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Quirky Aptera EV edges closer to launch

If a $184 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy comes through, the company says it could start production of its three-wheeled electric vehicle in 2011.

The space-age Aptera might look like something straight out of a futuristic cartoon, but executives at the California start-up behind the electric vehicle say its time is now.

Delivering on that promise might be tough.

The company, which delayed production plans because it could not find financing during the 2009 credit crisis, now says it will start production of the car next year.

The Aptera, which has a 100-mile range per charge and gets some 200 miles per gallon equivalent, has three wheels and looks like a sleek, aerodynamic egg. It's often compared to a vehicle from the futuristic 1960s cartoon "The Jetsons."

Aptera is waiting to hear from the U.S. Energy Department about a $184 million loan. If that comes through, this three-wheeled electric vehicle could enter production next year. Aptera

The vehicle's structure and feel give the immediate impression it's nothing like the hybrid sedans and electric sports cars being produced by most of the big automakers--which are planning to roll out electric vehicles of their own in the next two years.

"We still have a little bit of work before we can say that we're fully funded and ready to start production," said Aptera's Chief Executive Paul Wilbur, who unveiled Aptera's latest design in Carlsbad, Calif., this week.

The company has applied for and is counting on a $184 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy. The loan would help to fund Aptera's capital needs for five years, executives said, adding they expect to hear a decision on it soon.

Once funding is secured, Aptera would take about 11 months to start production, Wilbur said.

The company has partnered with several firms to supply parts for the Aptera, including A123 Systems and Wind River, a subsidiary of Intel.

The newest version of the vehicle features roll-down windows, a redesigned suspension, and front and back bumpers. It has a body that rides low to the ground, which makes getting in and out easy, and both front and side airbags.

Aptera's makers say it would meet crash safety standards.

Electric vehicles are widely seen as a key weapon in the fight against climate change, by cutting emissions and helping reduce the need for gasoline.

But the market for them right now is extremely small. Battery electric vehicles are expensive and the charging infrastructure for the cars still needs to be built out.

Aptera would also have to go up against big automakers like Nissan, Ford, and General Motors, which are planning to launch electric cars soon. Small players like Tesla Motors already sell them.

Still, Aptera executives say they have the world's most efficient vehicle and aren't worried about their competition.

Demand for electric cars is expected to grow sharply over the next two decades as fuel economy and emissions rules strengthen.

The cost of the vehicle is expected to be between $25,000 and $40,000, depending on features and whether buyers want an electric, hybrid or traditional power train.

The car can be recharged by plugging into a regular electric outlet, which Tom Reichenbach, Aptera's chief engineer, said should feel as comfortable and eventually as common as charging a cell phone.

"We think this is going to be America's poster child for efficient vehicles," he said.