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A Week Behind The Wheel Of An Electric Car

Personal Business: CARS


Senior Correspondent Larry Armstrong in Los Angeles recently spent a week kicking the tires of General Motors' new EV1 electric car. Here's his diary:

MONDAY. A shiny red EV1 (Electric Vehicle) arrived this morning. It was delivered to my office on a flatbed truck so as not to strand me with an undercharged battery. The first thing I notice on my 7.5 mile commute home is that the EV1, with its distinctive teardrop shape, is a headturner. The only dicey moment is when a dude in a black Porsche 911 Turbo darts in and out of traffic to inspect the car from every possible vantage point. Then he pulls alongside, rolls down his window, and wants to chat at 60 mph.

Back home, I pull the 120-volt convenience charger--standard equipment--out of the trunk and plug it into my garage outlet. It turns out, though, that you need to lease or buy a 240-volt charger because using the 120-volt version shortens the life of the battery pack, which will set you back thousands of dollars to replace. Cost of a 240-volt charger: $1,995, or $55 monthly on a lease, and at least $895 to install.

Then I settle in for an evening with the owner's manual, relearning all that I thought I already knew about driving.

TUESDAY. After a charge, the range gauge--a digital readout of how much mileage you can expect from the charge remaining in the batteries-- says only 27 miles. But after I drive 11 miles, it registers 35. That's probably because I'm in the "coast-down" mode. That way, coasting and braking recharge the battery. It also makes the car whine more.

That brings me to sounds. This car doesn't sound like your ordinary car. What you hear is more like the whine of a turbine, rising in pitch and loudness as you speed up. I found it annoying, mostly because I wasn't used to it. Other unusual sounds include the chirp instead of click of the turn signals. When you step on or off the brake, there's a click from the rear of the car. The car beeps when you back up, and there's a second, softer horn to alert pedestrians of your stealthy presence.

Instead of an instrument panel, there are warning lights and digital gauges strung out below the windshield, which add to the spacious feeling in this tiny two-seater. There's no glove box, but the trunk space is generous. The center console looks normal, with the usual controls for heating, A/C, and radio (however, if you use these creature comforts, especially the A/C, you're going to use up battery power, sacrificing distance). There also are a few unfamiliar buttons. One, for example, changes the vertical bar showing the remaining charge to one that displays instantaneously how much power the car is using to accelerate or perhaps climb a hill. One big difference is the absence of an ignition key. You punch in a five-digit PIN and then hit the "Run" button.

WEDNESDAY. My only appointment today is lunch with the folks at Edison EV, the company GM has contracted with to install chargers for people who lease an EV1. My hidden agenda: Edison has 240-volt charging stations, so I can top off with a quick charge. The company is slowly building public charging stations. There are 50 around Los Angeles, and there will be 300 more by yearend. Many of the facilities are being paid for by businesses such as Wal-Mart Stores and McDonald's that are trying to promote an environment-friendly image.

You can only lease the car, not buy it, and it's only available in California and Arizona. The sticker says $33,995, but there's a federal tax credit and a $5,000 rebate from our local air-pollution agency in Los Angeles that bring monthly payments down to around $480. And with Edison's special EV rates of about 4 cents a kilowatt hour, fuel costs are about a quarter of a conventional car's (for every 1,000 miles, the EV1 would cost $13.62, vs. $50 for a normal car getting 25 miles per gallon).

THURSDAY. My 15-mile round trip is all I drive today. However, I'm worried about tomorrow, when I know I've got to get at least 60 miles out of it.

FRIDAY. Uh-oh. The range gauge says 47 miles, but I go anyway. Immediately, a patrol car waves me over, but the officer just wants to see how I like the car. After a few downhill miles, I'm confident I can make it, and when I reach my destination, 23 miles away, the display says I have 61 miles left of battery charge. I get home with plenty of power to run to the drugstore. I'm closing in on the magic 70-mile mark that the EPA ratings promise between charges.

SATURDAY, SUNDAY. This is the perfect city runabout for short trips to the grocery or dry cleaner. But I'm a bit tired of my newfound conservative style, with precise accelerations and slow, coasting stops, aimed at saving power. So I peel away from a few stoplights and am amazed by the power. This is no golf cart: The car-magazine road testers are getting 0-to-60 mph in less than 8 seconds.

MONDAY. By now, I'm pretty much sold on the concept. The EV1 is ideal as a second or third car, especially if you want to make a statement. Sure, it's a bit pricey, and you have to map out your day if you go beyond your ordinary commute. But then again, whoever said that being environmentally correct was easy?By Larry Armstrong EDITED BY TODDI GUTNERReturn to top

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