The carbon-fiber test car built by students at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, would be a tough sell in Detroit, where comfort and cup-holders come first.
It’s a tight fit. When John Pearson snugs into the cockpit – all 5 feet, 11 inches of him – he can’t see much beyond his feet. He can’t hear anything but the engine, which is bolted just behind his head.
What he feels, almost immediately, is the heat: The day they painted the car, team members set a thermometer on the top. It got to 135 degrees.
“It’s rough in there,” said Pearson, who graduated in May with a degree in mechanical engineering. “It’s like being in an Easy-Bake Oven.”
The car nonetheless is built for the long haul. The 2012 model won the Society of Automotive Engineers’ International Supermileage Challenge, eking more than 1,400 miles out of a single gallon of gas.
That’s roughly the distance from Erie to Denver.
The new car could double that. It’s 20 pounds lighter than the 2012 model. It has a leaf-spring suspension. The rotary-valve engine – one of maybe four in the world – was the senior design project for four of the team’s members. It will be ruthlessly efficient, if they can stop it from leaking.
Team members will run the car Thursday and Friday at the 2013 supermileage finals. Twenty-eight university teams have registered for the event, which is held on the Eaton Corporation’s Michigan test track. The team to beat is from the University of Laval, in Canada: Their car got 3,500 mpg in an April race.
The Penn State Behrend car has faltered in practice. One test run ended when an axle broke off. The car dropped, leaving a white skid on Technology Drive.
Much of the car is new, including the trip computer, which stills the engine at 20 mph. At that speed, air drag across the car’s body begins to affect fuel mileage.
Even the seat belt is different. The team fashioned it as a half-size airline harness. The buckle, which came off a Boeing keychain, cut another three pounds off the car’s weight.
The new car’s aerodynamics are 40 percent better, said team member Taylor Pearson. He also graduated in May. He now works with his brother at Lord Corp., which helped sponsor the car.
He likes the team’s chances in Michigan this week.
“We’ve done the work,” he said. “We have improved every inch of this car.”