The lease-only EV1 will be tested here and in Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Diego.
RHONDA BODFIELD Citizen Staff Writer
It may sound futuristic: a car that doesn’t have a transmission or need oil changes and that pulls up to a charging station instead of a gasoline pump.
But as early as the beginning of November, the future could be here, charging stations and all.
Tucson was selected as one of four areas nationwide to test the new EV1, an electric vehicle manufactured by General Motors. The car, which will be available at Saturn dealers, also will make its debut in Phoenix, San Diego and Los Angeles.
The car isn’t expected to replace combustion-engine vehicles anytime soon. Because the technology is so new, there are quirks not everyone will want to deal with.
Aside from its cost – about $35,000 – perhaps the biggest disadvantage is its range. It is said to go 70 miles in town and 90 miles on the highway before its 1,200-pound battery pack loses power.
However, development manager Gary Witzenburg said hills, acceleration, temperature and air-conditioner use could cause variations.
That’s also why the sporty car has only two seats.
And it’s not as if you can plug it into an outlet and be raring to go in a few minutes. A convenience charger that comes in the trunk of each car can be connected to a standard outlet at home and charge the vehicle in 10 to 15 hours. A standard charger, which plugs into a 240-volt outlet, must be leased from utility companies, but will fully charge the car in three hours.
Marketing specialists for GM have determined the average purchaser will be between 35 and 54 years old with an annual income of at least $125,000, and will use EV1 as a second or third vehicle.
“This vehicle, the EV1 sporty two-seater, itself will not likely be profitable, given that we already have a $360 million investment. But this is only the first vehicle,” Witzenburg said, adding that GM’s Advanced Technology Vehicles will be working on a number of alternative vehicles.
“The biggest challenges are the cost – because the technology is so expensive – and the range. When we fix that, we can go to a more practical vehicle. I don’t think it will replace the combustion engine anytime soon and it will probably remain a small niche vehicle in the foreseeable future,” he said.
Tucson was selected in part because of weather and flat topography, as well as government incentives and air quality problems in Arizona and California.
Cheryl Masterofrancesco, sales manager of Saturn of Tucson, said the dealer already has eight to 10 serious contenders on a waiting list for the car.
The car is equipped with antilock brakes, dual air bags, traction control, cruise control, power windows, power mirrors, a cassette player and radio. It also will have a dashboard display indicating the battery life and range gauge.
Because it does not have a transmission, the acceleration is smooth, and because it doesn’t rely on miniature explosions in cylinders as the internal-combustion engine does, its motor is quiet.
Its top speed is 80 mph. It could go faster but GM has installed a governor to ensure the battery pack is not used up too soon.
“I think they’re great. For anybody who’s never driven one, it’s like stepping into a vehicle seen on `Star Wars.’ Its zero-to-60 acceleration is faster than most cars you see at drag strips. It’s like being shot out of a rubber band, and it’s a lot more fun to drive,” said Rep. Jeff Groscost, a Mesa Republican who led the charge at the Legislature to offer incentives for the vehicles.
“You’re having a lot of fun, it’s clean so it’s not hurting the environment, and it’s cheaper to operate. By the turn of the century, it should be inexpensive enough to compete with other vehicles out there, and it will get us weaned off the petroleum that takes us hostage every time the per-barrel price leaps up a couple cents.”
Witzenburg said maintenance costs are low. “You keep air in the tires and washer fluid in the washer bottle, and that’s about it,” he said.
The body is made of a high-tech plastic resistant to dings and corrosion, he added.
The government has thrown in a few incentives to sweeten the deal.
Amanda Ormond, director of the state Department of Energy, said lawmakers have reduced the vehicle license tax for alternativefuel vehicles. While the tax on a typical $35,000 car would be $840 for the first year, the EV1 will cost $14 the first year, and drop to $6.
The department, which can be reached at (800) 352-5499, will also distribute grants of up to $1,000 to pay for the cost of installing the standard charger in garages.
A bill to subsidize the purchase of the vehicles by $10,000 failed in the Legislature after the majority balked at “welfare” for the wealthy.
The vehicles initially will not be sold, but will be available under a three-year lease, freeing consumers of the worry of resale costs, maintenance costs as the company works out any kinks, and concerns that changing technology will leave them with a vehicle that’s obsolete.
Witzenburg said electricity costs are about a penny per mile, as opposed to gasoline prices at 4 or 5 cents a mile. By the time the charger unit is installed and leased, monthly fees and energy costs are no more than operating a gas-powered car, he said.
Andrew Meyer, senior electrical engineer at Tucson Electric Power Co., said the utility is already working on charging stations. Potential sites include The Westin La Paloma resort, Tucson Medical Center, Tucson Mall, Hughes Missile Systems and the University of Arizona.
The goal, in part, is to make Tucson attractive to other manufacturers that may start marketing electric vehicles.
But the vehicles won’t solve all air quality problems.
Dan Andreuzzi, communications coordinator for GM advanced technologies vehicles, noted the energy has to come from somewhere, whether it be wind-powered generators or power plants that create electricity using fossil fuels.
“We’re not eliminating emissions from the production of electricity. But with L.A., for example, which has one of the worst smog problems in the country, you may not get rid of all emissions, but you’re taking 1 million cars producing emissions off the road and changing to a power plant with one or two different smoke stacks, which are easier to regulate and clean.”
GENERAL MOTORS’ EV1
What: A two-passenger electric coupe by General Motors.
Where: Saturn dealerships in Tucson, Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Diego. In Tucson at 6020 E. Speedway Blvd.
When: Available this fall, starting in early November.
Cost: $30,000 retail, but will be available only on a three-year lease, expected to run between $400 and $600 a month.
Range: 70 miles in town, 90 miles on the freeway, although hills, higher speeds and cold weather all pare down those estimates.
Top speed: 80 mph.
Photo caption: Photo courtesy of Saturn of Tucson/GM’s EV1 electric car is described as a sporty two-seater.