are in pieces, as kids plug in laptops and try to figure out why the ethanol engine is running rough, or get underneath with a creeper to fix that coolant leak.

The teams were in Washington (where they were received by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, at left) for the very end of the event, including the awards ceremony, so the cars were mostly in one piece — though there were still glitches to fix. I enjoyed driving Mississippi State’s incredibly fast B20 biodiesel extended-range car, which couples two big electric motors to achieve something like 360 horsepower.

“We wanted something fun to drive,” mechanical engineering student Michael Trcalek told me. “We didn’t want to build a grandma’s car.” And they didn’t. The thing took off like a Tesla Roadster, and boasts a 5.7-second zero to 60 time. My electrifying drive was marred by a) an annoying clunk from the rear motor’s differential; and b) a near-collision with a Nissan Altima that wasn’t looking where it was going.

Speaking of Tesla, I talked to Chadwick Conway, an engineering student at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (a biodiesel-based hybrid electric) whose three years of hard graft on EcoCAR led to an internship at Tesla Motors — where he’d wanted to work since high school. He pitched in on the electric A-Class and Smart EV projects. “It was a lot of pressure, but really exciting — every day I would get up and really want to get to work,” Conway said. This summer he’s working for Tesla again, in England. If a job opens up at Tesla, he wants it.

Ethanol and biodiesel-aided hybrids were the most popular format at EcoCAR, but Missouri S&T was one of two schools that did the hard work of creating hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. Missouri’s entry wasn’t as finished as Virginia Tech’s — hydrogen storage took up the whole back seat area — but with transplanted technology from the fuel-cell Chevrolet Equinox it was impressive on the road. “It’s working well,” electric engineer Nathan Price told me. “We’re really proud of it.”

Price may go to work for an auto company, but he’s really into computer engineering, too. Of course, that could mean working for an automaker also, since cars now have millions of lines of code on them. Latyon Smith of Mississippi State was proud of the infotainment system he helped develop for the team car, surely a labor of love (and 15,000 lines of code). There’s a hard drive music storage system, navigation and a digital radio. I’d have loved to have seen it in action, but it was dark during my ride. “I need a keyboard to make it restart,” Smith told me.

Kimberly DeClark of the Argonne National Laboratory (which handles technical details and logistics) told me she’s very happy with how it all turned out. “There are 16 competing vehicles here, and they’ve come a long way in three years,” she said. “The goal was to develop cars with 90 percent consumer acceptability, and they’re here now and people are sitting in them.” And driving them, too.

This isn't the end of the story. Up next is yet another three-year program, EcoCAR II, with many of the same schools taking part. Here's the announcement on video:

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Behind the wheel at the EcoCAR college engineer competition
Sixteen teams from colleges across the country spent three years building hybrids, plug-in hybrids and even hydrogen cars. This week in Washington, they met in