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BEHIND THE WHEEL / PAUL DEAN

A Ford with a Cord : Ready to unplug from the gas pump and plug in to the future? The electric Ecostar won't shock you with spectacular performance

March 18, 1994|PAUL DEAN

Ford Motor Co., working with hastened technology and a hesitant commitment, is introducing new world electric motoring to the real world--worldwide.

More than 30 Ford Ecostars from an eventual test fleet of 100--the infant electric vehicle industry's largest assembly of rolling laboratories--have already been delivered from Canada to Spain, from UPS in Sacramento to Commonwealth Edison in Chicago.

By July, most of these electric buzzers--based on two-seat, British-built mini-panel trucks--will be reassigned by utilities leasing them to delivery services and a few suburban families. Ford suggests, even insists, that test drivers use the vehicles as they would a gasoline-powered car. With only a 1-800 hot line as a safety net should a driver's eyebrows start arcing during a rainstorm.

"That won't happen," says Ford spokesman John Clinard as he delivers a blue Ecostar, a 30-minute briefing, one field service electrician, several operating manuals and an additional piece of damp-driving advice: "Feel free to take Ecostar through a car wash.

"The vehicle also has a range of 100 miles, will run at freeway speeds up to 70 miles per hour, and you certainly will not have to stop at any service stations."

Throughout seven days with Sparky, we stopped for nothing except daily destinations. The little van not only ran at freeway speeds, but actually passed many among the snorting, polluting, environmentally incorrect.

It accelerated almost as well as the breeziest subcompacts and regularly chirped its tires--experimental rubber inflated to 50 psi for reduced rolling resistance--on ribald starts. And it held that crisp performance whether the battery was 100% charged or dribbling flat.

Sparky survived night trips, with headlights burning and the radio explaining why we were locked in the four-lane metal ingot that is the San Diego Freeway these days. The 1-800 hot line was not called; gasoline-powered vehicles parked in reserve at both ends of the day's business were not needed; fuses remained unblown and circuits unbroken in the vehicle and at home.

At the end of 600 miles--and recalling EVs driven since ecologists, futurists and governments began sentencing modern motoring to the electric chair--one conclusion is clear: Although short on performance extremes and expensive to purchase, Ford's Ecostar fits the crowded, sluggish mainstream of everyday commuting as well as any gasoline-powered counterpart.

Will it impress Porsche purists and souls that surge to engine noise, hot energy and the challenge of fast, precise passage?

Nah .

Can Ford bring it to market by the end of the century for under $50,000?

Unlikely .

But could Ecostar succeed as a local runabout where short-haul delivery capability, not spiritual self-indulgence, is the issue?

Absolutely.

Throughout our no-quarter wring-out, each turn of Ecostar's wheels and every spin of its 300-volt motor were recorded by on-board black boxes.

So it is with the international test fleet.

At the end of the 30-month evaluation, the 100 cars will be collected, data collated and Ford will be that much wiser in meeting The Mandate--a 1990 order by the California Air Resources Board dictating that 2% of all new vehicles sold in the state in 1998 will be emission-free, i.e. electric vehicles. Or manufacturers will lose their certification to sell in California.

Detroit's Big Three--pleading high costs, low performance, weak public interest in electric vehicles and retarded battery technology--want the deadline rolled back. The ruling will be reviewed in May; so far, the California board hasn't budged.

"We have a mandate to sell electric vehicles," says Pam Kueber, an environmental communications manager for Ford. "Unfortunately, there is no mandate to buy."

Meanwhile, domestic car builders have maintained reluctant electrical progress--Chrysler with some experimental vans; GM with its Impact, a two-place commuter car that will be shipped out for public testing later this year, and the Ecostar.

Ford's brighter idea cost $100 million. That makes each test vehicle worth $1 million, a smug satisfaction when pulling alongside a Rolls-Royce on the Santa Ana Freeway.

About $5 million was spent custom-developing a unique sodium-sulfur battery, hermetically sealed in a stainless steel thermos. It produces five times the driving range of a more conventional lead-acid battery weighing the same 770 pounds.

Full resuscitation takes seven hours when plugged into a 220-volt system via a charging station no bigger than a one-suiter on wheels. Or 27 hours if hooked to a 110-volt household outlet. Partial recharging takes less time.

There's 12 feet of on-board charging cord that reels through a small trap door in the grille and into a housing beneath the hood where the engine used to be. The engine bay is now filled by the electronics center--battery charging systems, inverters and a converter to charge a 12-volt battery for auxiliary accessories.

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