Electric Cars Power Up (Quietly) to Hit the Road

Undeterred by canceled mandates, technical hurdles, carmakers put pedal to the metal building new models

The electric car has traveled a long and winding road to market.

Environmentalists, utilities, and others have long championed the plucky little vehicles. But skeptics argued that the limits of battery technology made the cars impractical for America's long distances. And politicians in California went so far as to repeal state zero-emissions vehicle mandates set to kick in by 1998. Today, only electrics qualify as zero-emissions vehicles.

Manufacturers nevertheless clearly believe there's an electric car in American drivers' futures. A number of independent carmakers are already selling them, and now giant General Motors plans to start leasing its EV1 to Californians in the fall. Ford and Chrysler are designing their own vehicles to meet California mandates still in place, which call for electric cars to make up 10 percent of car sales by 2003.

But if they build the cars, will drivers come? Carmakers still face a tough challenge: persuading consumers who have snubbed the cars as underpowered puddlejumpers to hop in and find out what the latest models are really like to drive.

Taking it for a spin

For starters, they're quiet. Otherwise, they're more like your gas-powered wheels than you might expect.

Brief drives in a Solectria Force (a Geo Metro sedan stripped of its engine and drivetrain, with an electric motor in its place) and the new GM EV1 showed the cars to be comfortable and surprisingly peppy. The cars have just about all the standard features buyers expect.

But they are small. While the Geo Metro-based Solectria seats four, the EV1 is strictly a two-seater.

The size is a function of the limitation of today's batteries. With standard lead-acid batteries, the EV1 can go only 70 to 90 miles before recharging, the Solectria 45 miles. (A prototype car recently went about 300 miles in controlled racing conditions with very expensive space-age batteries.) Recharging takes 3 to 3-1/2 hours on a 220-volt charger. Larger, heavier cars would have significantly less range. That makes electrics suitable for most commutes, but less attractive for a trip to grandmother's house across the state.

On the other hand, "most cars in America average only one or two 10-mile trips a day," says Karl Thidemann, Solectria's director of marketing. "Those are the trips people make back and forth to work each day," he explains. "Electric cars could easily replace gasoline-burning cars on these trips. And the cars most often used on those trips are the oldest, most polluting cars in use. That alone could make a big difference in air quality."

A bar graph on the dashboard of the EV1 indicates the percentage of charge remaining, much as a gas gauge. The Solectria uses a digital meter that shows the number of amps drawn off the batteries. Step hard on the accelerator, and the numbers roll so fast they become illegible - and the car zips.

Both cars come with the usual complement of accessories: an AM/FM cassette deck, remote-control mirrors, a rear-window defogger, daytime running lamps, and airbags. Running these doesn't hurt economy much, Mr. Thidemann says, but may take a quarter to half mile off the range.

What does sap range is running the heater or air-conditioner, or buying a car with power steering, such as the EV1. Because an electric motor doesn't idle the way a gasoline engine does, there is nothing to run a power steering pump or an air-conditioning compressor when the car is not moving - exactly when power steering is needed most. So manufacturers have to install a separate, constantly running motor to drive them.

Heat is a different problem. Electric heaters are notoriously inefficient and draw a lot of power. Solectria is working on installing kerosene heaters, saying they produce far less pollution than running a gasoline engine to supply heat or to propel the car.

In the meantime, both the Force and the EV1 have preheaters that allow owners to set a timer to warm up the interior while the car is still plugged into the charger, saving battery power once under way.

But on a soggy day, the front window defrosters proved ineffective in both cars, and the Solectria was slow to warm up.

Unplug and drive

Otherwise, both felt quite normal to drive. There's no starting: Just turn the Solectria's key or punch in a code in the EV1, and the car lights up. Pull the EV1's transmission lever into "drive" and the car rolls off, just as any automatic transmission does.

The Solectria takes a little more getting used to. In place of the gearshift is a large rotating electric switch, labeled "reverse, off, economy, normal, power." Select "normal" and step on the "gas" and at first nothing happens. If you're on a hill, the car may even roll back, much like a vehicle with a standard shift. You really have to mash the pedal to get started - and then you're going full tilt and need to back off. Once it's moving, the car drives normally.

But back off the power to slow down, and it feels as if the tires have run into a vat of chewing gum. The brakes are almost never necessary. This "regenerative braking" uses the car's momentum to recharge the batteries when the driver slows down.

The EV1 uses this system as well, but it is triggered only by stepping on the brake pedal, and so feels like a conventional car. In both cars, the regenerative braking can be switched off for driving on ice and snow, where it could cause a loss of traction.

Electric cars aren't cheap. The battery packs need to be replaced every two years, at a cost of about $2,000. "It's just like buying all your gas at once," says Sean McNamara, GM's marketing manager for advanced technology vehicles. But electricity to run the car costs only 2 cents a mile at current electric rates, as opposed to more than 20 cents a mile for gasoline.

The Solectria Force sells for $34,000 while GM's EV1 is expected to go on sale in the fall for about $30,000 - that's for a two-seat subcompact. But McNamara expects anticipated government subsidies to cut this to about $25,000 by the time the car goes on sale.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.