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California and the West | AUTOS: GREEN MACHINES

Electric vehicles generate buzz

High-performance models planned include an SUV and sports cars. Enthusiasts are excited and skeptical.

February 06, 2007|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

Environmentally friendly cars don't have to be slow and stodgy.

ZAP, a Santa Rosa, Calif.-based importer of electric scooters and a small, short-distance electric car, aims to launch a 155-mph all-wheel-drive electric sport utility vehicle next year.

If it comes to market, the $60,000 ZAP-X would join a select group of high-performance electric vehicles led by a two-seat sports car from Tesla Motors Inc. of San Carlos, Calif. The $92,000 Tesla Roadster is capable of accelerating from a dead stop to 60 mph in four seconds and has a top speed of more than 130 mph.

A third Northern California start-up, Wrightspeed Inc. of Burlingame, has announced plans for a $120,000 electric roadster that boasts a zero-to-60 time of 3.8 seconds.

Tesla and Wrightspeed have shown drivable prototypes of their vehicles. ZAP, which says its five-passenger electric SUV could accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds, has not.

The company -- its name stands for "zero air pollution" -- unveiled a concept version Saturday at the National Automobile Dealers Assn.'s annual convention in Las Vegas.

Although all the parts were on display, the vehicle shown there to prospective dealers was not a working model -- that's still somewhere down the road, ZAP Chief Executive Steven Schneider said.

The company's announcement has generated excitement and skepticism among enthusiasts, who are passing around details online at websites devoted to electric vehicles.

"They've described an awesome car, but until it's in the showrooms, I'll be doubtful," said Paul Scott, a spokesman for Plug in America, a Santa Monica-based group that promotes development of hybrid-electric vehicles that use rechargeable batteries.

"It would be great if this comes out, but I wouldn't hold my breath," said Kevin Riddell, a Troy, Mich.-based analyst who covers alternative powertrain systems for J.D. Power & Associates.

"I'd be surprised if they could do all they say they want to do and bring it in at $60,000."

Still, "the idea has legs," said Dan Hall, an analyst with market research firm AutoPacific Inc. in Tustin.

Although his firm's research shows there is little public awareness of electric vehicles, Hall said, those motorists who have shown interest are attracted by the technology, and many would be willing to spend $60,000 "to have something like that to show off to the neighbors."

ZAP, Tesla and Wrightspeed are counting on sales of their high-priced, high-performance models to help create enough interest in electric vehicles and generate sufficient cash to enable them to build lower-cost, mainstream models.

ZAP already sells electric vehicles, but the publicly traded company has never tackled a project as ambitious as the SUV.

The company last made a splash with its aggressive promotion in 2005 of plans to import the two-seat Smart car from Europe. But that effort was dashed when Smart owner DaimlerChrysler first would not sell cars to ZAP and then said it would bring the Smart to the U.S. itself next year.

But CEO Schneider said his company was committed to delivering on its promises for the ZAP-X.

The vehicle would use the all-aluminum Lotus APX concept body designed by Lotus Engineering of Britain. Electric motors would be mounted on each wheel in place of the conventional centrally mounted motor that other electric vehicles use.

Schneider, accompanied by Lotus Engineering executives when he announced plans for the ZAP-X late last month, said eliminating the APX's internal-combustion powertrain and fuel system would create space to install an array of three battery packs for the car.

"It will give the ZAP-X a 350-mile range on one charge," Schneider said. That would be tops for a high-performance electric production car. The Tesla Roadster claims a 250-mile range, the Wrightspeed a maximum of 100 miles.

john.odell@latimes.com

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