Mike Cero, always looking for cost-effective ways to help the environment, invited me to help test drive an electric car now available for sale from MC Electric Vehicles, a local dealership that specializes in green vehicles.
We tried the ZX40S, a 4-seater hatchback from Miles Electric Vehicles, and the first street-legal Chinese-made auto sold in America. Good Clean Tech rated them the "Electric Car Company of 2007", and they're getting some buzz among die-hards who want no-pollution cars. This one is solidly-built, though very basic: no power steering or air conditioning, and since it won't go faster than 35mph you can't use it on the freeway. But it might be perfect as a fleet vehicle for organizations looking for short-range shuttle cars, or for people who do all short trips in a small community like Mercer Island.
In terms of performance and handling, the part I love about electrics is their quiet ride. My Prius goes into silent all-electric mode too, but you hear the engine again when you accelerate. Not so with the ZX40S: it's quiet all the time. In fact, it's so quiet we joked that you might need to take extra measures to ensure bicyclists can hear you on the road--it really runs silently.
Of course the big advantage of an electric car is the complete lack of a gas tank. It says it charges in about 8 hours (i.e. overnight), giving you a range of about 50 miles. We didn't test it that far, but I think you'd want to be careful counting on it past 30 miles or so. The range seems to depend on how hilly the area is and how much load you have in the car (i.e. total passenger and cargo weight). Of course, if you run low on a charge it's a simple matter of plugging it into the closest electric outlet. (But be careful: it has to be a 20 amp outlet--not the more typical 15A sockets you'd normally find in your house).
So how did it do? I think in a flat area this car would be just fine, but there's not a lot of oomph for climbing. We found it slow going up some of the more challenging Mercer Island areas (like Gallagher Hill), especially as the charge runs down. And as I noted, it's only legal for road speeds under 35mph, so you're limited to neighborhood driving.
The price, about $23K including taxes and everything, is about what you'd pay for a basic Prius--which has a lot more power and flexibility. Still, if you live in a flat area, don't need high speeds, and you want zero-pollution without the hassle or expense of going to a gas station, this car will do what it says. Meanwhile I think I'll wait for MC Electric to start carrying the Miles XS500, the new Camry-sized 80MPH luxury model scheduled to go on sale later this year.