Pininfarina Ethos Goes ‘Green’

Pininfarina, the legendary design house and coachbuilder responsible for timeless vehicle designs for makers like Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, and Maserati, created the 1990s Ethos working concept to demonstrate environmental performance. The question: Could an efficient two-stroke engine achieve near-zero emissions?

In the early 1990s, automakers, their major suppliers, and technology companies of all kinds were scrambling to develop the vehicles and power systems that would enable meeting the stringent requirements of California’s coming zero emission vehicle mandate, plus other government regulations sure to follow. One of the more interesting technology demonstrators created during the period was the Pininfarina Ethos, a developmental car used to showcase diverse powertrains including battery electric and, in this case, an advanced Orbital two-stroke engine. Here, we share our experience with Pininfarina’s Ethos in an article that originally appeared in Green Car Journal’s September 1992 issue.

Excerpted from September 1992 Issue: The Pininfarina Ethos, an environmentally designed sports car introduced at this year’s Turin Motor Show, was recently driven by GCJ at Goodyear’s Mireval proving ground. Time spent behind the wheel at this Mediterranean test track proved the Ethos a concept both interesting and timely for the auto industry.

A combined project of Orbital Engine Company, Hydro Aluminum, General Electric Plastics, Pininfarina, and others, the Ethos is intended to be both technology demonstrator and sales tool. These companies hope that a fully functional Ethos will help cure the myopia that plagues auto executives by packaging far-sighted vision in an attractive package that can be built today. This is no mere exercise. Rather, its an opportunity for an automaker to put its marque on the Ethos’ easily recycled bodyflanks. Then either Pininfarina or the automaker can begin producing copies in the short term.

Technologies that allow the Ethos to stake claim to the environmentally friendly title include an efficient three-cylinder Orbital two-stroke engine, a lightweight extruded aluminum frame, a recyclable thermoset plastic body, and water-based PPG paint. These, and other, features allow the car to use comparatively few resources in construction or operation and also make it easy to recycle.

Orbital claims its engine would meet the California ultra-low emission vehicle (ULEV) while still offering an impressive acceleration figure of 0-60 mph in 7.5 seconds. The company also cites that it would achieve a 35 percent improvement in fuel economy over a current vehicle equaling the Ethos’ projected 1450 pound weight. Bottom line: Faster acceleration than a BMW 325i and better gas mileage than a Civic VX. A marked decrease of carbon dioxide greenhouse gas emissions would correspond to the increase in fuel economy since much less gas would be burned to travel the same distance.

But there’s more. An interesting aside is that with further refinement of the Orbital two-stroke engine, it’s also suggested that the Ethos might even be able to attain near-zero emission vehicle (ZEV) levels similar to those specified in California legislation for electric vehicles.

Unlike most of the concept and show cars that debut at international auto shows, the Ethos is a fully operational vehicle. To prove it, our test driver pushed the mid-engine Ethos around Mireval as hard as if it were the latest European production exotic. Though only one example exists, each shift was made at the redline, the straights were run at full throttle, braking was at the last instant for every turn, and the tires’ entire cornering power was exploited.

Impression? This first Ethos felt somewhat like a low-powered Mazda Miata. Since it featured a steel monocoque chassis rather than the planned aluminum spaceframe, it was thus more than 200 pounds overweight. But the Orbital engine also did not offer as much power as company officials say production versions might. The cumulative result is good, but no exhilarating, performance with 0-60 acceleration times in the range of 10-plus seconds.

Handling was entertaining when fitted with sticky Goodyear GS-Ds rather than low-traction, high-mileage tires. But some glitches expected from a one-off driven at its limits showed through, including at one point an overheated engine. The most notable shortcoming was presented by the stretched fabric-over-tube frame seats, the same innovation found in GM’s Ultralite concept car. While it’s possible this type of seat may be comfortable enough for a typical commute, they were bruising during hard driving.

Pininfarina’s Ethos is an important milestone in environmental auto design. It’s stylish, forward-thinking, and with a few areas of refinement will set standards others should consider emulating. Perhaps most importantly, the Ethos dispels the myth that a sports car cannot be both exotic and in tune with the new automotive environment unfolding before us. In a future where myriad alternative fuel and gasoline autos will fill a wide array of niche and regional markets, GCJ editors note that the Ethos, or a similar vehicle, is likely to be one of the many players.