Editorial: eco cars get racy

It looks good and it would feel good to drive. So says the Spanish student who designed the car concept on our cover, a cross between a motorbike and something from science fiction.

But it's also a design meant to save energy wherever it can. And it shows that environmentally friendly designs don't have to be fluffy, cuddly, green, organic or plain.

In this issue we report on two new environmentally friendly car designs. The first is the Norwegian Think, an electric car with a top speed of 62mph. As you can see, it's a comparatively ordinary-looking car, designed to easily and quickly get you from A to B with the minimum of pollution. That's all many people want or need from a car - and our regular 'global engineer' columnist Dea Birkett outlines a few other useful but unglamorous desirables in a hire car. 

The Think may be a fine piece of engineering, but it's not designed to excite petrol-heads like Jeremy Clarkson or his co-hosts. However, the Acabion might be more up his street. This petrol-fuelled two-seater retro rocket on wheels is designed for a top speed of 100mph…in first gear. It can reach 340mph on a track. And yet it can do 85 miles per gallon, with an electric version in the pipeline.

The Acabion, though, won't be available until 2011. Today's electric and hybrid cars tend to look pretty ordinary: utilitarian machines that don't command much in the way of attention. But then, they don't have to. In fact, some would argue that to be successful they have to do much more than that. Cars are more than mere vehicles, runs the argument; they are lifestyle statements and high-street avatars for status and style-conscious consumers.

I don't believe this is true for everyone or even most people because, firstly, I don't feel it myself and, secondly, the cars most people drive are so ordinary that they can't possibly be statements of any lifestyle except a really dull and boring one. However, I am prepared to believe that it's true for many people and that, to make a product successful, especially of a new and unfamiliar technology, it certainly helps if it's well-designed and has sex appeal. In other words, designers need to make electric, hybrid, solar or any other alternative energy powered cars every bit as good as today's petrol powered cars - and then some. There's no reason why they too can't be aspirational and turn heads on the high street.

The car designers of the future seem to agree, judging by this year's vehicle design course degree show at the Royal College of Art in London. Postgraduates from this course, which turns 40 this year, go on to design cars and other vehicles for the top manufacturers all over the world. As you might expect of such an award-winning, forward-thinking, international group of young designers, alternative energy and energy efficiency are top of the agenda. The design on this month's cover is just one of the examples in our eco cars feature.

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