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Terrafugia’s “flying car” finally lands in New York

Terrafugia Transition airplane modeThe Terrafugia Transition is a unique car, because it’s actually a plane. It is the first vehicle to meet both Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) requirements, and the first non-commercial vehicle that requires two licenses to drive. The Transition made its first flight on March 23 at Plattsburgh, New York, but Terrafugia brought it to the New York Auto Show to see if would appeal to drivers as well as pilots.

It’s obvious to call the Transition a flying car, but really more airplane than automobile. The Transition is primarily marketed to private pilots. “Don’t think of it as a car that flies, think of it as a plane that drives,” said Terrafugia COO Anna Dietrich. The light aircraft entry-level pilots fly come with a major limitation, company founder Carl Dietrich explained. Those aircraft can’t be flown in rough weather, so pilots often get stranded at airports due to unpredictable conditions. With the Transition, they can just continue their journey on the road.

The Transition’s rasion d’etre is to take advantage of the resources available to pilots. In 2004, the FAA created the Sport Pilot Certificate, which made getting a pilot’s license easier. It requires a minimum of 20 hours of instruction (costing $3,500-$4,500), about half what other licenses cost. Terrafugia pilots can also take advantage of America’s 5,000 public airports, most of which lack a rental car counter and duty-free store.

Terrafugia Transition wings openingClearly, the Transition offers a lot to pilots, but Terrafugia wants to expand into the automotive market. In the air, it can cruise at 100 mph, but on the ground it tops out around 65. At least it gets 35 mpg, courtesy of a 100 horsepower Rotax 912 ULS aircraft engine that runs on 91 octane unleaded. The engine drives the rear wheels (just ahead of the rear-mounted propellor) through a continuously variable transmission.

In terms of handling, the Transition has some of the features of a good sports car. It has independent suspension, and Terrafugia claims a near-50/50 front-rear weight distribution. However, the terra-plane is longer and wider (hence the roof-mounted lights) than most normal cars, so it’s probably not what car magazines call “tossable.” With it’s long wheelbase, this is more of a highway cruiser, which should be good enough.

The Transition’s cabin is a light aircraft fuselage; it doesn’t like the most crash-worthy thing. But underneath the skin is a carbon fiber safety cage, and unlike other light aircraft, the Transition has crumple zones. To be road legal, Terrafugia needed to get two waivers from the NHTSA: one for the car’s nonstandard tires, another for it’s aircraft-style windshield (made from polycarbonate instead of laminated glass).

According to the company, 100 orders have already been placed. Each of those 100 buyers put down a $10,000 deposit, although Terrafugia did run an auto show special of $2,500. The total price for this chimeric vehicle is $279,000. Terrafugia expects to build 25 to 35 Transitions per year.