An electric racer that goes like the devil

Many people equate electric vehicles with glorified golf carts, and I've long considered it a professional duty to prove them wrong. It's rather addicting, especially when it means driving something like the Yokohama HER-02 EV Sports Concept. Holy hell, this little rocket goes like the devil.

But then, it's supposed to. The HER-02 has won the exhibition class of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb two years running. Ikuo Hanawa made the 12.4-mile sprint in a blistering 12 minutes and 20 seconds in June. That's faster than most of his gas-burning competitors and less than 2.5 minutes behind overall winner Nobuhiro Takima.

What was that you said about golf carts?

Someone at Yokohama thought it would be fun to have Wired.com's Autopia take the HER-02 for a spin. There was a catch: Hanawa is tiny, so Wired needed someone smaller than 5 feet 8 inches tall and less than 145 pounds to fit in the car. I was nearly giddy to discover having an inappropriate love of speed and being small enough to wear my kid's clothes has certain advantages.

Alas, Yokohama wasn't about to turn us loose on Pikes Peak, so we had to settle for an autocross course set up outside Angel Stadium. Yokohama makes tires, and it rented the place for some dealer demo event. Dozens of guys were tearing around in Ford Mustangs, doing their best to shred Yokohama's products. When they weren't sliding around the asphalt, they were craning their necks to check out the blue and white EV ripping up the course.

It's no surprise Summit Motorsports, which built the car, tapped AC Propulsion to develop the powertrain. The SoCal company has had a hand in just about every EV that even remotely hinted at performance, including the Tesla Roadster (the initial drivetrain was licensed from ACP) and the delightfully crazy Wrightspeed X1. AC Propulsion also did the drivetrain in the Mini E, which doesn't look terribly sporting but did lap the Nurburgring.

An electric racer that goes like the devil

The HER-02 features essentially the same drivetrain as the Mini E. The AC-180 motor is good for 200 kilowatts, or roughly 268 horsepower. AC Propulsion milled cooling ducts into the motor housing to ensure max output without overheating, especially important under the continuous load of an uphill climb. But it isn't the horsepower that impresses, it's the torque. A glorious 258 pound-feet is there the moment you hit the accelerator, requiring abs of steel to peel yourself from the Recaro seat.

Although the HER-02 shares its drivetrain with the Mini E, it is about 700 pounds lighter (roughly 2,500 pounds) and a foot shorter, so the cars aren't in the same league performance-wise. This little racer accelerates like the first-gen Tesla Roadster.

The 37 kilowatt-hour battery pack is comprised of 6,656 Sanyo cylindrical lithium-ion cells. It straddles the car's tubular space frame, contributing to a subterranean center of gravity and confident handling. The kart-like racer held the road as if magnetically attached during Hanawa's eyebrow-raising demonstration lap. It had me jonesing to get in.

After a lesson in the human origami required to fold myself into the open cockpit, I donned my helmet, climbed in, and channeled my inner Stig.

An electric racer that goes like the devil

The aural experience of driving the HER-02 matches the visceral one. The course's opening straight all but begged for wide-open throttle, which made the AC motor squeal in delight - though I concede some of that might have been me. A lot of people think EVs are totally silent, but the fun ones rarely are. Being perched almost atop the motor in this little rocket fills the cabin with a futuristic whine that sounds like a small plane taking off — which, by the way, isn't far from what the acceleration feels like.

The diminutive size of the car, coupled with the rush of air through the open cabin, only accentuates the butterfly-inducing velocity, which matches that of many high-end sports cars, not to mention roller coasters. It lacks the aggressive rumble of the Cadillac CTS-V or the explosive thrust of the Nissan GT-R, but it feels faster than either car and is equally exciting to drive.

I'd been warned that the HER-02 doesn't have power steering, but I found the car rather nimble and certainly no stiffer than a Roadster. All that torque makes the back end a bit squirrely if you aren't careful, though. I slid deeply into the first turn after failing to scrub off enough speed and spun the car 270 degrees, but some firm countersteering easily unwound the car with a satisfying screech and a cloud of white tire smoke.

I later realized that, although the car does not have regenerative braking so as to avoid generating excess heat, you can adjust the brake bias. Tweaking it helped keep the rear end in line, but having it break loose was so much fun I did it a few more times. I may have to take up drifting.

While the HER-02 feels light and nimble in the straights, all that battery weight adds heft in a curves. An assertive driver will still find the handling to be taut but agile, and the car unflappable through the corners and the requisite slalom course. Driving the HER-02 was reminiscent of operating a really fast RC car, but from inside.

It's a shame that the course was much too small for me to experience the HER-02's top speed of 155 mph, though the vehicle team guessed I hit at least 80 mph. Not bad for a parking lot. But the sheer acceleration alone was sufficient to get my adrenaline fix.

As for those guys in their Mustangs, I'm sure they had some fun, too. But I don't doubt that I got the better end of the deal.

Photos: Stefano Paris


This story originally appeared on Wired.com's Autopia on Sept. 21, 2011, and was republished with permission.