A Tale of Two Hybrids in New York

The McLaren P1 is a 903-horsepower hypercar. The Schulich Delta is a solar-powered homebrew. We meet both.

byLawrence Ulrich|
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Lawrence Ulrich/TheDrive.com

One is fueled by money and electricity, the other by sunshine and optimism. But when a 903-horsepower McLaren P1 and a 4-horsepower solar chariot swung through Manhattan’s urban jungle on Oct. 29, we had the same thought for their drivers: Screw the planet. Save yourselves.

“I never thought I’d drive this car with three inches on either side of me,” said Chris S., as he diced through New York traffic for the first time in his life—in his $1.2 million McLaren hybrid hypercar, chassis No. 191 of the mere 375 P1s built for the world. “Fingers crossed that we don’t get hit by a taxicab.”

Minutes later, the 23-year-old from Bakersfield, Calif., (who preferred to fly surname-less on this day) flies up the West Side Highway, hitting the steering wheel “IPAS” button that adds an extra squirt of electric passing power to the P1’s 727-horsepower twin-turbo V8. We shoot to the George Washington Bridge in about two minutes flat, my body molecularly binding with the carbon-fiber passenger seat every time Chris hits the gas.   

Chris adores his P1, aside from a $9,000 repair bill from when a stray rock dinged the moonroof on a cruise with three other P1s during this year’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Élégance. It hasn’t stopped him from shopping at his local Costco and Albertson’s to load up the P1, which he insists is greener than it looks, or sounds.

“We’re getting 15.5 mpg in New York traffic, and the car will get 30 mpg, which for 903 horsepower is insane,” he says.

This whole urban-explorer idea belonged to the National Geographic Channel, which wrapped the McLaren and a slew of other alternative-propulsion cars—a BMW i8, a Tesla Model S, Hyundai’s hydrogen Tucson—in promos for Breakthrough, its new anthology series on leading scientists and innovations. The first six episodes, airing this fall, are directed by movie heavyweights including Ron Howard, Peter Berg, Akiva Goldsman and Paul Giamatti.

A 630-lb wedge of innovation awaits as the McLaren pulls back onto 51st St: the Schulich Delta, a solar-powered, carbon-fiber hatchback created by students at the University of Calgary. With 370 high-efficiency solar roof panels and a pair of electric motors humming in the rear wheels, the Delta has 899 fewer horses than the McLaren, but can still make its way through Manhattan on just 1,000 watts.

“We can get up to 60 mph using the same power as a hair dryer,” says Ryan Ma, a senior engineering student who urges me to don a bike helmet before we take a spin.

The Delta has 899 fewer horses than the McLaren, but can still make its way through Manhattan on just 1,000 watts.

That’s because the Delta is a carbon-fiber can with flimsy doors, no airbags or other safety gear. But unlike some skeletal solar competitors, which the students dismiss as “ping-pong tables with wheels,” the Delta seats two passengers, has cup holders, floor mats and a rear-view camera, and can stow two sets of golf clubs. For this Calgary-based crew, there’s even a plastic Stanley Cup on the dashboard, though at this moment I’d prefer a St. Christopher medallion.

Even where the sun don’t shine, that being midtown Manhattan on a cloudy fall day, the Delta can travel about 250 miles on a charge of its 135-lb, 14 kilowatt-hour battery pack. When the day dawns bright, the students say, the Delta is so efficient that it could essentially drive indefinitely at up to 30 mph, powered entirely by the sun.

Before even encountering tetchy, eve-of-winter New Yorkers and attending this evening’s Breakthrough premiere, the students have heard every cynical dismissal of solar-powered cars or solar-powered anything. Ma and project co-chair Jonah Zankl note that the Toyota Prius already incorporates solar cells to help heat or cool the cabin. After competing in endurance events from Australia to Austin, the students are convinced that, within five years, more cars will integrate solar panels to help power air conditioners, radios and other accessories—saving gasoline every time they soak up rays. That, or a McLaren with a solar-powered boost button.