Maybe E.T. is in the back seat. I'm trying hard to keep such thoughts out of my mind, but the fact is there's a strange orange glow coming from the rear of the car I'm driving, visible whenever I glance in the rearview mirror. That, along with the high-pitched whine of the drive motor and the intermittent thump of a tiny compressor replenishing the brakes, is making a simple crosstown trip feel somewhat surreal.
Also, suddenly, nearly everybody thinks I'm cute.
I'm getting thumbs-up from grade-school kids, and some grins from their mothers. The kind of attention earned by a truly distinctive automobile. Or a weird one.
The car I'm driving -- a City built by Ford's new Think division -- is a little of both.
The soft light in the back seat is caused by sunlight shining through the translucent body panels, which are made from molded plastic. The motor is electric, capable of unambitious 50-mile trips at speeds of up to 55 mph. Henry Ford would have understood immediately: low-cost, basic transportation; a people's car; a Model T for the 21st century.
This is also the kind of car that until now, few U.S. automakers have taken seriously; moreover, those that have tried have mostly gone out of business. But now Ford and DaimlerChrysler have set up special divisions to develop alternative transportation, and they're putting some serious corporate resources behind them. Ford's Think division is making two different minicars. DaimlerChrysler, meanwhile, has acquired Fargo, North Dakota-based Global Electric Motor Cars LLC (GEM), and is churning out thousands of new minis annually, in five models. Furthermore, over in Europe, DaimlerChrysler's Smart division is selling several variations on a stylish minicar, and there's talk that Smart cars might have a future in the United States.
The cars themselves vary wildly. Some, like DaimlerChrysler's Gem, are bare-bones electric-powered shuttles, only slightly more sophisticated than golf carts. Others, such as Ford's City, are higher-powered electrics that meet passenger car crash standards and keep up with local traffic. The most roadworthy models -- notably the Smart car -- are small, gas- or diesel-powered "city" cars, suitable for short-range commuting. What these vehicles all have in common are small size (as little as 8 feet in length); limited, specialized capabilities; and, in theory at least, low cost, thanks in part to new materials and technologies.
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