GM's New Electric Car Packs Sports-Car Punch, for 70 Miles

Will many pay $30,000 for a novelty that needs frequent recharging?

As you turn the key, nothing seems to be happening - until you stomp on the accelerator.

Then, with a sudden lurch and a subtle whine, the car comes to life, the speedometer ticking off 5, 15, 30, then 60 miles an hour in just over eight seconds.

Sports-car performance in an egg-shaped package seemingly borrowed from Woody Allen's science-fiction comedy, "Sleeper" - that's the EV1, the electric vehicle General Motors Corp. plans to put on sale in a handful of Southwest markets later this year.

The EV1 is Detroit's first vehicle in half a century designed from the ground up specifically to run on batteries. That's obvious from the first glance at its aerodynamic exterior. Under the skin, the vehicle is even more revolutionary. Using a mix of space-age composite materials and slick silicon-chip control systems, EV1 can carry two adults in surprising comfort - all while using no more energy than an industrial-grade vacuum cleaner.

But will consumers be willing to shell out more than $30,000 for a vehicle that can travel no more than 100 miles before it needs to be plugged into an electric socket?

GM gave automotive journalists a chance to decide for themselves during a recent test drive. The vehicles it provided were still pilots, pre-production models with some rough fits and finishes, but essentially what buyers in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, and Tucson will have a chance to take home.

Everything's in keeping with its space-age styling. EV1 is a keyless car. Punch in a five-digit code to open the doors. Then enter it again on a keypad on the center console and digital readouts blinks to life.

The first thing you notice is how quiet EV1 is. There are none of the growls and roars you get firing up a gasoline-powered car. The car moves almost silently, save for the scrubbing sounds of the tires. They call this the "stumps in the swamp" syndrome. You notice all the sounds normally masked by engine noise. The ticking of the turn signal seems as loud as a firecracker.

GM didn't want EV1 to feel like an overpriced econobox. And the two-seater does offer many features you would expect on a car carrying a luxury price tag. There's a high-end CD stereo system, power windows, and electric mirrors. That might seem odd in a car that counts every watt.

"We made trades where they made sense, and the power windows are actually lighter than crank windows," explains EV1 engineer Mike Liedtke.

Those trade-offs were more than compensated for by other aspects of the EV1's design. To reduce wind resistance, there's a full belly pan and plastic covers over the rear wheels. It's the little things that count. By replacing the conventional stick radio antenna with a sheet of foil hidden in the roof, EV1 gains a sixth of a mile more range.

Weight is another critical factor. The body and frame are made of composites and lightweight metals like aluminum and magnesium.

The heaviest part of the vehicle? The lead-acid batteries, all 1,150 pounds of them. Yet even that is just enough to give EV1 an estimated range of 90 miles highway driving, 70 miles in the city.

The EV1 is great fun to drive. It's comfortable, roomy, and performs better than one might expect. It corners aggressively and confidently, like a battery-powered sports car, an image enhanced when you stomp on the gas - er, accelerator - pedal. EV1 races from 0 to 60 in less than nine seconds.

Just don't do that very often - as you're reminded by a glance at the car's energy gauge. A substitute for a conventional gas gauge, it has 11 display bars, each representing 9 percent of the power stored in EV1's 27 batteries. Even with the most cautious driver behind the wheel, the bars disappear at a rapid pace, prompting one to develop new driving techniques to maximize range.

Though EV1 is equipped with an energy saving heat pump - a first-of-its-kind application in an automobile - you leave the air conditioning off unless it's really needed. And in traffic, you switch into "coast down" mode, which feels like a low gear in a conventional car. Here the EV1 motor does double duty. When you back off of the accelerator, it turns into a generator, slowing you down, but recapturing energy.

The regenerative brakes serve a similar function, recapturing energy normally lost through friction and sending it back to the battery.

Even with all these slick tricks, you don't get far between charges. Our own vehicle displayed a range of just 38 miles when the test drive began. By cautiously nursing it along most of the route, we arrived back at the GM proving grounds with a less-than-inspiring one-mile range displayed. Other EV1s began with a displayed range of as much as 60 miles, and returned with 20 miles remaining in the batteries.

That should still be enough to meet the needs of most motorists, GM studies suggest. Even in car-crazy California, the typical daily commute is just 35 miles. So EV1 would be an appealing second car to the affluent environmentalist. But privately, many of those working on the project admit the need for a better battery.

GM has formed a joint venture with the Detroit research firm Energy Conversion Devices to push development of the nickel-metal hydride battery. This could boost range to nearly 200 miles, while extending battery life to as much as five to 10 years. The NiMH battery won't be ready for a few more years. If and when it does arrive, it could help transform an interesting product into a truly appealing one.

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