We were cruising down Hudson Street on the lower West Side of Manhattan in the strangest vehicle you ever saw, and people were stopping dead in their tracks. A man in a Range Rover gave us two thumbs up, and a taxi driver rolled down his window to ask when it will be on the market. “The fourth quarter of this year,” we yelled, but since the windows don’t roll down in this pre-production prototype it’s unlikely he heard us.

The car is the battery-powered Aptera 2E, and CEO Paul Wilbur is at the helm explaining that the three-wheel configuration and unique plane-like styling is “all about efficiency and aerodynamics. Our two-seater car weighs 1,700 pounds and has a .15 coefficient of drag, which is less than Lance Armstrong riding his bicycle.” By contrast, the slippery Toyota Prius has a .27 drag coefficient.

Wilbur didn’t let me drive the car—it was New York, I guess—but I rode shotgun for enough miles to form an opinion. Like most EVs, it was fairly quiet, though noisier than most, and the potholes and cobblestones set off some rattles. The car was comfortable and felt stable on its three wheels, but a few minutes behind the wheel would have allowed more of a diagnosis.

A transmission dial allows the choice of efficiency and sport modes, and a screen displays charging options: The Aptera is ready for the “smart grid,” with programmable late-night charging and the ability to sell battery power to the local utility.

Despite the undeniable strangeness—the Aptera could have been made for a 1960s science-fiction film featuring people of the future in jump suits—the company is serious about building a mainstream vehicle. “Tesla is the new Ferrari,” says Wilbur, gunning past a startled pretzel vendor. “We want to be the volume player in a radical new arena.”

Aptera (the name means “wingless flight” in Greek) thinks its competitive in the marketplace with three models—the battery model as tested, a gas-electric series hybrid and a conventional .7-liter gasoline car—priced between $25,000 and the low $40s. Only the 2E electric will be available this year; the other two are due in 2010.

The gas car sounds intriguing, with 100 mpg and a 1,000-mile cruising range. It won’t be a speedster like the Fisker Karma—the zero to 60 time is over nine seconds. The hybrid 2H trickle-charges the batteries en route, something the Chevrolet Volt can’t manage.

The Aptera plant in California has the capacity to produce 20,000 vehicles a year, but only a few thousand are likely to move in the first year after the car becomes available (initially in California only) near the end of 2009. Marketing guy Marques McCammon sees the typical buyer as between 35 and 55, with a modest male bias.

Aptera’s lofty goal is 100,000 a year, and for that it will need more plant capacity. To that end it has applied to—and been turned down by—the Department of Energy for a share of $25 billion in battery car funding. The problem is legislation that says three-wheelers are motorcycles, not cars.

Aptera has enlisted two California congressmen to fight its cause, and the company descended on Washington last week (two cars in tow) and buttonholed an estimated 200 congressmen. After their eyes stopped bugging out, the representatives probably did conclude that—strange as it is—the Aptera is indeed some kind of car.

Aptera's Marques McCammon talks about the car's appeal:

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

Riding the Aptera: Science fiction lives!
The Aptera 2E electric car may look like a pod car from Mars, but it is going into production in October. And it's as green as can be.