America’s First Electric Supercar

When the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show opens to the public this Friday, visitors will be bombarded by an unprecedented barrage of “green” cars.  The success of highly efficient diesel platforms like Audi’s TDI and independent electric upstarts like California-based Tesla Motors has a majority of the industry’s major players investing in alternative powertrains, many of which will be publicly displayed for the first time.  But while the likes of Nissan and Chevrolet will vie for consumer interest with demonstrative front-and-center displays for their respective Leaf and Volt electric cars, far more interesting and groundbreaking fare lies in the depths of the L.A. Convention Center’s Kentia Hall, the relative basement that always plays host to the show’s minor players, that is, tire companies, aftermarket manufacturers, and…ahem…magazines.  Nestled among these booths, North Carolina-based Li-ion Motors will be offering the first public glimpse of their new electric supercar, the Inizio.

Fresh from an industry insider’s presentation at last month’s SEMA show in Las Vegas, the Inizio makes a rather bold claim as America’s first and only 100% homegrown battery-powered supercar.  Sure, the respectable Tesla Roadster is distributed from the U.S., but with a chassis produced in England and a body made in France, the Roadster can hardly claim to be authentically and exclusively American.

Green fanatics may recall Li-ion (which rhymes with ion, as in the lithium ion batteries that are the company’s stock-in-trade) as one of the winners of this year’s Automotive X-Prize, the Progressive Insurance-sponsored contest that awards major prizes to the most energy efficient and promising new electric cars.  While the $2.5 million that Li-ion took home for their efforts was probably just a drop in the bucket of what has surely been millions of dollars and years of R&D, the victory provides the company the kind of positive publicity that money just can’t buy, and gives Li-ion an instant veneer of credibility in developing a feasible all-electric supercar.

Considering the spate of independently produced supercars that have metaphorically crashed and burned over the last few years, many of which lacked an external design appealing enough to warrant their price tags, the Inizio does carry some aesthetic promise beyond its technological merits.  Li-ion’s Product Development Engineer and Team Leader Ron Cerven penned the car’s design, and it is clear that his resume of racecar driving, aerospace engineering, and car design for Hollywood productions (including Gone in Sixty Seconds and the Austin Powers franchise) has informed his vision of a supercar.  The Inizio is exotically attractive without being over the top, and clearly favors soft throwback curves to hard edges and angular wedges.  In fact, with its removable hardtop and its arrest-me red paint finish, the Inizio bears at least a passing resemblance to the Ferrari F50 or the Porsche Carrera GT, although seemingly channeled through the fit and finish parameters of early 90s Japanese supercars.

Li-ion claims the Inizio can reach 60 mph from standstill in 3.4 seconds, and has a top speed of 170 mph, numbers that certainly compare favorably to the Tesla Roadster (3.7 seconds 0–60 mph, top speed of 125 mph).  Regenerative braking feeds power back to the batteries, which at full charge are theoretically good for 250 miles.  With its large dimensions, vertical doors, Recaro seats, and an alcantara interior, the Inizio would certainly seem to be more in the vein of a Ferrari than Tesla’s little Lotus of an electric car.  Li-ion hopes to launch the car in the middle of next year with a pricetag of $139,000, but bearing in mind the delays and teething problems that far better-publicized efforts have endured (the Fisker Karma and Tesla Model S come to mind), that schedule might be a tad optimistic.  Nevertheless, the Inizio’s packaging and performance should give highline sports car manufacturers like Audi and Mercedes-Benz an even more pronounced kick in the butt to get their various electric cars, like the R8-based e-tron and SLS-based E-Cell, off the ground and into high gear.