Over the last century of the automobile the basic packaging formula has remained much the same: Engine/transmission, passenger compartment and fuel tank. With some variations for engine location (mid- or rear- engined cars) this has been, and remains, the standard assumption for planning the layout of cars.
A decade ago, though, the idea of fuel cells powering the car of the future was all the rage. A number of high-profile concepts emerged from those enthusiastic days, and as electric cars were not yet sophisticated enough in terms of battery power or range, it was assumed that these experiments pointed toward the future of the car.
Pininfarina, intimately involved in these discussions, decided to create a car that questioned all the assumptions of packaging and powertrain placement. Pininfarina set two fundamental concepts as the foundation for the design. They were:
‘Liquid Packaging’ – Arranging the powertrain components next to the wheels and opening a greater portion of the car’s total volume for passengers.
‘Transparent Mobility’ – Employing a wireless communication system that allows the car to communicate with other cars, local infrastructure and occupants’ wireless devices such as smartphones.
The result was the Pininfarina Sintesi (Italian for Synthesis), a four-passenger concept sedan that allowed for executive-class comfort with an advanced powertrain and wireless communication systems.
The powertrain was a fuel cell developed in partnership with American company Nuvera Fuel Cells, and it featured four in-wheel electric motors coupled with four fuel cell stacks located inside the frame near the wheels. The centre tunnel between the seats integrated a bio-fuel tank and a reformer, a device capable of producing hydrogen and sending it over to the fuel cell stacks.
The breakdown and distribution of powertrain elements allowed for a more generous passenger compartment. Entered through four scissor doors, passengers would sit in the four seats arrayed alongside the center tunnel/fuel tank. These seats had black squabs that sat on raised areas on the floor and matched the carpet color. The white seat backs cantilevered off frames on the center stack.
The instrument panel was crafted by Materialise and its translucent cover panel was 3D printed with stereolithography. Underneath this panel was a hexagonal structural grid that provided a sort of supportive skeleton. The IP would display function and communications, monitored by means of colored lighting.
The exterior was a sculptural wrapping around the passenger compartment and powertrain, almost like a fabric in its silky smoothness, as befitting the ‘Liquid Packaging’ concept. Aerodynamics, of course, played a large part in its design. The Sintesi had a Cd of 0.27, very respectable for a four-passenger car.
The side profile of the car is a flowing wedge with a great windscreen and glasshouse that curves up into the roof of the car. The composition ends abruptly at the strong Kamm tail. The shark-nosed front has a sports car presence and the Osram LED lights also contained road sensors that fed information to onboard systems. At the rear the tail light strip runs underneath the broad rear window as the body form curves around it.
The composition of side elevation is so strong it is easy to overlook the fundamental sculptural aspect of the car until you circle it to get a sense of its sculptural modeling. The tumblehome on the sides is dramatic, and the curvature displayed from front and rear views shows something more than just a transformed three box sedan, it is, as our colleague Sam Livingstone observed, a sculptural tube, wrapping around the passengers.
Some have pointed out that, in the end, the Sintesi doesn’t accomplish as much as had been promised in the brief. The four passengers have a traditional seating arrangement. The steering, instrument panel and other elements are advanced but not entirely different to a traditional car. There are not exotic controls, no unconventional seating arrangements.
But science fiction was not Pininfarina’s goal. “Our source of inspiration,” said Lowie Vermeersch, Pininfarina Design Manager at the time, “was man’s freedom over technology, a car in which technology gives creative freedom back to the designer and allows us to explore new forms and future scenarios. But at the same time, we did not want everything to be limited to a flight of fancy, we wanted our approach to be very concrete.”
Obviously many critics agreed, as the Sintesi would go on to win the prestigious Red Dot award for 2008, beating out some 1,900 entries from 48 countries.
Today, almost a decade later, fuel cells have declined as the preferred propulsion system of the future, although Honda, Toyota and a few others still hold the flame aloft. Electrics now have all the attention, and it remains to be seen if battery placement will mirror some of the advancement the Sintesi made.
One thing is for sure: The Sintesi set a high bar for design excellence that will be very difficult to beat.