Rinspeed Squba (2009) review

By Ben Pulman 04 June 2009

By Ben Pulman

04 June 2009

Click here to watch Rinspeed Squba video

Forget crossovers – the Rinspeed Squba redefines the definition of a multi-purpose vehicle. While other manufacturers bang on about the versatility of their cars, talking up the dual on- and off-road ability, or conversing at length about the carrying capacity for driver-focused vehicles, nothing is quite as flexible as the Squba – you can drive it on the road, on water and underwater.

It’s built by Rinspeed, the Swiss concept car maker that always turns up to the Geneva motor show with something a bit wacky. In 2008 it was the Squba that was on display, with company chief Frank Rinderknecht grinning proudly as journalists gawped at his real-life recreation of James Bond’s The Spy Who Loved Me Lotus.

How do you turn a Lotus Elise into a sea-worthy Rinspeed Squba?    

With the help of one millions Euros. Rinspeed started with a Lotus Elise as a donor car, which they had to buy from their local Lotus dealer because Hethel wanted no official part in the project. And once the lithe Elise had been stripped down, Rinspeed sold the spare parts – including the Toyota engine – back to the same Lotus dealer.

Once the Elise had been pared back to its bare aluminium shell, six (pre-waterproofed) lithium-ion Seabob sea scooter batteries and an electric motor were slotted into the engine bay, so the Squba would run as a zero emissions car. On the road the batteries run in series to provide the highest voltage (equivalent to 72bhp and 118lb ft), and in the water they switch to a parallel set-up to power the two propellers, two water jets and the pump that drains the Squba’s cabin. All the electric bits and pieces were then sealed in a watertight box, every nook and cranny sprayed with foam to keep the Squba afloat, and then one very foolish journalist was invited to drive it.  

Let’s start with the stuff that’s safe for you – does the Squba still handle like a Lotus Elise on the road?

Not quite. A regular Elise weighs just 860kg, but the extra heft of the electric gear and means the Squba tips the scales at 920kg. The torque does a good job of hefting the Squba off the line, and Rinspeed claims a 7.1 second sprint to 50mph, plus a top speed of 75mph. It could have been faster, but that would require more (heavier) batteries – as it is, the Squba is still quick enough to keep up with most traffic.

The new coilover KW suspension does a good job of dealing with the extra weight, and the steering fluidity will still teach every mainstream manufacturer a thing or two a feel from the wheel. Ultimately it’s a few steps behind the Elise, but for a one-off concept car it’s pretty amazing.

>> Click 'Next' below to read more of our Rinspeed Squba first drive  

Time to fight your instincts and head down the nearest slipway…

The biggest surprise when you hit the water is that the Squba floats. You know there’s lots of foam filling the Elise, but it’s still amazing that a near-one tonne chunk of metal will bob gently on the surface of Lake Zurich.

Now comes the clever bit – press a button and the Rinspeed transforms from an electric Elise into the Squba. Louvres in the front grille opening, acting like a gill to direct water into the wing-mounted jets, while those six electric batteries no longer turn the rear wheels.

On the water the jets are too high to have an effect, so the propellers power you forward, controlled by two levers mounted on the Elise’s wide sill. It means twirling the wheel has no impact on which way the Squba is going, so in the water it’s the first Elise without steering feel.

But once underway you forget you’re in a car, sit back in the sun and set about getting a tan as you cruise between boats and watch the lake splash over the front wings as if you were wading through water in a Land Rover.

And how is it – deep breath – under water?

First you have to dive, but because the foam makes the Squba buoyant you have to wind down the windows and open the doors so water can flood into the cabin – it’s effectively like scuttling your own ship. At first the cold lake trickles in, but soon it’s a torrent and the Squba is sinking.

But that pesky foam means the Squba only submerges as far as its header rail, meaning you have to use the jets and propellers to force the car beneath the surface. Two levers that replace the gearstick angle the jets, and the clutch and accelerator control the thrust, so beneath the surface you stamp on the pedals and dive.

>> Click 'Next' below to read more of our Rinspeed Squba first drive

Just how are you breathing?

Through an on-board air supply. Rinderknecht thought about using a closed-cockpit car, even an Exige, but with all that air in the cabin helping to make the car buoyant it would take a couple of extra tonnes to sink the car. Instead the Squba is a roadster, so it’s easier to sink, easier to see out of, and (just in case) easier to escape from.

And because you’re breathing through a scuba kit, you have to regulate your breaths, so you subconsciously actually keep yourself quite calm, despite being ten feet underwater. In a car.

On the day CAR visited Lake Zurich the water wasn’t particularly clear, so beyond the nose of the car it was impossible to see our photographer until we were upon him. With your visual senses restricted, you concentrate on your immediate surroundings instead. Suddenly your own movement seems amazing, as you watch your arms and legs float inside the familiar surroundings of an Elise. It’s an incredible feeling of weightlessness, and until Rinderknecht builds a car that goes into space – he believes a flying car is possible – it’s as close as I’ll ever come to being an astronaut.

Verdict

To some people Rinderknecht’s Rinspeed concept cars will be irrelevant, but his tiny Swiss operation has been churning out eco-friendly one-offs for a few years. Remember the A-class look-alike that shrunk to squeeze into parking spaces, the gas-powered 911 Turbo pick-up, or this year’s iChange with moveable bodywork? All were aimed at offering environmentally friendly solutions to our current transport needs, and this electric Elise is another attempt.

On the other hand it’s a just an utterly glorious toy, with hints of a Tesla on the road, and like nothing else on earth when it's on or in the water. It’s utterly wonderful. Let the terrible water-based puns begin.

>> Click 'Add your comment' below and let us know what you think of the Rinspeed Squba

>> CAR originally drove the Rinspeed Squba in the September 2008 issue of CAR Magazine

Statistics

How much? £800,000
On sale in the UK: Never
Engine: Electric motor with six Seabob lithium-ion batteries
Transmission: Rear-wheel drive (on land); two bow jets and two propellers (under water)
Performance: 5.1sec 0-50mph, 75mph (on land); 1.8mph (under water), 0g/km CO2
How heavy / made of? 920kg/aluminium and glassfibre
How big (length/width/height in mm)?

Ratings

Handling 4 out of 5
Performance 3 out of 5
Usability 4 out of 5
Feelgood factor 5 out of 5
CAR's Rating 4 out of 5

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