GENEVA – ItalDesign SpA takes center stage on the first day of the Geneva auto show press preview with a show car that combines the sleekness of a sports car with the hybrid powertrain technology of the Toyota Prius.

Called the Alessandro Volta, the car is an elegant 3-seat coupe, with a low roof extending through the abrupt rear that is reminiscent of the ’64 Alfa Romeo Canguro. Much like last year’s Alfa Romeo Brera concept supercar, also designed by ItalDesign, the look is modern but not futuristic.

The engine is Toyota Motor Corp.’s naturally aspirated gasoline 3.3L V-6 installed transversely behind the passenger compartment and ahead of the rear axle. The vehicle can achieve 0-62 mph (100 km/h) in four seconds. Although it is all-wheel drive, it weighs less than 2,756 lbs. (1,250 kg).

Power is transmitted to the front and rear axles by two high-torque electric motors that also serve as an electronically controlled differential, thus allowing AWD.

Alessandro Volta

There may be some supercars that can beat the Volta’s performance but not with the fuel efficiency of this super ultra low emissions vehicle, which can travel 435 miles (700 km) on a tank (14 gallons [52L] of gas.

Although it may seem odd to see a Toyota designed by Italians, this is not the first time ItalDesign has expanded its horizons into technology. In the 1980s, the Italian design house penned concepts such as the ’80 Panda Strip, the frontrunner of today’s small cross/utility vehicle developed on a passenger car platform rather than a small truck. And in 1987, ItalDesign created the AWD Lancia Delta, which won multiple world rally championships.

Giorgetto Giugiaro and son Fabrizio were fascinated by Toyota Lexus luxury division’s RX 400h (due to go on sale in 2005) with Hybrid Synergy Drive technology, unveiled at January’s international auto show in Detroit. The pair could not resist the temptation to investigate the possibilities hybrid technology offers. They decided their next show car would reflect their admiration for Toyota’s innovation.

With eager cooperation from the Japanese auto maker, Italian designers and engineers challenged themselves to dress up the hybrid technology with a sexy sports car.

To begin with, they reorganized the architecture, making full use of the flexibility of the hybrid powertrain and their own ability at designing an entirely new sports car from a group of components.

But why such a difficult name for a show car? Alessandro Volta was an Italian physician who invented the battery as a chemical source of electric energy. Voltaic and volts are words referring to his findings and inventions.

And this car is precisely the latest innovation in battery technology. Its dimensions, weight, energy density and production costs, as developed by Toyota, allow the super sports car to enjoy outstanding performance.

Considering the amount of management work the project required and the fact he was busy with the design of the Alfa Romeo Visconti show car (also for Geneva), Giorgetto Giugiaro asked Fabrizio to oversee the Volta project. (See related story: Alfa Visconti Concept Gives Peak at Upcoming 157)

The son deeply involved himself with the construction techniques and design package. “It is a complex and very demanding project, but it is great fun and a real challenge,” he said at the time.

“As in 1990, when we did the BMW Nazca, we are creating a completely new car from a white paper, but with a major difference,” he said. “Here, I am working with the technology of the future. There is one engine and two electric motors, but there is no mechanical transmission in this car.

“Nothing hardly connecting the front with the rear but just a cable delivering power to the front motor, and there is no gearbox. There is no driveshaft nor exhaust system going from rear to front, and we have the benefit of a flat floor. We have also greater freedom in drawing the layout of the mechanical parts.”

The V-6, he says, is relatively narrow and compact and installed in the middle of the car. The two electric motors have the size and weight of a differential, and the compact battery weighs only about 154 lbs. (70 kg).

The battery is located underneath the fuel tank and, together, the two take the same space of a 26-gallon (100-L) tank. As in Formula 1 cars, they are installed between the cockpit and the engine.

“This all means that the mechanical of the Hybrid Synergy powertrain is even or better than a conventional powertrain, with the advantage that it can be split between front and rear axle for superlative dynamics,” Fabrizio Giugiaro says. “The essence of body architecture and design came out quite naturally after we had organized the components onto the running chassis.”

The Volta is surprisingly short: just 14 ft. (4.3 m) overall, less than the Lamborghini Gallardo. And at 6.3 ft. (1.93 m) wide, “you may look at it as fairly compact,” says Fabrizio Giugiaro, although not close to the Lotus Exige.

The classic silhouette and unusual proportions speak of the technology and make for a very modern car. Volta uses 19-in. wheels with Pirelli P Zero Rosso tires (245/40 ZR 19 front and 285/40/19 rear).

The vehicle’s front is low and long, thus granting character and style. The windscreen is sleek and the roofline, shaped for aerodynamics, drives the airflow into the integrated rear spoiler.

As with the Brera concept, the glass forming the windscreen expands into the roof. The upper part of the Volta is all glass but for the roll-bar structure.

The architecture is somewhat classic, but the surface treatment is very accurate and expressive, with powerful wheel arches, character lines, air intakes just ahead the rear doors and a peculiar exhaust on the side of the car. The Volta clearly speaks the Giugiaro design language.

Fabrizio Giugiaro adopted a very pragmatic and somewhat conventional approach in designing the Volta. He felt the technology was the main theme and wanted to make sure that it translated into the right shape.

To enhance the car’s light weight, ItalDesign worked with one of its partners on the development and testing of a new kind of carbon-fiber chassis frame.

No longer made as a sandwich, with two layers of carbon fiber and Nomex in between, the Volta’s body panels are thin as a metal sheet and stiffened by a net of structuring “noodles,” also made of carbon fiber.

“It is like a tubular frame made of carbon fiber and is less expensive,” says Fabrizio Giugiaro. The bodywork also is made of carbon fiber, as with most recent show cars built by ItalDesign, allowing for major energy and cost savings.

The Volta is painted with the typical “ItalDesign red” first used for the Brera. Too late, Fabrizio Giugiaro says, he realized the classic silver grey that has been a trademark of ItalDesign for decades looked much better, giving the car a more profound “high-tech” look.

The Volta’s interior also introduces a series of innovations, including a mechanical system that allows driver controls on either side of the center. Toyota offered its drive-by-wire technology, but Fabrizio Giugiaro opted for mechanical steering in order to fully demonstrate the car’s performance on road and track.

Working intensively on the project, he eventually reached the conclusion that Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy technology and the new running chassis could not be hidden underneath the bodywork. He decided they should be fully admired and appreciated at Geneva.

This unusual arrangement allows professionals and amateurs alike to get a good look at the innovative carbon-fiber bearing structure, powertrain, high-tech chassis with a single shock absorber front suspension (experimented with on the Alfa Romeo Scighera), and the new – attractive and intriguing – design of the rear suspension.

It is for this reason that the running chassis and body are presented separately in Geneva. The marriage between the two will take place before the Paris Mondial de l’Automobile show in September. According to current plans, the final Volta will demonstrate its outstanding potential on road and track shortly before the show.