By Aaron Bragman on April 7, 2013
A new company using an old name has unveiled an extraordinary state-of-the-art electric sports car in the heart of the American auto industry. Detroit Electric, an electric-vehicle company that ran from 1906 through 1939 and built 13,000 cars well before anyone else was making EVs, has been reborn in the Motor City.
It intends to produce the SP:01 electric sports car using a Lotus Exige platform modified to accept an electric powertrain. Sound familiar? It should; that's the formula that created the original Tesla Roadster. But the Detroit Electric people say they have improved upon Tesla's designs, and the specs are indeed impressive.
Motivation is provided by a 150-kilowatt (201 horsepower) mid-mounted electric motor with electricity coming from an onboard 37-kilowatt-hour air-cooled lithium-polymer battery pack. Three gearbox options are available: a four- or five-speed manual and a two-speed automatic. The combination is responsible for some impressive numbers: zero to 62 mph in 3.7 seconds, a top speed of 155 mph, a total range of at least 180 miles and a recharge time of just over 4 hours on a 240-volt circuit (more than 10 hours on a standard 120-volt household plug).
The body, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Lotus Exige for reasons that will become clear in a moment, is all carbon fiber allowing the SP:01 to trim weight and offset the big battery pack. The car weighs just 2,354 pounds, which is nearly 130 pounds less than a base Mazda Miata MX-5 and 369 pounds less than a Tesla Roadster.
Two unique features of the SP:01 make it distinctive from previous electric sports cars. First is the 360 Powerback, which allows the car's onboard "bidirectional" charger to act as both a charger for the car or a power source for a home. In the event of an electrical outage, the SP:01's battery can be used to provide electricity for a residence.
The car will not have a traditional entertainment system — the audio system will be dependent upon a smartphone integrated into the center console. It uses an app that Detroit Electric calls the Smartphone Application Managed Infotainment system. This is the first instance of an automaker relying on the music player and satellite navigation functions of a smartphone for its vehicle, providing instead just a receptacle and software for integration. SAMI can also control interior lighting, display vehicle system status, remotely control cabin climate, monitor battery charge status and more.
On paper, the car looks good. The business plan is where things start to stumble. Management isn't the issue. The reason the car looks like a Lotus is that four out of the five top executives of Detroit Electric come from Lotus Engineering's North American and Chinese consultancy operations, so designing a car is certainly within their power.
The company's ambitious plans for sales and production, however, are highly questionable. Detroit Electric says that production of the SP:01 will begin at an unspecified facility somewhere in Wayne County, Mich., (home of Detroit) by August, which is less than four months from now. The company plans to build just 999 of the SP:01 at an MSRP of $135,000 each, and it hopes to sell out as quickly as possible in order to fund the next project, a more affordable $50,000 family sedan. If this sounds a little too much like Fisker Automotive's business model, that would be fairly spot on.
Detroit Bureau Chief Aaron Bragman grew up in the Detroit area, comes from an automotive family and is based in Ann Arbor, Mich. Email Aaron