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Shopping for an Electric Vehicle

Published May 16th 2008, 9:12pm by Jody DeVere in Featured Articles

The hunt has begun... that is, for a practical electric vehicle, that can be plugged in to a solar panel, in order to go further off-grid. Back a year ago, when the solar panels went up on the roof, I had hoped that all that buzz about plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles would mean that something affordable would be on the market in a year or two. So finally, I need to replace our old creaky car, and am really crossing my finger that something good, something electric, would come my way. I am now embarking on a search for these touted new species of vehicles. I want to further reduce my energy footprint, and make a wise investment that my wallet would appreciate in the long run. With gasoline closing in on $4 (if not already there in certain places), you would think that an electric car would be so popular it is everywhere to be found! But in reality that's not the case, as we all know it... still, as a die-hard electric car fan, I will not give up hope. Here are the story of two recent test drives.

I could go with a Prius (hybrid electric-gasoline), or a biodiesel, but with the solar panels which were sized to accommodate an electric car, it would be a waste not to leverage them. We don't need the replacement that badly so as to compromise, since our primary car is a fairly efficient Honda Civic, which gives 29 mpg.

Gem The first electric vehicle tested was a Greenemotor moped. A scooter that requires only an M2 motorcycle license, it is a small two-wheeler that is fun to ride. They have two variants and four models, which are really not that much of a difference. What attracted me is that it is DOT-approved and street-legal. In addition, the price point, somewhere between $2500-3500, is very attractive. The yearly maintenance cost is low -- since the only parts are the wheels, lead-acid battery and the brushless electric motor. They mentioned that annual insurance cost is around $75, and electricity cost around $25. I have not verified the electricity cost claim, but overall it sounds really low. This California company manufactures its scooters in China, and have them in several eye-catching colors.

Having never riden a moped before, it was a bit scary for me at first. I had some trepidation with the kick-stand as it required strength, but it worked out fine. I reckon I would get used to it too and it will be a snap. One you turn on the power, and rev the handle, the thing just goes. It is a moped, not motorcycle, so the acceleration from zero is not the most impressive -- which works well for me. The seat was roomy -- it fits two people, and can take a rear-mounted basket for extra storage space. My main impression of the ride is that it is easy, breezy, and stable. I wore a helmet, and they have these light-weight shell-like helmet that didn't make me feel claustrophobic. Being exposed meant I was more attuned to the surrounding, although a part of me is a little worried about safety. The scooter itself was very stable and comfortable -- you place both legs in front of the seat, instead of straddling the side. Plus, it does not have a hot exhaust pipe on one side, like some older gasoline models do. That's important to me, since I've been burned before, literally. The range varies from 20-40 miles, which is a big range. Upon further questioning, I get the impression that the quality control is still work in progress, but even with 20 miles per charge, I should be able to cover 80% of my commuting needs.

The con of a moped is a lack of storage space. I am sort of in love with this little scooter, but I think it is unwise to decide on the first test drive anyway. It is also quite a departure from owning a car, and I need to get used to the idea still.

Xebrasedanblue_0 Our next break came from someone who advertised a second-hand 2007 model Zap Xebra -- a three-wheeled neighborhood electric vehicle. Being in an NEV is quite an experience. It is not like a regular car -- in fact, it drives more like a buggy, only enclosed.
The purpose of this vehicle is for local commute, as it is not highway legal. The car itself is basic -- the seats don't seem to have great suspension so it is a lot bumpier than my Honda Civic. The interior is roomy enough -- it is sufficient for four people -- and it does have four doors, but no trunk space. It also has a bank of lead-acid batteries that runs down the middle of the car. Its funny shape is quite an attraction though, and I can imagine its owner is quite popular along his commute route. A group of kids waved to us excitedly during the test drive. We looked at the engine and it is amazing how simple the internals are. Maintenance should be quite a breeze, as there are few moving parts. To my dismay though, the batteries need to be replaced every three years at a cost of several hundred dollars. That's quite a bit to tack onto a $6500 second-hand car.

The Xebra really takes a bit to get used to. It is not a car, though it looks like one. So if you drive it like one, or expect it to behave like one (e.g. in terms of power and speed) you will be disappointed. During the test drive, it took a while to get up to 30 mph, and slowed to 25mph when going up a highway crossover. The brakes took a few seconds to happen, and you have to press down hard on it, so you have to plan ahead for stops. Slamming it at the last minute is dangerous as you may hit the car in front of you. But I am confident that after several weeks, I will get used to it and get a better feel for how to work it.

That's my perspective -- in both test drives, I see that my significant other is much more comfortable with both vehicles, although they are as new to him. Complicated machinery tend to intimidate me, because I need to understand everything to feel in control. With cars, it is always too complicated for me to understand everything, so I tend to get really nervous about the what-if. So take my review with a grain of salt...

As you see, the light at the end of the tunnel is still far away. It will probably be a while before we find our electric vehicle. The hunt has JUST begun though. More research is needed. The search will probably need to extend to visited eco-friendly car shows, and taking many more test drives.

Hey car companies out there -- if you read this and want me to test drive your vehicle, please let me know. I would happily do it and provide some more reviews to our readers.

Seriously though, I really hope I won't have to wait till 2010 or 2011 and beyond before this dream comes true. I feel really guilty continuing to burn gasoline, knowing that every bit of CO2 I emit contribute to further climate change. Eco-anxiety is burning me up.

Extrazoom Marn-Yee Lee
Contributing Editor
AskPatty.com

Marn-Yee Lee is pursuing an MBA in Sustainability at the Presidio School of Management in San Francisco. After spending a decade in I.T. and on Wall Street, she is now pursuing her passion for the environment. She sees business as a partner for creating innovative solutions to pressing environmental issues. In her spare time, she writes a blog to inspire others to consider the impact of their daily lives on the environment at busythinking.blogspot.com.

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