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Meet the Swincar E-Spider, quite possibly world’s most extraordinary – and capable – all-terrain vehicle. Created by the French company Mecanroc, this radical electric four-wheeler is an arachnoid assemblage of aluminium, centered on a “technologie pendulaire” that suspends the rider, hammock-like, from the frame of the vehicle.
Leaning – in the parlance of physics, a shifting of the center of gravity – is an elegant way to turn a bike or motorcycle, though one that comes at the expense of stability and traction. But when the number of wheels exceeds two, lean is something that gets engineered away. Most leaning vehicles – like the three-wheeled Toyota i-Road – achieve balance through arrays of sensors and gyroscopes coupled with electric motors and hydraulic actuators.
The E-Spider achieves its lean through straight-up physics. The cockpit is suspended within the frame at points well above the driver’s center of mass. Rounding curves, that mass naturally swings outward, and a simple linkage causes the wheels to lean in the same direction, like two motorcycles riding side-by-side through a turn.
That’s stable and fun on a road, but the technology really shines when the Swincar ventures off-road. The same mechanism that allows lean in the turn means that when riding across a slope, the wheels are perfectly parallel to the angle of the cockpit, which is, of course, hanging down. The driver’s center of mass stays between the wheels and below the hubs, making the Swincar able to travel up and down 70% grades and across grades of 50%, and its long, individually articulated legs keep all four wheels on the ground.
Each of those wheels is driven by an in-hub, 1000-watt brushless electric motor that delivers big torque and charges during braking, making four-hour jaunts possible even over mountainous terrain. Steering (to start the lean) happens through a conventional steering wheel that turns front and rear wheels in opposition, and throttle and brakes are controlled either on-yoke or via foot pedals.
Inventor Pascal Rambaud spent a lot of time on the Swincar – YouTube videos of earlier builds are worth seeking out – and he seems to have accomplished the holy grail of ATVs: Stable, nimble, and almost completely silent, except for the excited whoops of the drivers.
At first glance, the Swincar E-Spider doesn’t exactly scream extreme off-road capability. The narrow body, exposed frame and spindly wheels giving it the ungainly appearance of a lifesize Meccano kart. But don’t judge the book by its cover and all that, because the genius of the Swincar lies in its simplicity
The brainchild of Pascal Rambaud, founder of French engineering firm Mecanroc, the E-Spider is driven from within a cradle, suspended between the four articulated ‘legs’ to which its wheels are attached. This layout means that through a corner, or on an incline, it naturally leans, maintaining stability whilst keeping all four wheels in contact with the ground. Over rougher terrain, the entire thing splays out – like, say, a spider perhaps – the driver, batteries and controls remaining perfectly balanced in the middle as each wheel goes in search of equilibrium.
Top speed is 30km/h – which is about as fast as you’d want to go, to be honest – with power coming from in-hub, 1,000-watt, brushless electric motors. These drive each wheel independently and have plenty of torque on tap, making them ideal for an all-terrain vehicle like this. “Ah, but you’ll only be able to go as far as the extension cord lets you!” the Luddites will sneer. Well, there’s yet another trick up the E-Spider’s sleeve. The lithium-ion batteries housed in the sled-like base offer four hours of run time from a two-hour charge and that range can be extended further still, thanks to energy recovered through regenerative braking.
Although not silent, the whirring of those electric motors whilst under power is also far preferable to the serenity shattering rumble of a quad bike’s ICE. They’re quiet enough in fact to allow you to enjoy the sounds of the countryside you’re traversing; the tweeting of the birds and the wind through the trees, as well as the squelching of mud and sploshing of puddles beneath the tyres. It’s an experience of near visceral tranquility, if you will.
While the four-wheel steering makes for remarkable agility, it can’t do anything to remedy the vaguity with which your inputs are executed. With the wheels constantly changing location on you it’s nigh on impossible to judge precisely where you’re placing the Swincar on rough ground. No matter though, because whatever they end up encountering, they overcome. That on demand torque and four-wheel drive kept it crawling forward no matter what as it conquered the entire quad bike course we tested it on without breaking a sweat – this despite the insistence of the owner that it wouldn’t get past the first obstacle. Still, you wouldn’t want to take it near any precipitous drops…
Now for the elephant in the room. The Swincar has an RRP of £13,495. Yes, that’s a lot, but with deals for bulk orders, the kind of commercial venues that will run them will easily justify the cost. That’s almost besides the point though, because the E-Spider is noteworthy for its simplicity, ingenuity and above all, its tremendous fun. The potential of the design to be improved, scaled up and revised for other applications is definitely interesting too. In short, it’s certainly not just a toy for the one per cent – though if you can afford one, you should definitely give it a go.
Let’s not beat about the bush, this Swincar looks like an unfinished school project. However, it also turns what sounds like the product of a child’s imagination – a cross between a car and a spider – into a real, working reality.
It is the brainchild of French inventors Pascal Rambaud and Jerome Arsac and has taken eight years to turn from sketch into a production reality. Now, in the project’s latest development Pocket Classics has secured the exclusive rights to distribute the Swincar in the UK, complementing its existing range of highly detailed, motorised ride-on toy cars.
Initial sales effort is being directed towards off-road activity centres, where the Swincar’s unique driving experience is sure to appeal. It is at one of these (Quadrenalin near Milton Keynes) that I rendezvous with Pocket Classics managing director James Cooper and the first Swincar E-Spider – to give it its full name – in the UK.
The E-Spider is not road legal (with a top speed of 18mph you’d be mad to want to drive it on the road anyway), so James transports it in the back of a Transit. As it rolls down the ramps it is immediately apparent that the aluminium frame and long spider-like arms look even more bizarre in real life than the pictures suggest. It’s small (total length is just two metres and it sits only 22cm off the ground), weighs just 200kg and is clearly well finished, but looks about as comfortable as a wet bike ride. And that’s before you encounter any mud…
I don overalls, drop into the single seat and place my shoes on the adjustable footbar. James flicks a couple of switches and a little digital instrument pod attached to the steering wheel blinks into life. “That’s it,” he says. “You’re ready.” Oh yes, I forgot to mention the Swincar is fully electric and thus the only noise you hear is of the trial-bike sourced tyres padding across the landscape.
Acceleration (via a thumb throttle) feels instant, but there’s also decent progression and an awful lot of regenerative braking which makes it easy to control your speed. So easy in fact, that the conventional brakes aren’t really needed. Good thing too, because the hand-operated hydraulic disk setup is not terribly effective when you’re tackling the kind of slopes the Swincar is capable of.
Ultimately it’s this level of capability that defines the E-Spider; it really can go through and over obstacles that you just don’t expect. Swincar says that it can ultimately ascend and descend hills up to 70 degrees, as well as drive along the side of a 50-degree slope. Riding in the vehicle this all feels remarkably calm and comfortable, not least when you see what the Swincar looks like from the outside. This is due to the way its four articulated suspension arms work completely independent of one another and are fixed to the chassis well above the driver’s centre of mass so that you dangle in the cockpit at what is always a relatively level angle regardless of what the wheels are doing. Four-wheel-steering provides a good turning circle but requires strong arms.
The 4kWh lithium-ion battery gives a range of about four hours between two-hour recharges. It is mounted in the floor and sends power to four 1kW hub-mounted brushless electric motors, giving the E-Spider permanent four-wheel drive. What’s more, because the suspension arms allow each wheel to always be in contact with the ground you can get to and through all sorts of terrain.
Admittedly, a quad bike will do much of this for a significantly lower price than the £13,495 Pocket Classics is charging for a Swincar, but with vehicles like this, it’s as much about the experience as it is ultimate capability. And sitting in that bucket seat, tackling the ruts and troughs of the course without so much as a jolt or a bump felt through my body and all in near silence, it’s hard not to conclude that the experience here is indeed unique.
If initial positive response from off-road centres such as Quadrenalin is anything to go by you’ll start seeing a few more Swincars in recreational use soon enough. However, its inventors also believe there’s potential for agricultural and military applications, and that the eerily smooth ride could open up off-roading to people with mobility problems.
Bottom line is, while you might mock the E-Spider’s appearance don’t for a second try pretending you wouldn’t love to give it a try.
Motor: 4 x 1kW hub-mounted brushless electric motors
Battery: 4kWh lithium-ion
Transmission: Fixed ratio, forward and reverse
Top speed: 18mph
Range: Up to four hours (recharging time 2 hours)
Price as tested: £13,495
When you first see the Swincar E-Spider, the phrase ‘extreme off-road’ might not be the first thought to pop into your head. But it’s pretty much guaranteed that it will be the only thought in your head five minutes after you’ve started driving it.
The all-electric E-Spider is the creation of French engineering firm Mecanroc founder Pascal Rambaud. Basically, a cradle containing the driver, lithium-ion batteries and controls is suspended from four articulated wheeled ‘legs’. All four wheels steer.
A 1kw brushless electric motor sits in each wheel hub, giving it a top speed of 30km/h and all-independent four-wheel drive. The batteries in the base of the machine give it four hours of run time from a two-hour charge, with top-up charging coming from a regenerative braking system.
So far, so simple, but it’s the way the E-Spider covers ground that is so remarkable. Go around a corner or across an incline and the whole plot leans over or arranges itself in whatever way it needs to in order to keep all four of its spindly tyres in contact with the ground. On rougher terrain, the E-Spider splays out to boost equilibrium and stability.
It’s quite a thing to behold, and even more remarkable from the driver’s seat, where there’s a sensation of not really knowing where the Swincar is going to end up. There are just so many dynamic variables for the first-time driver to get his or her head around. The main point being that, wherever you point it, chances are it will get there. Instant torque and four-wheel drive kept it moving forward on our tough quad bike course without a care in the world.
The beauty of electric power of course is that it maintains the peace of the countryside. There is a bit of motor whine, but apart from that you’ll feel a lot more virtuous driving this than you would driving a noisy quad bike. You can still hear the twittering of the birds, the breeze rustling through the trees and the stealthy cocking of Farmer Giles’ shotgun as he hides in the bush.
The fly in in the Swincar ointment at the moment is its £13,495 price, but with everybody and his dog hurtling ahead with the development of electric propulsion, it seems inevitable that these costs will reduce over time.
Tony Middlehurst is a writer for PistonHeads.