Turn On, Tune In, Plug In: Electric Beetle Driven

The surroundings were familiar, but something else wasn't quite right.

Antony Ingram

Liquorice-thin steering wheel rim? That's definitely there, present and correct in all its cream-coloured glory. A bit of a squeeze to get around it perhaps, but it really looks the part. The gear lever too looks standard, complete with its mushroom-shaped gear knob.

It can't be the seats -- those feel great too, if not as supportive as modern ones. The painted metal dash still gleams as it should, and there's still that slight feeling of claustrophobia in the narrow cabin. The close windscreen doesn't help, but there's a great view over that humped bonnet and curvy wings.

There's no two ways about it -- it's definitely a Beetle, and a beautifully-restored one at that. So why does it feel so...odd?

It might have something to do with the feeling of rolling along at 50-odd miles an hour without any evidence of an old flat-four thrashing away behind me. Yes, that's definitely it. What's going on here, then?

This: I'm driving Zelectric Motors' electric-converted 1963 Volkswagen Beetle down a sunny SoCal street. And it's quite unlike any Beetle I've ever driven before.

Okay, so it's older than the handful of 1970s Beetles I've driven before, but in replacing the traditional engine with an electric motor, the car has changed completely. And not for the worse either.

There's 80 horsepower for a start -- double that of the average 1300cc Beetle, and a lot less noisy to boot. And smoother. All but the briskest of hotted-up Cal-look Beetles would struggle to keep up and they'd be making a lot more fuss about it. Zelectric Motors owner David Bernardo says this Bug will do 80 mph on the freeway, a speed only 1600 Beetles could hit back in the day. Down a hill, foot welded to the bulkhead, with a tailwind.

The unfamiliarity continues when you get to the gearbox. This is for two reasons. It has one, for a start -- most electric cars don't -- and it also operates a little differently from your average Beetle shifter.

There are still four speeds plus reverse, but you only really need two of them, second and third. You need to disengage the clutch to select a gear, but you can then release it again -- pulling away is just like an auto or a regular EV. Quicker than you'd expect, if you've selected second. But third is good too, and it'll take you all the way to that lofty (for a Beetle) top speed.

It needs technique, too. Treat the gearbox gently and you'll actually give your passengers a jerky ride. The best plan is to do what racers would call a flat-shift: maintain whatever pressure you're putting on the gas (to keep the 'leccy motor spinning at the same RPM), disengage clutch, shift, engage clutch, and continue.

It adds a level of interaction you don't expect from an electric car. And most surprising of all -- between all this gear-changing and burning people off at the lights -- is that you don't really miss that flat four noise so intrinsic to air-cooled Vee-Dubbing. You still get the old car handling, you still get the old car looks, and you still get all the old car creaks, groans, smells, noises and feelings.

I was worried that removing such a fundamental part of the Beetle and replacing it with a cold, modern, emotionless electric motor would neuter the car. It would be a classic car ruined, neither truly modern nor authentically old.

In reality, it feels like a Beetle. A quiet Beetle perhaps, but also one that doesn't leak, doesn't overheat, doesn't pump fumes into the cabin from its non-existent rusty heat exchangers, doesn't need tuning up every few hundred miles, and costs pennies to run.

I think I know why this Beetle doesn't quite feel right: it's because it's actually a much better car.

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