Is America Finally Ready For The Gasless Carriage?

If you think electric cars are a far-out dream, think again. The Impact, a two-seater from General Motors Corp., may hit the road in 1993. If it sells big, it's going to change driving--and walking, too. Look sharp at a crosswalk, because you won't hear an electric car coming.

GM won't let outsiders drive the Impact, but it should be like watching TV with the sound off. At a stop, no juice flows to the twin front motors, which saves energy and makes the car silent. When you start off--by pushing a button on the dash marked "F" for forward or "R" for reverse--the car is still nearly noiseless. On the highway, there's no sound from the tailpipe: The Impact doesn't have one. Even at 75 mph, you'll hear only the thrum of tires, the rush of wind, and the subtle whir of the front-wheel motors. As there's no gear-shifting, either, the motors spin at a dizzying 11,900 rpm--vs. about 4,000 rpm for ordinary engines.

The car is a leap forward in making electric cars palatable. It looks great, for one thing. John Schinella, formerly the chief stylist at GM's Advanced Concept Center in Newbury Park, Calif., and now a top GM designer in Michigan, gave the Impact a teardrop shape and low, sleek lines. This isn't just for looks. The sloped front end, along with the skirts that half cover the rear wheels, give the car a drag coefficient of 0.19--34% better than the slipperiest conventional car. The rounded windshield extends far ahead of the driver, while the rear window spans a spacious cargo area. A high center hump that runs the length of the car houses 32 10-volt lead-acid batteries. There is even air-conditioning and a sound system. Oddly, though, the windows crank down by hand--to conserve power. Mash the pedal to the floor, and the Impact jumps instantly--unlike gas-powered cars, which hesitate briefly while their engines and transmissions kick in. It will go from 0 to 60 mph in 8 seconds--1.5 seconds faster than Mazda Motor Corp.'s Miata. Thanks to an aluminum body and parts, the Impact weighs just 2,200 pounds, including 870 pounds of batteries, but it still meets U. S. safety standards. Its top speed is 100 mph, though GM will limit that to 75 with a governor. Take your foot off the accelerator, and the Impact slows quickly: Its motors automatically become generators, creating drag and slowing the car--while cranking out juice to help recharge its batteries.

Plenty of problems must be solved before the Impact becomes more than a curiosity. Under ideal conditions, it goes only 120 miles per charge. In stop-and-go traffic or with the air conditioner on, that goes way down. The car has a charger that plugs intoa standard wall outlet--but it can take up to eight hours to replenish the batteries. The other hurdle is sticker shock: Auto magazines project a $20,000 to $30,000 price, though GM says it hasn't decided.

Will anyone pay that much? Skeptics point to the forgettable Electrovette, a version of the Chevrolet Chevette that GM announced in 1979. GM predicted then that electric buggies would be 10% of its production by 1990. Soon, plunging gasoline prices doused consumer interest, and the car was never built. This time, GM is being conservative. It will build the Impact in a small factory in Lansing, Mich., home of the discontinued Buick Reatta. The plant can build only 25,000 cars a year.

Still, "we're just crazy enough to think there are people out there who will like these things," says GM Chairman Robert C. Stempel. Given GM's modest expectations and the allure of its car, this time he may be right.

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