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Plugging Away

More Efficient Models Encourage Electric-Car Owners to Stay Current


Three years after driving his high-tech electric car home for the first time, Charles McCollister is still charged up about his pollution-free commute.

But the Simi Valley flight attendant has learned a thing or two about the perils of driving the vehicle.

For one, when your car can only go 40 to 70 miles before losing energy, it pays to know the location of public charging stations. And it definitely helps to have a sense of humor--and patience--to get used to the unique demands of driving a vehicle powered by 1,200 pounds of lead-acid batteries, said McCollister, 61, who leased his first General Motors EV-1 in December 1996.

"In those days, if you ran out [of energy], you were stranded. You had to go to a Saturn dealer. Otherwise, you had to be towed," he said. "I had to be towed four times."

Drivers across the county who have leased electric cars since Saturn began commercially producing them in 1996 say they are motivated by a desire to help clean the air. They also cite as reasons for going electric the lower energy costs, tax credits and a feeling that they are helping to break new ground.

Although General Motors built just 500 of the EV-1s, and has been slow to turn out upgraded models, electric-car drivers are enthusiastic about the potential for gasoline-free travel.

"We laughed at this thing years ago. We were in shock when they produced a few of them," said Michael Reagan, a Moorpark engineer who worked on the prototype for the EV-1 nearly 13 years ago. "But it was made for commuting. And it does that absolutely excellent."

The biggest challenge, electric-car drivers say, is accurately calculating mileage capability. McCollister said the first week he drove the car was a disaster. On the way home from the dealership, he ran low on energy and barely limped into his driveway.

Later that week, he tried to drive from Simi Valley to Alhambra in rush-hour freeway traffic. When he ran out of energy, the police came to his aid--along with a film crew from The Learning Channel, doing a documentary on cars of the future.

When he returned home in his ice-blue, teardrop-shaped car, he was greeted by a group of laughing neighbors who had heard about him on a radio traffic report.

The hassles of driving his EV-1 were so stressful at first that McCollister had to take medicine for his blood pressure. So why did he promptly renew his lease agreement last December?

Because the new model, EV-1 Gen II, has a nickel metal hydride battery that extends the car's range to 130 miles, said McCollister.

"With this new one, you can go a longer range, you can relax more," McCollister said. "I really love it. Let's hope in the future they can perfect it so we can have smog-free automobiles."

Others electric-vehicle owners had different experiences adjusting to the car's limited range.

"It's a lifestyle change as well as a driving experience," said Cecil McLester, a Westlake resident, who leased the first electric vehicle in Ventura County.

Shortly after he took possession of his EV-1, he and his wife went to a meeting 61 miles away. Aware that their combined weight would reduce the car's performance, McLester tried to conserve energy and drove the coupe behind a large truck. Suddenly, the truck's brake lights went on and a piece of carpeting that had been lying in the road flew over his car's roof.

"It almost got me killed," he said. "That taught me not to draft trucks."

General Motors leases the cars because the technology is evolving so rapidly. Monthly lease payments range from $399 for the older model to $499 for the Gen II.

When McLester's EV-1 lease expired in December, he signed up for the second-generation vehicle.

McLester, a corporate account manager who uses his vehicle for business, said he enjoys traveling more because the electric car's frequent charging breaks force him to slow down.

"When I had an internal combustion car, it would take me four hours to get home. Now it takes me five hours," he said. "I stop for one hour to get a charge. So I'm more relaxed. I get home later, but I'm in a better frame of mind."

McLester said he is often asked by neighbors to give their visitors a test drive.

"You meet a lot of people," he said. "It's almost like you're a celebrity, driving the future."

EV owners also benefit from tax credits and other incentives. And with soaring gasoline prices, electric-car drivers enjoy a fuel bill that averages $10 per month.

But the recent recall of the first model electric vehicle, the EV-1, has ended the honeymoon for some owners. General Motors recalled the cars in March because of a potential for the charging element to overheat but has said it will return the vehicles, if possible, after making repairs.

GM representatives said they expect the recalled cars to be ready in the first quarter of 2001.

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