What technology would it take to produce a gasoline-powered car that could get 127 mpg on the highway?
The answer: very little that is not already on the road.
Lotus Engineering Ltd. has done an internal design study of a 1,150-pound three-seater powered by a 600cc two-cylinder motorbike engine. The designers chose an aluminum frame and composite body panels.
Darren Somerset, CEO of Lotus Engineering's North American operation, says the vehicle could be sold for $10,000. It demonstrates what might be possible if engineers start out with a clean sheet of paper to design no-frills transportation in an era of expensive fuel, Somerset said.
"We wanted to design something that could be sold to consumers around the world," he said. "It's a powerful message that we can get this kind of fuel efficiency without a big price."
Somerset calls his hypothetical vehicle the World Vehicle Concept.
One might argue that such a vehicle already exists: the Tata Nano, the India-made minicar that gets as much as 56 mpg. When the Nano was introduced in 2009, its designers bragged that they had eliminated all unnecessary features to produce a $2,000 car.
Well, Somerset has had another go at it, and the results are interesting. Lotus is famed for designing lightweight vehicles that get good performance out of small powertrains.
His design study would be no exception. In theory, the World Vehicle could accelerate from 0 to 60 in under 9 seconds, with a top speed over 120 mph.
To bring this hypothetical vehicle's weight down to 1,150 pounds, the designers eliminated all components that weren't absolutely necessary.
For example, the car has no instrument panel. Instead, the driver could check the vehicle's speed, fuel tank and climate control settings with a head-up display linked to the motorist's smartphone, which would be nestled in a docking station. The motorist would use voice commands to adjust heating, ventilation and other cockpit controls.
The two rear seats would be molded into the floor pan - eliminating the lower seat frame - and interior panels would be done away with.
What about crash safety? Somerset says the car could meet European crash standards with the help of some clever packaging.
The engine would be positioned underneath the rear seats, creating enough room in front for a proper crush zone for head-on collisions. Likewise, the car's seating arrangement - just one seat in front, for the driver, and two in the rear - offers protection against side and rear crashes.
"We benchmarked the Nano, which complies with European regulations," Somerset noted. "We laid the architecture out with the knowledge that we would need crushable space."
One might quibble with some details. For example, would you really put all your faith in voice-activated controls? But Lotus' underlying thesis survives: You can achieve amazing fuel economy if you are willing to design a no-frills city car.
The World Concept would look more at home on the streets of Mumbai, India, than Dallas. But if another Mideast war bumps the price of gasoline over $6 a gallon or so, perhaps American motorists would be willing to give it a shot.