Monday, April 27, 2009

Electric Car Test Drive Round Up

Electric cars and modular homes are the two applications in my mind that could make the green consumer market finally explode.

Why? They're the only two that really drive lust and envy. Solar panels are fun for about 15 minutes, but once you've seen the meter go backward a couple of times the thrill wears off. Household wind turbines? Your neighbors will come over to see them, and then warn you about their pending lawsuit.

We tried the organic hand cleaner. It's not nearly as addictive as Purell.

So with that in mind, here's the roundup of electric cars I've driven and a quick review. Mostly, they are in order.

1. Tesla Roadster: By far the best of the bunch. Quick acceleration, good handling, lots of style. Strangers stare admirably. And there's a collection of T-shirts and hats to buy. The Tesla Motors dealership in Menlo Park, Calif. is one of the few in the world that seems to get tourists off the street. The downside: I am the cheapest person in North America. I'd probably sell one of my kidneys for cash than buy a $109,000 car.

2. Nissan's prototype EV: The final version of Nissan's prototype EV will look different, which is good. The prototype looks like something you would drive in a gator zoo in Florida. But the car handled well and had the pickup one would expect from a mid-sized economy car. A big plus is the price: $20,000 to $33,000 before the federal tax rebate or any state incentives (see Under the Hood With Nissan's Electric Car). (Side note: I am told that car manufacturers can't knock the price of the car down and take the tax break when it comes in. It's unassignable. Thus, you pay full price and get the rebate on your own.)

The downside: It's a Nissan. The envy factor will be moderate.

3. The Aptera 2e: Technically, they didn't let me drive it. I rode in the passenger seat. But it seemed to handle and accelerate well. Highlights: You're only about two feet off the ground so even motorcycles are higher. Sort of like riding a recumbent bike or a toboggan. The fact that it has three wheels seems freakish, but you get over it quick.

Downside: I like the nostalgic futuristic tone of Aptera's design, but you could see it getting old too. People compared it to the lounge in the former Pan Am section of JFK airport or the car Woody Allen drove in Sleeper. Another ding: It's pretty easy to bonk your head on the gull wing doors getting into the car. Most buyers will likely live in terror that the doors will stick, break or get sheared off by a moving van.

4. The Persu Hybrid: Formerly known as the VentureOne. Persu's hybrid is a three-wheeled car developed originally in the Netherlands that tilts like a motorcycle. Two people can ride in it, but in a row, sort of like a bobsled, which limits conversation. It's small, so you could park it almost anywhere, and because of which it fits into a lot of different parking spots.

The tilt and park-ability factor would give it a slight advantage over the Nissan and Aptera, but there are a few major caveats. First, back in 2007, the company the first cars would hit the U.S. in 2009. Now, it says it will announce a release date when it is confident. Second, it has gone from promising a full electric to a just a hybrid. So who knows if it will every come out.

5. Zero Motorcycles: "It is a bit jumpy. The acceleration is quick," Zero Motorcycles founder Neal Saiki told me. Moments later, I narrowly missed him and almost careened into a dumpster. But once I got used to it, it was great. Motorcycles could become one of the quick growth markets for electric vehicles: They're cheaper than cars and the crash-testing burden is lighter.

The company has been selling a dirtbike for a while and is now doing a street version with a 60-mile range. Downside: The price of lithium-ion batteries affects cycle prices too. The Zero S will sell for just under $10,000. Honorable mention to the electric scooters from Vectrix as well, but I didn't come close to having an accident, so some of the thrill was gone.

6. The X-1 from Wrightspeed: Ian Wright has produced one of the fastest cars on the road with the Wrightspeed X1. It handles great too. He dodged around a couple of guys unloading pallets of appliances on one of our test rides. The Wrightspeed, though, is in beta, so it's tough to rate higher. When it comes to market, the ranking will likely move up.

7. The Zappy 3 EZ: Not the scooter with the seat. This is a plank with three wheels, a handlebar and an electric motor. In other words, a motorized version of my daughter's Hello Kitty scooter. Although Zap's Xebra drives like a mobile bomb, this thing was a blast. I wanted to set up a jump in the driveway. It tops out at around 15 miles per hour but CEO Steve Schneider said he cranked one up close to 30 mph on a downhill.

8. Proterra's EcoRide: It's a city bus. It goes about 10 miles an hour. But Proterra's EcoRide bus is silent and there's plenty of room to place "TAKE ONE FREE" placards for the University of Phoenix. Bus systems and municipal fleets will be some of the first big buyers of electric cars because they don't worry about long driving ranges or an inability to find a charging station. They will own their own stations. The buses right now are expensive but if the price comes down expect to see them in lots of cities (see Too Much! The Electric Bus!).

9. The A2B from Ultramotor: To date, electric bikes have been popular mostly in China. In the U.S., they are probably still less popular than unicycles or cars shaped like giant hot dogs.

The A2B is a definite positive step forward. It weighs 70 pounds, but you can get uphill pretty easy by pedaling and hitting the electric engine. My wife loved it. We tried to put my mother-in-law on it but she toppled over, so it's not for everyone. There are big disadvantages too. it costs $2,700, or more than even a really good road bike, and it is not very attractive. One person thought it came from a medical supply store.

10. The Tango from Commuter Cars: Another toboggan-style two seater. The car even has a built-in roll cage. It's extremely fast and drives well. The downside: It costs over $100,000 and looks like a shoebox. Or something that snapped free from a carnival ride (see Test Driving the All-Electric Mini Car). If you want to impress your neighbors, assuage a midlife crisis or even meet women hanging out in front of a convenience store, the Tesla Roadster is a better value.

11. The Miles EV: Miles currently specializes in low-speed for military bases, retirement communities and college campuses. But it actually drove quite well. We managed to crank it up some steep hills and even got the wheels to squeal once. If you're 75 and living at Rossmoor, it's the car for you. And gives me hope for the freeway legal version of the Miles – a Chinese made car with an electric motor – coming next year

12. GM's Hydrogen Equinox and Mercedes A Class Hydrogen: Actually, these two were the smoothest driving, quietest of all the cars on the list. Too bad about the $1 million price tags.

13. Xebra from Zap: Sort of the opposite end of the three-wheeler spectrum. The Xebra from Zap was the first electric car I ever drove and the bottom of the list. Instead of having two wheels in front and one in the back (like Aptera's 2e) it has one in front and two in the back. As a result, it wobbles. It also looks like something from a Dr. Seuss book. The lead-acid car also accelerates slowly. "I was scared," my cameraman, who filmed the video, told me later.

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