It's Electric: The Car of the Future

General Motors' EV1 impresses, but gas-guzzlers aren't in trouble yet

Just call me George Jetson.

For three days I have been strapped into the future, eyeing old friends and neighbors as if through a time warp, lamenting their antiquated forms of locomotion and wishing they could witness mine. For three days, I have been driving (drum roll) an electric car.

Courtesy of General Motors, I have been the recipient of the EV1, which rolled out in California and Arizona in December. The car is being marketed and leased (not sold) solely through 25 dealers of the Saturn Corporation. Lease tag: $33,500 over 36 months.

To hear manufacturers and environmentalists, this is definitely the cusp of history, the chassis and engine (apologies to Bill Clinton) to the 21st century. To meet federally dictated air-quality standards, the California Air Resources Board has required manufacturers to build minimum numbers of zero-emission cars: 10 percent (about 200,000) by 2003, and 17 percent by 2010.

So, here's EV1, the first one to be made "consumer available." Supposedly, it is the most sophisticated production car of all time, with plastic body, alloy wheels, aluminum frame, special tires, and a space-age, tear-drop shape that boasts the same low wind resistance as the F-16 fighter plane. But the key word is electric - courtesy of the car's 26 batteries.

It operates with a high, futuristic-sounding whine that does your bidding at all speeds with barely the flex of a big toe. Standing "idle," there is no sound or vibration. The car is also keyless, operating through the punch of coded buttons.

Acceleration feels like the famous scene in "Star Wars" where Luke Skywalker and company are forced back into their seats as they switch to light speed and blur a galaxy worth of stars (zero to 60 in 8 seconds).

But while the speed and handling of the car were unexpected, even more surprising was how people reacted to it. I was totally unprepared for the amount of unabashed, unrelenting rubbernecking I got.

Typical clever exchange No. 1: "Say, are you from the future or something?"

Typical clever exchange Nos. 2 to 144: "Say, I'll bet you need a really looooong extension cord for that thing!" (laughter).

Delivering my kids to school, I was descended on by parents, teachers, the principal, as well as the fifth and first grade classes (which recruited me for a quick classroom lecture).

Without exception, people found the low, sleek look inviting, even compelling, definitely cutting edge. I even got cornered by the employees at Kinkos at 2 a.m. who must've thought I was Alex Trebek of "Jeopardy." All of their comments were phrased in the form of a question:

"How fast does it go?" "How long to charge it?" "How much is electricity compared with gas?" "How far can it go?"

Answers: 85 m.p.h, 3-1/2 hours, and one charging costs $1.25 to $1.60.

The downside is range. Though brochures say average range is 70 to 90 miles, I consistently got about 55 miles in normal, flat, around-town driving. Our first night out, my wife and I hit rain, darkness, and cold all at once, requiring 1) windshield wipers; 2) headlights; and 3) heater. Would using all these devices help run the batteries down and shorten our range? Yes.

Wherever we went, we found ourselves nervously monitoring the in-dash "fuel" gauge, wondering if we would get stranded.

That hurdle, the high price, and limited range are the reasons consumers are not yet flocking to buy. According to Charlie Chen, salesman at Saturn of the Valley, only about 20 have been leased since its unveiling Dec. 5.

It is a peculiar irony. Virtually everyone I took for a ride was instantly smitten. I loved the idea of recharging the car in my driveway and avoiding gas stations.

Now that my EV1 is gone, I ride in vibrating, noisy, gas-spewing vehicles that feel like clunkers by comparison. This weekend, I'm staying home to watch reruns of "The Jetsons."

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