It’s not every day that an automaker reveals plans to build a turbine-electric supercar. And yet, late last month, that’s exactly what the U.K.’s Ariel did. Called the HIPERCAR, Ariel’s upcoming supercar will have a 295-hp electric motor at each wheel, a turbine range extender, and the ability to hit 150 mph in only 7.8 seconds.
If any automaker announced a car with specs like that, it would be big news. But Ariel is a small company with only 25 employees building 110-115 barely street-legal track toys every year. Taking on a project such as this is practically unheard of, even with the help of a grant from the U.K. government.
When I spoke with Simon Saunders, Ariel’s founder, on the phone, though, he said it is actually an advantage for a company that wants to try something different.
“In this country at least, a lot of the technology comes from startups and small to medium enterprises,” he said. “So this is where some of the technology comes from, from the kind of mad inventors if you like. But also the small companies are quick and nimble. We can make decisions very quickly, whereas a big company like Ford has so many other considerations. Companies like us can do these things when the bigger companies can’t.”
But why not simply electrify the Atom? After all, that would be much simpler and far less expensive to pull off. To that, Saunders said Ariel has “always wanted to build exciting vehicles that were suitable for low-volume production. What we didn’t want to do what basically makes another lightweight sports car to compete with ourselves. We’ve got the Atom. We’ve got the Nomad. There’s no point in making another Atom.”
There’s also already been an electric version of the Atom, the California-built Wrightspeed X1. But Saunders said a production version would have cost 50 percent more than a supercharged gas-powered Atom, and it wouldn’t have been as fast. And when it comes to electric cars, Saunders believes they’ll only take off when they’re legitimately better than cars with traditional combustion engines.
“[The government has] tried to push EVs from the bottom up, which we think has been a mistake,” Saunders said. “In this country, you get a subsidy for running an EV, which I think sends out the wrong message. We feel as though cars like this will be sort of an aspirational vehicle. The technology has come along so that this vehicle will outperform an internal combustion engine vehicle, and I think that’s when people can start looking at EVs and hybrids and say, ‘Actually I want one of these because it’s better than an internal combustion engine car, not because the government’s giving me £5,000 off the price.’”
To make its 1,180-hp turbine-electric HIPERCAR a reality, Ariel has partnered with two other British companies. Delta Motorsport is handling the battery and the range extender. Equipmake, meanwhile, is designing the motors, the gearbox, and the inverters. And although many of these parts will be new, they won’t necessarily be Ariel exclusives. The motors, for example, might end up also being used in electric buses.
One of the biggest questions I had, though, was why Ariel has even bothered to use a turbine range extender at all. They might be cool, but even the turbine-electric Jaguar C-X75 concept died before making it to production. For Saunders, it’s as much about giving owners the supercar experience as it is about efficiency.
“A supercar with a four-cylinder engine starting up doesn’t sound very good,” he said. “And they’re big and heavy things. This is obviously not going to be as light as an Atom—I think the battery’s as heavy as an Atom—but it’s still going to be lightweight compared to other sorts of vehicles. That’s why we’re sort of demonic about not having a conventional internal combustion engine in there for charging the battery.”
The turbine itself only fires up when it’s needed. “So it’s not running all the time,” Saunders said. “But it runs at a steady 120,000 rpm. It’s accelerated up by the electric machine on it to 30,000 rpm when it ignites, and then it goes up to 120,000 rpm. Because it runs at a steady speed, it’s very clean, and it’s very efficient.”
But although Ariel made a name for itself selling bare-bones track cars that were really only technically street legal, the HIPERCAR will be the opposite. It’ll be capable of short track sessions, but it’s intended to be used primarily as a road car.
“You could drive this car like a complete lunatic on the road for as long as you want to,” Saunders said. “It’ll go all day like that. But as soon as you put it on a track, it’s like an exponential curve. The heat generated just climbs by a factor of 10. It’s enormous. And the power consumed, as well.
“But on a track, the range extender just can’t keep up with the power drain. On our simulations, we’ve got something like 15-20 minutes of track time on the four-wheel drive and possibly as much as 40 minutes on the two-wheel drive. So it’s not a car you could take and spend a day on the track. Well, you could, but you’d have some time on the track, and then you’d have 50 minutes while the range extender recharged it. Having said that, there won’t be many people who can drive this thing on the track for more than 15 minutes anyway because of the performance. It’ll be pretty exhausting.”
Because the HIPERCAR will be meant for the road, it’ll also come with something Ariel’s never built before—an interior. Just don’t expect the cabin to look anything like a Jaguaror Rolls-Royce.
“With the range of the car, we want it to be able to cross continents, so that does mean having a certain amount of comfort,” he said. “What we don’t want to do is go down the leather, Wilton carpet, and burled walnut route.”
But what will the interior actually look like?
“My way of describing the interior is that is going to be a plush Le Mans car,” he said. “It’s not going to be a bare-bones racer with things scattered about on flat panels. It’s going to be somewhere between that and a more conventional sports car like a Ferrari or Porsche. Sort of like the Ferrari F40 where it was plush enough to be a road car, but it wasn’t a sumptuous interior covered in bits of wood and leather. But it’s got to be comfortable enough to do long distances in.
“I’ve got a bad back, and comfortable seats are important to me. More so the seats than what they’re covered in, so the car’s got to be ergonomically spot-on. The seats have got to be comfortable, the control gear’s got to be easy to use. We’ve thought long and hard about what we’re going to put on screens and what’s going to be on manual switches. It’s important the car’s first usable and the average guy can get in and drive it and get what he needs out of it.”
And despite the HIPERCAR’s extreme capabilities, Saunders said Ariel’s main focus has been on acceleration, not top speed. “It’s wonderful that Bugatti makes Chirons that do 200 and whateverish miles per hour, but it’s completely unattainable for the guy who buys it, and you can’t even really do it on a racetrack,” he said. “It’s all about acceleration. It’s important to us that owners get fun out of their cars.”
Just because Ariel wants the average person to be able to drive and appreciate the HIPERCAR, though, doesn’t mean it will be the kind of vehicle most people can afford.
“It’s not going to be a cheap car,” Saunders said. “In our minds, you’re kind of looking at the two-wheel drive starting at the bottom of the Ferrari 488. And the four-wheel drive is going to be a lot more than that. But we like Ariels being good value for money for the performance. So if you compare it with a LaFerrari, a P1, or a Porsche 918, it’s going to be something of a bargain because it will outperform them.”
The good news is, assuming you happen to have the money to buy one of Ariel’s HIPERCARs, you’ll likely be able to get one in the States.
“We definitely want it to come to the States,” Saunders said. “The people who build the Atom in Virginia, we’ve had long discussions with them about what can be done there. We’re not a big enough company to start doing full title approvals with airbags and so on. The investment would outweigh the return, probably several hundred if not thousand times. But we’re determined to bring the car to the U.S., and I think there’s legislation milling around at the moment about low-volume vehicles.”
To get to production, though, Saunders said Ariel still has a lot of work ahead of it. Over the next year, the company plans to build and begin testing a few mules, but full production is still several years away. When it does get here, though, expect it to look pretty much like the initial renderings.
“We’re not a big enough company to share a concept vehicle, have everybody go ‘ooh’ and ‘ah,’ and then go away and either not do it or do something else,” Saunders said. “Unlike Jaguar and the C-X75, we don’t have the wherewithal to show something and get people interested in it and then can it. So the vehicle is being designed from day one with reality and production in mind.”
And when it does become a reality, we absolutely can’t wait to drive it.