August 21, 2006 4:00 AM PDT

Automaker aims to bring clean cars to the masses

SANTA ROSA, Calif.--ZAP CEO Steven Schneider is right: People do notice you more when you drive an unusual car.

During a 15-minute test drive of the company's all-electric Xebra car, nearly every pedestrian downtown here stopped and turned as we passed by. There was the elderly couple with their mouths slightly open and the two guys in their 30s in the park who pretended not to look. A group at the corner switched from staring at the cars and scooters arrayed in the lobby of ZAP's headquarters to watch a Xebra in action.

Granted, two guys in their 20s laughed at the pink, egg-shaped car with three wheels. But the two 12-year-olds with a mom loved it.

ZAP

"It's cool," said one of the kids, who asked for a tour of ZAP's lobby. Unfortunately, because the company had so much tourist traffic that it crimped productivity, the lobby is open only one afternoon a week.

"So when you asked how we're going to attract customers, this is how. At his age, you might hop on a scooter. The next step is a motorcycle. When he can drive, it's natural to think of an electric car," Schneider said. "Americans are constantly striving for recognition in their automobiles. It's the American way. When you are in America, you buy cars to get recognized, and we think about getting from point A to point B later."

Although the company has been around for several years, ZAP (which stands for Zero Air Pollution) is well-positioned to catch the next revolution in transportation, Schneider asserts. High gas prices, combined with fears about global warming, are prompting interest in electric and ethanol cars.

At the same time, battery technology, design and other aspects of clean cars are evolving, so that consumers in the relatively near future won't have to make too many compromises, according to Schneider. The Xebra, for instance, gets charged through a regular wall socket and doesn't need an ornate charger, like General Motors' now defunct electric car.

In the second quarter, which ended in June, ZAP reported revenue of $4.4 million, up from just under a million for the same period a year ago. (The company, however, lost $2.8 million in the recent quarter.)

Click here to Play

Video: A low-cost attention-grabber
ZAP's egg-shaped electric three-wheeler can be charged in any 110-volt outlet.

Right now, the price-performance ratio of clean cars doesn't match well against conventional cars. The Xebra tops out at 40 miles per hour and sort of feels like a slightly souped-up golf cart. Future models, however, will come with nickel-metal-hydride or lithium ion batteries, which will improve acceleration, speed and driving range. Tesla Motors has already shown off a lithium ion battery sports car that can go from zero to 60 miles per hour in four seconds, but it costs $90,000.

A test case will come next year when ZAP rolls out the Obvio, an all-ethanol car that the company plans to make in its Brazil factory. The car has four wheels, sports 175 horsepower (similar to a 2007 Mini Cooper S), seats three, and can go zero to 60mph in about five or six seconds, according to Schneider. For sportiness, the gas pedal and brake are flip-flops and the glove compartment is a detachable backpack.

"This is where green car meets muscle car," he said, showing off the prototype.

If anything, ZAP is trying to ensure that price won't be a barrier to clean cars. The basic Xebra, which came out a few weeks ago, sells for around $9,000. It's the first car sold in the U.S. that is made in China, Schneider said.

The Obvio will sell for around $14,000 when it debuts in 2007. The company also sells all-terrain vehicles, various electric scooters, and a gas car that gets 50 miles per gallon, making it cleaner than other gas cars. (Action film star Rutger Hauer owns one of the company's gas Smart Cars.)

Gary Starr founded ZAP in 1994. While he was attending the University of California at Davis during the 1970s gas crunch, he became convinced that Americans had to move away from gasoline-powered cars.

"The single best thing you can do for the environment is drive an electric car," Starr said. Not only do cars produce air pollution, they are also the single biggest source of water pollution, he added.

Although big car companies are now showing interest in alternative energy vehicles, these companies won't dominate the new generation of cars, Starr said.

"No covered wagon company became a major car company, and typewriter companies didn't take over the computer industry," he said, except IBM, which made computers before the Selectric typewriter.

Schneider, meanwhile, spent several years in the dorky end of the car business. He sold the Le Car, the squat minicar that Renault tried to make big in the United States. Years later, he built a booming business out of buying Volkswagen Beetles in Mexico, the last place VW made them, taking them apart and then remanufacturing them for sale in the U.S.

He put an electric engine in one and was going to sell it as the Lightning Bug, but VW then killed off production of Beetles in Mexico. The Lightning Bug, however, led him to Starr. In 2002, he joined ZAP.

"It's a wonderful experience driving an electric car. It's silent. There's not choppiness when shifting gears. I'm not a big golfer or anything, but the few times I went to play golf the best part was cruising around in the golf carts," Schneider said. "It makes driving fun."

CONTINUED: How does it drive?…
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14 comments

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typo?
"and a gas car that gets 50 miles an hour, making it cleaner than other gas cars."

did you mean 50 mpg? And if so, why do you equate fuel efficiency with cleanliness?
Posted by johndunk (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
mpg
Fuel efficiency does equate with cleanliness because the more fuel
burned to generate power, the more CO2 and other pollutants that
enter the atmosphere.
Posted by Macsaresafer (802 comments )
Link Flag
Kings of Hype
I have watched Zap and over the last few years they seem to be nothing but the kings of hype. They come out with some special battery and then nothing. They talk about all these electric cars they have and then they come out with a car that is like a GEM neighborhood car.

I would recommend you no longer report what they are doing until they actually come out with something that is better than a scooter.
Posted by sabot96 (24 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Old Vision Finally Becoming Reality
Check out Bruce Weiner's magnificent Microcar Museum at <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://" target="_newWindow">http://</a>
www.microcarmuseum.com/. These visionaries from Germany,
France, the US, Italy, and other places were way ahead of their time.
Posted by jmdecombe (26 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Actually
Those concepts not only "were ahead of their time" but ahead of [u]petroleum power[/u]!!! The only reason our vehicles are mainly powered by petroleum products is that back at that time the technology didn't exist to make them as viable or as easily powered (and produced) as the petroleum powered vehicle. Of [b]cour$e[\b] M-O-N-E-Y played its part as well as it does today! :|
Posted by btljooz (401 comments )
Link Flag
Agree! Enough hype
It's unbelievable that with the technology and computing capability that we have today, that we never seen any fruition, just hype. You hear of working cloak technology, ultrasonic weaponry, they can take a clear photo of "a galaxy far, far away" and yet when it comes to energy, we are still burning fossil fuels.
Posted by BengalTigger (36 comments )
Reply Link Flag
It needs to go 60MPH, and ...
...otherwise it won't feel/be safe during many people's
commutes.

The styling and name could also use some work. Some of the
models shown in the video are very very ugly, and "Zap" is not a
good name. Makes me think of being zapped by an SUV or
delivery truck. May as well call it "Squish".

How about "eCar" or "Charge" or "eLite" or "eGo" or "E4U" or
something like that?

But I like the concept.
Posted by open-mind (1027 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I disagree, I love ZAP!
I disagree, I love ZAP. ZAP reminds me of electricity, which is what it runs on. I also like the acronym, Zero Air Pollution.

The names you suggessted remind me of Yugo, and Geo Metro, yuck.

IMHO

JD
Posted by Jivedaddy (17 comments )
Link Flag
I LOVE IT! Goodbye Gas Hogs!
I have multiple electric scooters and love them. I also have a new gas powered scooter which is very cool too.

These work great for running to the corner market, cruising the neighborhood, or zipping over to the lake near where I live.

I really hope ZAP cars take off, I'll buy one. I have a Scion xB right now, and a ZAP would look great sitting next to it. Who needs a Hummer!

JD
Posted by Jivedaddy (17 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Electrics spawn fraud
Like everyhting else, once the public gets som
idea in its head (in this case CO2 emissions) it
lays itself wide open to fraud. Asoide from the fact that the electricity that powers these electric cars is most definitely NOT GREEN, the biggest fraud are
thsoe that make economic claims, like so many
equivalent miles per gallon, carefully avoiding the
costs of batteries. Unless a new electric uses the
Altair Nanosafe lithium batteries, it is antique technology. That goes double for the hairbrained Tesla, which must incorporate a Rube Goldberg battery management system in an atempt to overcome
the limitations of the plain Jane lithium ion
batteries it uses (cost $20,000; lifespan - 750 recharges). Unfortunately those batteries cannot be rapidly charged like the Altair batteries(8 minutes versus Tesla's 4 hours) and be completely
safe and flow current 4 times faster and last for over 10,000 recharges. Any electric not using the new Altair batteries is a waste of money.
Posted by theBike45 (90 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Guess you've got shares in Altair!
Guess you've got shares in Altair!
Posted by MyRightEye (1284 comments )
Link Flag
Electric cars
Tha gas pedal and brake are flip flop. What in blazes does that mean.??????????
Posted by tommybed (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
 

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