Automobiles

Renovo Coupe shapes high-performance electric car future

With a body taken from an American racing car legend and a dose of Silicon Valley start-up tech under the hood, the Renovo Coupe looks set to turn up our perception of what an electric car can do.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET
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Behind a nondescript door in a Silicon Valley industrial strip mall, a typical start-up scene: engineers sitting at tables, tapping away on computers in an open area. However, posters from movies such as Grand Prix and Bullitt cover the reception area walls, and the "office" is more of a garage, complete with a lift and shelves full of brake and suspension components.

Setting the theme further, a beautiful piece of automotive machinery takes up most of the space. This is Renovo Motors, which broke cover in August to show the world its electric supercar, the Renovo Coupe.

Due to Renovo's partnership with Shelby American, the Coupe looks stunning, a two-door GT-style sports car based on the 1964 Shelby Daytona. Yet there are no cylinders or carburetors under the hood, no exhaust pipe sticking out from behind. The Renovo Coupe is completely electric, boasting three lithium-ion battery packs placed strategically to balance the 3,250-pound car and two electric motors generating 400 kilowatts.

With battery output pushed to 740 volts, the power at the rear wheels comes to 1,000 pound-feet and over 500 horsepower, taking the Coupe to 60 mph from a standstill in 3.4 seconds.

During my visit to Renovo's modest headquarters, CEO Chris Heiser gives me a ride. As this coupe is the only one currently in existence, he's not going to let me take the wheel. The cabin, still in prototype before production begins next year, looks purposefully rough. Instead of a radio or navigation unit, there is a row of unlabeled metal toggle switches. However, the analog gauges, power on the left and speedo on the right, look good with their blue back-lighting. In the center an LCD shows range of 120 miles and a message reading "All systems nominal". We are in the future.

Renovo Motors Coupe
The Renovo Coupe looks stunning, thanks to Shelby American's roller, based on the legendary Shelby Daytona. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Heiser stops in the middle of the road, gives me a millisecond to prepare, then floors it. The car twists a little as the meaty Michelin Pilot Super Sports dig in and we are off, shot down the road like a railgun round. Before I can blink, Heiser turns to me and says, "That's 60", and begins slowing down. In the Renovo Coupe, that means letting off the accelerator which, like in the Tesla Model S, burns off speed through regenerative braking.

However, Renovo didn't stint on the friction brakes. Up front we have six piston calipers around 14-inch rotors, with four piston caliper clamping 13.4-inch rotors on the rears. Those brakes signal the entire purpose behind the Renovo Coupe: to be the best electric sports car you can buy.

Co-founders Heiser and Jason Stinson, Renovo's CTO, come from a Silicon Valley tech background. Stinson spent 18 years at Intel developing Pentium chips, while Heiser is a veteran of tech start-ups. Although neither comes from the automotive industry, both share a passion for cars and driving. Heiser tells me he gets on the Nurburgring about once a year and has built his own race cars.

When I sit down with Heiser in a conference room bedecked with vintage Nurburgring posters, he admits that Renovo Motors follows a model close to that of Tesla Motors' earlier days. Both partnered with established automotive companies, Tesla with Lotus and Renovo with Shelby. Those automotive companies used their expertise to build and supply "rollers", bodies and chassis lacking driveline components. Both Tesla and Renovo focused on developing electric drivetrains, relying on the atmosphere of innovation and the engineering talent that Heiser insists can only be found in Silicon Valley.

Apparently dedicated to the tech culture of the San Francisco bay area, Heiser points out that there is more development going on for automotive than ever before, and that development mindset can't be found in the traditional homes of the automobile industry. Rather, it takes nimble companies like Tesla and Renovo to break from tradition and develop for the future.

Christopher Heiser - Renovo Motors CEO
Renovo CEO Heiser stands between two classic posters, talking about the development of the Renovo Coupe. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Heiser gives Tesla all due credit for showing the world that an electric car doesn't have to be a souped-up golf cart, paving the way for the introduction of the Renovo Coupe. Beyond this start-up phase, Heiser does not intend to follow the path laid out by Tesla. Rather than build up the manufacturing capability for mass production, Heiser intends to keep the company focused on making the highest performance electric cars and developing the most efficient electric drivetrain technology.

As expressed in the Renovo Coupe, that means a bit of secret sauce in power output and control. As one innovation, the Renovo team chose higher voltage than typical electric cars, reducing resistance and heat, allowing lower gauge copper wiring. The power control software borrows an idea from cloud computing, virtualizing the three lithium-ion battery packs to see them as a single power source.

As we walk around the Coupe, Heiser says it has almost 1,000 sensors and four CANbus networks relaying data to the various subsystems in the car. The CANbus networks also connect to Renovo's telematics servers through the car's built-in 4G connection, which also will let the company deliver over-the-air software updates.

The Renovo Coupe is definitely not a mass-market car. A limited production run begins next year, and the hand-built cars will go for $529,000 each. Heiser tells me that Renovo could license its electric drivetrain technology as another revenue stream. However, when I ask if Renovo might diversify, and develop its technology for other industries, he replies that it is very important for a startup to remain focused. The company will dedicate its resources to developing electric drivetrains for cars.

Renovo Motors Coupe
Renovo went for higher voltage in its power output, resulting in less resistance and heat, to turn its 400-kilowatt electric motors. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Heiser envisions owners of the Coupe taking their cars to the track and running the hot laps for which the car was designed. At approximately 100 miles of range, owners will need to recharge between sessions, but the car supports DC fast charging through its CHAdeMO port, juicing up for more laps in half an hour. There is also a standard J1772 port for 110- and 240-volt charging.

That range figure puts the Renovo Coupe behind the Tesla Model S, and acceleration to 60 mph is comparable to the latest P85 Plus all-wheel-drive version of the Model S. Heiser says Renovo could have added more battery packs to increase the Coupe's range, but the weight would have gone considerably above the current 3,250 pounds, lessening its track performance. The historic Shelby Daytona on which the Coupe is based counts victories at Le Mans, Monza and the Nurburgring, and it looks like Renovo will support that pedigree with its electrically driven version.

The Renovo Coupe seems likely to join the Tesla Model S as standard bearers for electric cars. While it is fair to say that wide scale adoption of electric cars is inevitable, Renovo just may be shaping that future to allow the same kind of excitement automotive enthusiasts have garnered from gasoline-powered cars.