The little Sparrow that could - only carry one person

Tiny electric three-wheeler is expensive, but in hot demand

Look at a Sparrow, and you know it's different. Even the name is the antithesis of a brawny Detroit ideal.

But this little three wheeler has a mammoth mission - to change the way America thinks about transportation.

In this case, that means thinking about a single-seat electric car that sells for $14,700. If that doesn't sound like a bargain, consider this: Corbin, the motor-cycle-parts company based in Hollister, Calif., that makes the Sparrow, has a two-year waiting list. "We haven't had to do much convincing [or marketing] to sell the Sparrow," says company president Tom Corbin. "They just send in orders."

To understand the Sparrow, start with the genesis of the idea. On a business trip to L.A., Mike Corbin, Tom's dad and the founder of the motorcycle-parts business, was standing on a freeway overpass at rush hour. Below, he saw several lanes of cars stuck in traffic. Next to them a few cars - and motorcycles -zipped by in the nearly empty carpool lane. He decided electric cars were the solution to wasted idling. Then lightning struck. All those drivers were alone in cars that were too big. The key to America's traffic problems, he thought, was single-seater vehicles that could use carpool lanes.

"If you look at the national statistics," says Tom, "87 percent of America goes less than 18 miles one way to work each day. And 93 percent of the time they're alone. So really a one-person vehicle is an ideal way to travel to and from work."

"We're not proposing that this is a primary-purpose vehicle," he says. "We're saying keep your family car, keep your sport-utility, but in certain instances, the Sparrow can do a lot more than your full-size vehicle."

The Sparrow's mission is to keep it simple. Its efficiency is based on small size and light weight, not high technology. It uses basic lead acid batteries and standard brakes. It has a heater, CD player, and power windows, but no A/C.

In financial terms, it seems hard to justify $15,000 for an auxiliary vehicle with a range of 60 miles and enough luggage room for four large pizzas. The price was set to correspond with "what people will pay for a nice motorcycle," says Corbin. Still, the tiny Sparrow will hit 80 miles an hour, if you have the courage. ("Thrilling" doesn't begin to describe it.)

Corbin is so sold on the single-seat car idea that he is investing millions more to develop a second single-seater, the Merlin, that will run on gasoline and have 6 times the range of the Sparrow. But it won't appear until 2004.

As three wheelers, the Corbin cars are registered as motorcycles, though they have to meet many automotive safety standards as well, he says, such as safety glass and a seat belt. And in most states, drivers don't have to wear a helmet.

Payback comes mainly in parking, says Corbin. "When you decide to go downtown to San Francisco, you're not really worried about pollution," he says. "You're saying, 'I don't know where I'm gonna park!' "

Sparrows can use motorcycle parking, at a rate of 50 cents to $3 a day, compared to $15 to $40 a day for cars. At that rate, the Sparrow would pay back its purchase price in just over 2 years.

While the Sparrow is not likely to take over the world -so far less than 200 have been built - Corbin predicts that "in 20 years everybody will be driving special-purpose, clean-air vehicles in an urban environment."

Buyers seem to fit Corbin's target demographic -only 10 percent are motorcycle or electric-car buffs. The rest just want the benefit for commuting -mostly around congested California cities. The largest customer is Domino's pizza, which bought several as delivery vehicles after getting Corbin to stretch the cargo area to fit four pizzas.

In the face of doubters, Corbin mentions Henry Ford and Steve Jobs. In the early days of the automobile, few people saw the need for one -much less two or three. "When Apple invented the personal computer, they predicted everybody would have one in their household. No one else thought it was a big deal."

"I think over a long period of time, 10 to 20 years, people are going to look back and say, 'Yeah, it all started with those guys making those little Corbin cars.' "

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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