What you see in the picture above is not a Saturn Sky. Well, OK, it is a Sky, but it's a Sky that has been converted to all-electric drive by Amp Electric Vehicles, a conversion company based in Cincinnati, OH. A while back, during the Detroit Auto Show, we got a chance to spend a few minutes behind the wheel of the electrified Amp Sky and realized that, while the prototype version we steered was not exactly ready for prime time, there is a lot of potential here, both for Amp and plug-in vehicle fans who want an EV from the heartland of America (with Chinese batteries).
The all-electric Sky is, unsurprisingly, considering its heritage, not the best performer on snow and we had a ridiculously difficult time navigating the streets of downtown Detroit at anything more than 40 miles per hour. Of course, the day we drove it the weather was uncooperative, and no one else was going any faster than we were, even on our brief jaunt on the highway. We can't blame the converters for the lack of traction and limited speeds we were able to test out. Still, we got to enough time driving the Sky to get a feel for what Amp is up to here. Read on after the jump to see what the drive is like.
Photos by Sebastian Blanco / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
Slipping into the somewhat cramped driver's seat feels the same as it does in a standard Sky. This is exactly what Amp wants the driver to think, since the company's plan is to change as little as possible in its converted vehicles except the drivertrain. This makes the transition to electric drive easy for the driver. A standard key twist gets things started, and – except for a high-pitched whine – the Sky moved into traffic just as we expected.
That whine came to us courtesy of the realities of prototype vehicles. In this case, we enjoyed no sound insulation whatsover and could hear all the gearing going on behind us. We were driving the only AMP Sky in existence at the time but, since our drive, Amp has built a small number of converted Sky models for customers at its facility in Cincinnati, and we were told that, with sound insulation, the car is "much quieter." Not whisper quiet, but reasonable.
Other than the sound dampening, the prototype we drove is close to the same as what customers can order today. Two important changes are that the production vehicles have a drivetrain that is one level more advanced from the prototype's and also a working heat system (more on that in a bit). Another difference to get used to in the Amp'd Sky is the lack of vehicle creep. Even if the car is in D, it won't move forward without at least some pressure on the go pedal. Should customers demand creep be built in and Amp engineers decide to add it in, it would only require a software upgrade to change. For now, the lack gives the car an unusual vibe. The brakes, too, operate a bit differently. There is some very light regen when you take your foot off the accelerator that gets stronger and stronger – maybe a bit too strong – as you press on the brakes. The prototype also did not have transmission lock, so we slid backwards a little bit when we came to a stop sign at the top of a slight incline.
We first heard that Amp was working on converting Sky models to electric drive in May of 2008, but Amp has actually been working on the project since 2007. The long history and the dramatic changes in the auto industry since then have impacted the company, sure, but they're still moving forward. The company started by designing a conversion package for the Sky (and its sister model, the Pontiac Solstice, model years 2007 through 2009) and just announced an Chevrolet Equinox Electric conversion. A luxury vehicle conversion will also be announced soon (we're guessing it will be a Cadillac). The names for these vehicles are the Amp'd Sky and the Amp'd Equinox, by the way and if you're detecting a General Motors theme here, you've figured out part of Amp's strategy. Amp knows that fresh designs for their electric cars would result in more efficient rides, but the company doesn't have the resources for that. Instead, little Amp wants to stand on the shoulders of giants.
The Sky's 37 kWh lithium-ion battery pack, with cells made in China and which is assembled by Amp in Ohio, is warrantied for three years/36,000 miles. Almost everything else in the car is American-made. Heck, most of the parts are pure GM The motors and the air conditioner come from the Chevy Tahoe hybrid, for example, and Amp doesn't touch or weld onto the vehicle's frame in any way. Amp also leaves the airbags and the hydraulic brakes alone (but does supplement them with the aforementioned aggressive regenerative brakes). This way, Amp can tell customers that they are really buying GM brakes, GM airbags, GM frame, etc., just with an all-electric powertrain. With the recent disruption in the auto industry, even Tier 1 suppliers were willing to cut deals with AMP for the parts it needed to convert the vehicles. Since the car is still mostly a GM product, finding replacment parts isn't difficult. As one Amp representative told us, using GM's designs and supply chain "feels right. That's the way to start a car company without the billions."
The Sky's motors are water-cooled and, as in a traditional ICE, the liquid runs through the heater core to provide warmth to the car's occupants. But, because the motors are so efficient they do not produce all that much excess heat. This meant that even after 20 minutes of driving, we felt almost no heat in the cabin. For the customer versions, Amp will install a small electric heater in the line to heat the water. This will draw energy from the battery, but it's a better package overall than the motors an earlier version of the prototype used, which were less efficient and so provided heat but did not offer quite as far a range.
Speaking of which, readers might want to know the specs of this bad boy. According to Amp, the converted Sky will have a range of around 150 miles per charge (based on usage) and go from 0-60 miles per hour in under 8 seconds. The Amp'd Sky has a top speed of 90 mph. A full recharge from a 220-volt outlet takes around three and a half hours, while a 110 outlet will need around 14 hours. Amp says that recharging after a typical driving day (40 miles), recharging should take about 90 minutes from a 220-volt outlet.
Those numbers are good enough for around 300 people to place orders thus far, Amp told us, all in the greater Cincinnati area. The company is keeping sales close for now so it can easily service the vehicles if they need fixing. Amp plans to convert 1,000 vehicles this year, so availability will expand soon. Each conversion costs $25,000 on top of the donor vehicle. Saturn, of course, does not make the Sky anymore, but finding one for under $25,000 shouldn't be too difficult, for a total cost of under $50,000 for an all-electric, two-seat convertible (a converted Equinox will cost $50,000 all told). Amp is also, of course, competing for the Automotive X-Prize, and those prices will benefit the team with the business proposal in the competition. How the company will deal with the end of Saturn brand vehicles is another story.
Amp says that the Sky gets the equivalent of 125 miles per gallon, but one big benefit of participating in the X-Prize will be to access the Department of Energy's equipment and get a more detailed and accurate number to boast about. Amp began working on the conversion before the X-Prize was announced and, as noted, has always focused on keeping the car as similar to the gas version as possible. Engineers worked hard to keep the weight the same and to distribute it equally from front to rear. In fact, AMP weighed each piece that came out and replaced the parts with electric drive bits that weighed the same in order to keep things even. The batteries, for example, are spread out in the front of the vehicle and in the transmission tunnel. Since the suspension of the original Sky was well-tuned, Amp says, engineers kept the Sky's wide tires. With all of the difficulty we had driving the car in the snow, they managed to stop the car just fine.
At the end of the day, the Amp'd Sky is not the perfect electric vehicle. In fact, like any two-seat sports car – no matter what powertrain – there are sacrifices to make regarding size and comfort. If we were to apply just one word to describe the Amp'd Sky and Amp's conversion technology, it'd be "potential." If Amp can eliminate the whining noises, make sure the powertrain is reliable and put the drivetrain into reasonably sized vehicles (oh, and reduce the cost), it could have a winner here. With full-fledged electric cars coming from Nissan this year and from other automakers very soon, Amp has to do a lot of work quickly to convince people that converting old GM cars is the way to drive electric.