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Oracle of Delphi

Zenn and the art of small, electric vehicles

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By Hannah Elliott

updated 10:43 a.m. ET, Fri., Aug. 15, 2008

It might sound surprising, but all-electric vehicles are already on American roads. They just haven't quite made it to the highway yet.

A growing cottage industry of Neighborhood Electric Vehicle manufacturers is spurring the development of cars like the Zenn, which has reached a state of vehicular enlightenment so advanced it doesn't even need a tail pipe.

"We saw this car in May of '06, and all of us were just freaking out: 'Finally, a car!'" said Steve Mayeda, sales manager at Seattle-based MC Electric Vehicles, which sells 30 percent of Zenn's U.S. inventory, in addition to electric vehicles made by Columbia, Canadian EV, E-Ride and Miles. "Zenn was the first neighborhood electric car that actually looked and felt and drove like a real car. Everything else before that was either a converted golf cart or a car that was built from the ground up."

Mayeda was referring to vehicles like the 36,000 ovoid GEM cars that Chrysler-owned General Electric Motocars has sold worldwide over the last decade. To be fair, the GEM, like most NEVs, is actually more than just a glorified golf cart.

NEVs are silent, have no tailpipe emissions (or tailpipes, for that matter) and plug into electrical outlets like vacuum cleaners. They come in two varieties: Low-Speed Electric Vehicles, which have a top speed of about 25 miles per hour and are restricted to roads where the speed limit is 35 miles per hour or less; and Medium-Speed Electric Vehicles, which reach 35 mph and are allowed on roads with a posted speed of up to 45 mph.

They're exempt from federal safety regulations that mandate impact-absorbing bumpers and airbags. But to be street legal, NEVs must have three-point seat belts, windshields with wipers, headlights, brake lights, rearview mirrors and turn signals. Doors are optional.

The Zenn is among a new generation of NEVs that look like real cars. But a spin around Manhattan in one proves it has some growing to do before it can truly compete with automobiles. (Go to the “slide show” link below to read about how the Zenn held up in Manhattan traffic.)

Cute as a button

The 1,350-pound Zenn, which stands for "Zero Emissions, No Noise," offers a beguiling first impression for those inclined to fawn over bunnies and kittens. But don't let that button-cute persona fool you.

"It's a tough little car," said Ian Clifford, founder and CEO of Zenn Motor Co., based in Toronto, Canada.

He pointed to the fact that in France, the aluminum-frame Zenn has passed all government-mandated safety standards for the quadracycle class of vehicles, which are like NEVs and have a top speed of 30 mph.

Onlookers seemed to like the Zenn, although its matte tones and boxy styling didn't get as many looks as expected. One older gentleman from Switzerland, in high spirits on a nature hike in Central Park, said America would do well to get more Zenn-like vehicles on the road.

Taxi drivers loved the Zenn, too. At traffic lights they shouted questions and comments like, "Hey! What is that? What's the mileage?" and "That's cool, man!" Every one of them said having a 25-mph car in New York City would be "no problem, man."

It seemed like the Zenn was living up to its name. "They're traffic calming," Clifford said, referring to their lack of speed. "And if they do get into a collision, the impact is much less severe." NEVs' slow speeds are also safer for pedestrians, he added.

Dollars and sense

The two-seat Zenn starts at $15,995. The model we drove had options that drove up the price. (Find out what they were and how much more it cost in by clicking on the “slide show” link below.)

Zenns get the equivalent of 254 miles per gallon, Clifford said. It costs less than two cents per mile to drive, based on the average retail rate of electricity in the United States of 10.15 cents per kilowatt-hour. Regular cars cost about 10 cents a mile to drive, according to a 2006 report from the Energy Information Administration.

"We've had no complaints. Everyone loves their car," said MC Electric Vehicles' Mayeda, who co-wrote Washington's House Bill 1820, which allows electric cars to legally attain speeds of up to 35 mph. If Clifford can get his Zenn cars to go a little faster, Mayeda said they'll sell like hotcakes.

"We would be able to sell as many of these cars as they're selling Hondas and Toyotas," Mayeda said. "Even if they made it a $30,000 car, easily we could have Toyota numbers. There's enough people out there who are tired of paying high prices for gas, who don't like buying and supporting foreign oil."

One of the biggest hurdles for NEVs, and all electric vehicles for that matter, is their range on a single charge. With its lead-acid batteries — just like those used in normal cars — the Zenn can only go 35 miles on a single charge and takes eight hours to fully recharge. The batteries will fill to 80 percent in four hours.

NEV manufacturers like Zenn Motor Co., British Columbia-based Dynasty Electric Car Corp. and Norwegian-led Think Global argue that most Americans can get by just fine driving a small amount of miles each day at relatively low speeds.

While that remains to be seen, the Federal Highway Administration reports that on average, the longest trips American drivers make each day range in length from 16 miles to visit family or friends to 11 miles for medical purposes. The average American drives 12 miles to work, according to the FHA.

The Urban Transport Fact Book reports that the average "road network speed" in large American cities ranges from 24 mph in New York to 39 mph in Sacramento — speeds easily accessible by existing electric cars.

Article Continues:

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I love how they talk about average traffic speeds, and show how they're around the top speed of their vehicle. But... that's the average traffic speed. That means a good portion of the time, traffic is moving faster than that, and you might get your slow car run over. I support the idea of electric vehicles, but not if they're slow and thus a safety hazard. Something that slow doesn't even make sense as a second vehicle for most people, as a third vehicle, maybe. It would work for my wife driving the 6 blocks or so to her bus station 4 days out of the week, but then what happens when she has to drive all the way to work? She has to take a vehicle that has a much longer range & top speed. If we had 2 vehicles, and one was a 35mph short range electric vehicle, that means that for that day, I'm grounded close to home. That doesn't work out all the time. Thus, it could work as a 3rd vehicle, but then can most people justify the costs of a 3rd vehicle for a 2 person household for some fuel savings?

I'm sure it works for some people, but the way they push the stats, they try to make it sound like it works for most people, and I'm far from convinced it does.

*Looks forward to the day when a car like the Volt is established and at a reduced price.*

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:closedeyes: I prefer to fawn over puppies, so zenn [ then ] I'll pass.

I fawn over my Australian Terror Dog, 10 pounds of menace...a little piranaha of love. :)


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Nice looking dog!


Yeah, she's kind of a rare breed in the US..don't see many Australian Terriers. She's a retired champion show dog...lots of personality. One of those dogs that demand attention, can't be ignored..

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I saw a Zenn yesterday, and the stying was pretty decent. It had a silver HOV ACCESS OK sticker, which seems odd given the low top speed... maybe it's only for parking meters?

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