As an only, multifunctional car, the City is pretty limited. But as a short-haul, easy-to-park vehicle that gets you around the neighborhood at normal traffic speeds, it's easy to warm up to. A colleague and I tried it out on the 35-mile trip from a photo studio to my house. Once we had arrived, it was time for a recharge. Since a national electric-car infrastructure has yet to materialize -- another hurdle for these types of cars --
I had to improvise: I hooked an electrical cord to the 220-volt dryer outlet in my basement and ran it up into the driveway to plug it into the City's charger. Using the snap-in connector was as easy as hanging your hat on a hook. The 20-amp drain of the charger sent the electric meter spinning wildly, but the battery was good to go 5 hours later.
The big question is, What will drivers be willing to pay for a car that has such a limited range? The less ambitious, golf-cart-like minicars -- DaimlerChrysler's Gem and Ford's Neighbor -- come in below $8,000, even with the required safety equipment, such as seatbelts, rollover protection, and bumpers. The City, by contrast, despite its low-cost materials and manufacturing methods, is pricey: in Europe, where it's already available, it sells for the equivalent of about $25,000. Granted, the high fuel prices in Europe, as well as sizeable subsidies there for environmentally friendly vehicles, make that price tag more palatable. Ford plans to bring a modified version of the City to the United States late next year, and to lease, not sell, it. The lease arrangement being contemplated will run motorists about $150 a month -- a fee that's comparable to what one might pay for a gasoline-powered car that's far more versatile.
What's the solution? Subsidies have been instrumental in the recent surge in sales of mini electric vehicles. Arizona offered a tax credit so large -- $10,000 -- that for consumers it amounted to being paid to buy the car (the credit has since been rescinded). Gem was a major beneficiary of Arizona's largesse: Virtually all of its early cars were sold in that state. Today, government and industry are snapping up Gem cars for their local fleets, and the 20,000 that DaimlerChrysler hopes to sell next year represent an exponential increase that makes minicars the company's fastest-growing car line.
Still, creative financing schemes and innovative ideas might be necessary to bring minis into the mainstream. For example, the Panoz Corp., which builds sports cars and manages a race car empire, is planning to import from Europe about 16,000 engine-less Smart cars and bring them to Atlanta. The cars would be converted to electric power and rented by the day -- as sightseeing vehicles for tourists and temporary wheels for city residents.
Meanwhile, DaimlerChrysler, which acquired Smart three years ago, is hedging on whether it will market the cars in the United States -- although this year alone, Europeans bought 60,000 of them.
The future of the minicar in America is at a crossroads. Proponents ask, Why drive more than you need for the task at hand? Naysayers retort that a car needs to serve a variety of purposes. The U.S. auto industry hopes incentives like subsidies, dedicated roadways, and new kinds of neighborhoods will convince drivers that small is beautiful. I don't know about that, but I can say that small is certainly a change of pace.
If nothing else, it's a new way to meet the neighbors.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.