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Super-cars go for million-dollar finish

With only a couple of days of on-track testing left, four ultra-efficient cars have fallen out of the race for multimillion-dollar payoffs in the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize competition. That leaves 11 vehicles still in the running, including a couple of little cars that seem likely to bring home a big $5 million prize for the Virginia-based Edison2 team.

The months-long X Prize contest is aimed at promoting the development of ultra-efficient cars that are also safe and roomy enough to succeed on the open road as well as the showroom floor.

Both of Edison2's mainstream-class, four-seat Very Light Cars passed this week's efficiency and range tests at the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich. To make it through, the ethanol-burning hybrids had to hit the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon of gasoline (MPGe) during a 136-mile series of urban, city and highway drive tests. According to The Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Va., one car had a combined efficiency rating of 100.3 MPGe, while the other recorded 95.6 combined MPGe - not quite 100, but good enough to surpass this week's adjusted requirement of 90 MPGe. The cars also had to show in a separate range test that they could go at least 200 miles without refueling or recharging.

Because the two Very Light Cars are the only ones left in the $5 million mainstream competition, the Edison2 vehicles just have to fill in the final boxes on the checklist for victory: pass next week's safety and acceleration/braking tests, stick to a 100 MPGe performance during a final 200-mile run, and get their engines' performance verified during lab tests next month. It's not as easy as a Sunday drive, but at least real-estate developer Oliver Kuttner and his Edison2 teammates have no other competitors breathing down their necks.

Edison2 has a third Very Light Car competing in a different X Prize contest, the $2.5 million competition for two-seat tandem vehicles. Yet another $2.5 million awaits the winner of the competition for two-seat, side-by-side cars. The two-seaters must satisfy the same 100 MPGe requirement, but need only drive 100 miles without refueling or recharging. (Penalties of extra laps are assessed for rule infractions.)

One of the Edison2 team's secrets is the lightness of its cars. They weigh in at less than 800 pounds each, compared with roughly 1,800 pounds for a Smart Car. But just being lightweight isn't enough to take the prize, as demonstrated by this week's dropouts in the alternative two-seater classes:

  • Amp's electric vehicle met this week's 90 MPGe fuel efficiency requirement, X Prize organizers said, but it exceeded the maximum carbon-dioxide emission limit (200 grams of CO2 per mile). The team also couldn't finish all its laps in the 100-mile range test.
  • Commuter Cars' tiny Tango couldn't meet the fuel efficiency standard, exceeded the CO2 emission limit and couldn't finish the range test.
  • Spira's gasoline-powered vehicle couldn't satisfy the minimum fuel-economy requirement.
  • Tata Motors could not present its Indica Vista EVX for today's range test, due to a technical issue, and has withdrawn the all-electric car from the competition.

The front-runners that I listed after last month's Knockout phase are all still in the race: If anyone is going to win the $5 million prize this year, it'll be Edison2. The Li-On Motors Wave II recorded the highest fuel efficiency in the side-by-side two-seater category, and thus holds the pole position for one of the $2.5 million prizes. And Switzerland's X-Tracer Team still gets my vote over Edison2 for the other $2.5 million prize, set aside for tandem two-seaters.

There's a lot of driving to go yet: If more than one vehicle hits the 100 MPGe mark and satisfies all the other requirements for a particular prize, the money goes to whoever posts the fastest pace in a time trial to be run on Tuesday. So in the two-seater categories, at least, this competition could turn into a real race.

Here's the rundown going into next week's tests:

Mainstream Class Teams:
Mainstream Class vehicles must carry four or more passengers, have four or more wheels, and offer a 200-mile range.

Edison2, Lynchburg, Virginia (E85, two cars)

Alternative Class Teams:
Alternative Class vehicles must carry two or more passengers and allow for a 100-mile range.

Side-by-side seating:

Aptera Motors, Vista, California (Electric)
Li-ion Motors at EV Innovations, Mooresville, North Carolina (Electric)
RaceAbout Association, Helsinki, Finland (Electric)
TW4XP, Rosenthal, Germany (Electric)
Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington (Gasoline)
ZAP, Santa Rosa, California (Electric)

Tandem seating:

Edison2, Lynchburg, Virginia (E85)
X-Tracer Team Switzerland, Uster, Switzerland (Electric, two cars)

More about the Automotive X Prize:

Slideshow: Racing to beat 100 mpg
Light cars take on heavy trips
Cool car technologies you can't have now

Stay tuned for X Prize updates next week. Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about "The Case for Pluto."