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BEHIND THE WHEEL

A Grand Green Gesture : The EV1 Electric Car Proves GM Hasn't Lost Its Adventurous Edge

October 25, 1996|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ready or not, and with early overtures stretching from paeans to pained derision, General Motors' EV1 electric car is poised to whisper into Southwestern showrooms.

But after $350 million spent developing the battery-mobile--$32 million of it to better understand and educate potential buyers--GM still isn't sure the greater public gets the total picture for its electric motor car.

They will not be sold by the thousands as instant cleansers of air in bronchial big cities. In fact, says Joe Kennedy, vice president of marketing for Saturn, which on Dec. 5 begins selling the car in Los Angeles, San Diego, Tucson and Phoenix, there probably are only 250 people "drop-dead serious about leasing an EV1 at this point."

GM's two-place, Citroen-like, lunar-looking coupe has one-third the range, only two-thirds the speed and triple the monthly lease payments of a Honda Civic. It is for quick errands and brunch at Gladstone's. So it's primary place, acknowledges Kennedy, is as a second or third car in a "multi-vehicle household . . . with EV1 playing a role in a fleet."

EV1s cannot be driven in cold climes where range will be chilled to the teens; or beyond launch areas where towns might be bare of Saturn facilities and EV1 care providers.

Compromises and adaptation are givens. Even moderate trips in an EV1 must be planned like military missions around predetermined refueling stops. Traveling further than one's capability to drive back is a nono, so beware of lousy navigators who steer you five miles off course. Also cheap relatives who might want money--or baby-sitting pledges--before allowing you to plug into their house.

And when wandering from home, owners must maintain huge faith in a hesitant infrastructure in suburbs currently offering more sushi bars than public recharging stations. That's less than two dozen stations in Arizona; four dozen in Southern California.

As Kennedy explains: "This is not just a brand new car. It's a brand new market."

Ergo, with all things being doubtful in any infant market, why is GM bothering?

Well, say company spokesmen, one major automotive player had to make a full, honest commitment to electric motoring and a customer body increasingly tuned to the environment. Especially with states tightening demands for cleaner air and mandates on zero-emissions passenger cars.

EV1 is a grand gesture showing the world GM has a green conscience and has not lost the adventuring edge that first brought us automatic transmission, air bags, starter motors and Cadillacs the size of Encino. And although a Ford Escort has superior performance and greater flexibility of function, EV1 does provide matching, even superior levels of safety, comfort and driving conveniences.

Such as dual air bags, power steering, air conditioning, a CD sound system, anti-lock brakes, traction control, power windows and locks, cruise control and rear-window defrost.

And if operated in concert--even adding high beams to the electrical load--the super high-tech EV1's range of between 70 and 90 miles would be reduced only by an estimated 10%.

"In our tests with public groups, the car met the [range] requirements of their drivers, 87% of the time," explains Mike Liedtke, chief engineer for the EV1. That, he adds, is because most commuters underestimate their daily mileage.

"And this car is a technology sled," he says. "There are things here you'll be seeing [on GM's gasoline vehicles] four or five years down the road."

Among the gee whiz:

* Braking-by-wire with the foot pedal activating rear drums by electronic signal, not fluid pressure and pistons.

* Teardrop design with the rear track 9 inches narrower than width between the front wheels. It gives the car less drag, less resistance to the air than any vehicle on the road.

* Its light, strong, aluminum space frame--spot-welded and glue-bonded--weighs a piddling 290 pounds.

* In a car that places antenna foil in the roof because an outside aerial would shave distance traveled by one mile, weight watching is an obsession. Body panels are composite. Tires are self-sealing which means no jack, no spare and another mile of range.

* Instead of conventional, three-pin conductive charging, the EV1 is refueled by a sealed plastic paddle and inductive charging that can be done safely in pouring rain, or with the car lashed to the deck of a submerging submarine. A full charge takes 3.5 hours. If only 110 volts are available, put the cat out and tuck in for the night.

* Although 26 12-volt lead-acid batteries in a 1,175-pound pack are a bridge to the distant past of electric vehicle technology, GM says they'll get the job done until something better comes along. And a fibrous stuffing prevents acid splatters--a safety concern with early lead-acid cars--should your EV1 be rear-ended by a Hummer.

As GM still isn't precisely sure how the EV1 will function in the real world, the length of its novelty factor or how it will play against family needs, ownership of the car has been structured as a total no-brainer.

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