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EV Riders : Veteran Electric Car Drivers Say GM's Auto Is a Step Up in Performance

March 13, 1997|CHRIS KRAUL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Many drivers who have leased a General Motors EV1 electric car since its Dec. 5 roll-out describe it as a trade-off: putting up with the car's inconveniences and limited driving range to be pioneers in electric transportation.

Not so with actor Ed Begley Jr. of Studio City, food manufacturer Mark Sterner of Riverside or retired rancher Jack Ruebsamen of Claremont. As owners of electric cars long before the EV1 came along, they staked out the environmental high ground years ago.

Now, as enthusiastic EV1 drivers, they see the GM car as a step up in performance and features in comparison with the vehicles they used to own.

"I'm not sacrificing anything," said Begley, who owned a converted 1990 Volkswagen Rabbit that took eight hours to charge, compared with the EV1's three hours.

His Rabbit didn't have enough power to drive an air conditioner, and it lumbered along with little acceleration.

So, with its anti-lock brakes, air bags, power windows, sports-car-like acceleration of zero to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds (and, of course, air conditioning), the EV1 equates to luxury for Begley.

"It's the best car I've ever owned--and a night-and-day difference from what I was driving," said Begley, a staunch environmentalist who charges his car with 99 solar panels mounted on the roof of his home. He hasn't bought gasoline in seven years.

The Times last week interviewed a dozen of the 155 drivers who have leased EV1s in Southern California and Arizona, part of a periodic effort to gauge their satisfaction with the the first mass-produced electric vehicle in 80 years.

All seemed happy with their cars, but it was the veteran owners of electric cars such as Begley, Sterner and Ruebsamen who reached highest for superlatives. They said they were overjoyed with having replaced their jury-rigged, customized electric vehicles with what Motor Trend magazine is describing as possibly GM's best-engineered car ever.

"I'm going from a stagecoach to something that's far superior. This is like driving a spacecraft," said Sterner, an electric car hobbyist whose previous electric auto was a Mazda Miata he converted in 1993. Sterner, whose company makes industrial food ingredients, also owns two antique electric cars dating to 1916 and 1930.

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Not even the lack of public charging stations seems to dampen Sterner's enthusiasm. Only about 40 public facilities exist in Southern California, compared with about 6,000 gas stations. Edison EV, the utility subsidiary that is managing the installation of chargers for GM, says an additional 120 sites may open this year.

Most EV1 owners must charge up in their garages at night, except for the several who have had chargers installed at their businesses.

Ruebsamen, who operated a poultry ranch for 50 years in Claremont, said he is thrilled with his car. Comparing his EV1 with his electric-powered Mazda, which he drove from 1982 until December, he said, "That was like the Wright Brothers' aircraft compared with the Concorde."

However, echoing complaints of others, Ruebsamen, Begley and Sterner said the EV1's driving range per charge--from 50 to 90 miles, depending on how the car is driven--is too short. Drivers said they are learning to coax more miles out of the car but are eagerly awaiting GM's promised introduction of a longer-lasting nickel metal hydride battery that will double the range.

General Motors' Saturn division isn't saying when those batteries will be ready for the market, but the arrival is rumored to be six months to two years away.

The high cost of the EV1--it leases for about $500 a month for three years with no purchase option--is another sticky issue, the one most commonly raised by electric vehicle owners who decided, for whatever reason, against leasing the car and are sticking with their custom conversions.

"It's a beautiful car, but to me it's a 'test bed' with still a ways to go before they make it usable for the average person," said Irving Weiss, founder and president of the 80-member Los Angeles chapter of the Electric Auto Assn. "The thing is overly expensive, overly technical, and they could have done better without all the push-button stuff."

Weiss, who was referring to the controls on the EV1's otherwise-minimalist dashboard, said he is content with his converted 1985 Pontiac Fiero. Most conversions cost between $6,000 and $8,000, he said.

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Saying he admires the EV1's design but that it doesn't "meet my real needs and my pocketbook," Phil Hodgetts of Westminster, president of the 200-member Electric Vehicles Assn. of Southern California, said he's happy with his converted Volkswagen.

Hodgetts, 77, a retired Rockwell engineer, said: "The biggest advantage of the EV1 has been to excite public interest in cars that will be nonpolluting, in pure electric vehicles running on batteries. I think it's the start of something big."

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