It’s not all about massive engines and sheer power in the car world, you know

Alright, we get it, the great Enzo Ferrari believed aerodynamics are for people who can’t build engines but when you’re trying to move an object with as little energy as possible, a streamlined body is crucial to the task. So whether they’ve been built to compete in green races or with the intent to serve the masses or break speed records, these care are the ultimate masters of aerodynamics.

Nuna Solar Car

Yes, viewed from the front, the Nuna solar car in its earlier iterations looks like the alien fighter spaceship Will Smith took back to the mothership in Independence Day but that weird shape has a very precise purpose. The Nuna is a solar car developed by a team at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Since it is set in motion solely by the electric energy converted (and stored in batteries) from solar power, so it has to cut through the air like a hot knife through butter.

Its latest iteration is the NunaX, the tenth such car built by the fine folks at Delft Uni. The car’s parameters (shape included) evolved a lot compared to early Nunas, which had an aerodynamic coefficient Cd of 0.07.

Pac-Car II

The Pac-Car II was an evolution of the Pac-Car I three-wheeler built by a group of students from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Unlike the Nuna, the Pac-Car relied on hydrogen fuel-cell tech developed at the Paul Scherrer Institute, so it only emitted water.

The front wheels made sure the car can steer while the rear one sent power to the ground. In the Pac-Car II, two DC motors (18V, 150 kilowatts) kept the car in motion. The Pac-Car I had a Cd of 0.16 (measured in the wind tunnel) while the II was greatly improved in the aero department, with a Cd of 0.075.

Fortis Saxonia UrbanSAX

Another student research project, the UrbanSAX is a stab ad developing energy-efficient vehicles coming from the Technical University of Chemnitz, Germany. Flaunting an aerodynamic coefficient Cd of just 0.24 (determined from simulations) thanks to a streamlined body, the prototype also gets LED lighting throughout its whole surface and a sort of gullwing-style doors hinged onto the monocoque CFRP chassis.

The UrbanSAX is powered by a hydrogen fuel-cell setup with a total output of two kilowatts-hour. As a result, it can only reach a top speed of 50 kph (31 mph), which is alright, given that efficiency is the car’s main purpose. It also tips the scales at just 154 kilos (340 pounds).

Goldenrod

The Goldenrod’s rise to automotive fame is based on an incredible feat and it alone deserves a place in a separate article - it held the world land speed record after averaging 409.277 mph on the Bonneville salt. But that’s another story for another time.

In short, the Goldenrod was designed and built by two brothers from Ontario, California: Bob Summers and Bill Summers. It looked more like a wheeled rocket or a wingless aircraft than an actual car (like it’s the case with so many land speed record-breaking vehicles) and its sleek silhouette generated an aerodynamic coefficient of just 0.1165. Its ability to cut through the air was also backed up by four Chrysler Hemi V-8 engines, each producing 600 horsepower.

Sunraycer

The Sunraycer was GM’s entry in the first-ever race that featured solar-powered cars - what we know today as the World Solar Challenge. The year was 1987 and the Sunraycer won the race by a landslide.

Helping General Motors in developing the UFO-looking car were Hughes Aircraft and AeroVironment. When fully assembled, the Sunraycer tipped the scales at just 265 kilos (585 pounds) and its streamlined cockroach body produced a Cd of just 0.125. Power came from a newly-developed permanent-magnet electric motor fed by silver-oxide batteries and solar panels, of course, enough to propel it to a top speed of 68 mph (109 kph).

Ford Probe V

The V was the fifth concept car in a series of five Probes created by Ford to explore potential design avenues as well as mechanical solutions and of course, aerodynamics approaches for its future cars. Probe I, for example, had a wedge-shaped body, pop-up headlights, and covered rear wheels. From that point on, the Probes got more and more radical.

For example, the Probe IV was the first car Ford developed using computer technology as the designer worked with a computer operator to develop the body shape. At that time, the Probe IV’s Cd of 0.15 was half of that generated by the Audi 100 (Cd=0.3). All this culminated with the Probe V and its outer shell, which was in essence a sum of aluminum modules that snapped together into an integrated car frame. Oh, and it also featured a mid-engine layout, but most importantly, it bested the Prove IV’s Cd with a value of 0.137.

Fiat Turbina

The Fiat 8001 aka Turbina (turbine in Italian) debuted with a lot of fanfare in 1954, when it was shown to the public at the Turin-Caselle airport in the presence of a lot of Fiat big-name officials such as Gianni Agnelli, Vittorio Valletta, and Dante Giacosa, the engineer responsible for the Turbina’s development.

The Turbina was the first European car, albeit in prototype form, to be powered by a gas turbine. It had no gearbox, no clutch, and the turbine engine was placed behind the passenger compartment. A lot of attention went to its aerodynamic body, which was instilled with a Cd of just 0.14 thanks to extensive testing in the wind tunnel of the Politecnico di Torino (Polytechnic University of Turin). Performance-wise, the Turbina could hit a top speed of 175 mph (282 kph) and the turbine could spin at 22,000 rpm to develop 200 horsepower (although some sources say the output was closer to 300 horsepower).

Urbee 2

Mixing 3D printing with aero inspiration taken from some of nature’s most apt predators, the Urbee 2 flaunts an aerodynamic coefficient (Cd) of 0.149. Reaching that number involved studying how a cheetah flattens its ears in a high-speed chase or how a falcon glues its feet to its body to cut through the air quicker.

That aside, Urbee stands for "Urban, Electric, and Ethanol," as it was designed as a vehicle that mixes the power of two electric motors and a small, ethanol-fed ICE (Internal Combustion Engine), according to Popular Mechanics.

JCB Dieselmax

You don’t really associate a streamlined body with diesel power but the JCB Dieselmax was just that. Built by a team of British engineers, the JCB Dieselmax set (and still holds) the world land speed record for diesel-powered cars, after it was clocked in at 350.097 mph (563.418 kph) back in 2009, in the able hands of Andy Green.

The car, if we can call it that, is powered by two JCB diesel engines that crank out 750 horsepower and 1,105 pound-feet of torque each, driven by two separate six-speed gearboxes. Oh yeah, and the rocket-shaped body shell generates a drag coefficient of just 0.147.

Aptera 2

Unlike some of the cars from this list, the Aptera was designed for the masses as an all-electric or plug-in hybrid model priced below $30,000. It had two wheels in the front and one in the rear, its body was made of composite materials, and believe it or not, its makers initially wanted to fit a diesel inside, but gave up because it wouldn’t pass California’s emissions regulation.

The Aptera 2 was said to be able to reach a top speed of over 85 mph, yet initial plans included an electronic speed limiter that would only let it reach 95 mph. Contributing to that was a drag coefficient of just 0.15.

VW XL1

Wait, what? Covered wheels on a Volkswagen? And a design language that’s not from the ilk of Golf and Passat? Yes, it was possible, but only in the name of a flush, air-splitting body with an instilled drag coefficient of just 0.19.

The XL1, aka the Volkswagen 1-liter car, had not only the looks but also the ability to drink up just one liter of fuel for every 100 kilometers (62 mph) it drove thanks to two elements: the said aero shape and a 0.8-liter diesel engine (basically VW’s 1.6-liter TDI cut in half) paired to a 25-horsepower e-motor and a 5.5-kWh battery pack.

Read our full review on the Volkswagen XL1.

Tudor Rus
Assistant Content Manager - Automotive Expert - tudor@topspeed.com
Tudor’s first encounter with cars took place when he was only a child. Back then, his father brought home a Trabant 601 Kombi and a few years later, a Wartburg 353. At that time, he was too young to know how they worked and way too young to drive them, but he could see one thing – each of them had a different ethos and their own unique personality. As time went on, he started seeing that in other cars as well, and his love for the automobile was born.  Read More
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