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UPS tries out Zap electric cars

Electric-car maker gets a trial with "Brown" in Petaluma, Calif., to transport packages this holiday season. Will the Xebra deliver?

The UPS branch in Petaluma, Calif., has leased 42 Zap Xebras, low-speed electric vehicles, for deliveries amid a flurry of activity at Zap.

The Xebra, which comes as a car or truck, is a little bit like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. It has three wheels, comes in flashy colors, and tops out at around 40 miles per hour. You can't take it on the freeway, and acceleration is middling. Look at the picture. It doesn't exactly scream chick magnet. (Read more on my test ride.)

Please don't laugh at me Zap

But for inter-neighborhood deliveries, it does the job. UPS will set up drop-off nodes where the Xebras can load up with packages and go do their holiday delivery routes.

Zap is one of a number of low-speed electric-vehicle makers. These cars, which rarely go above 40, are mostly designed for retirement communities, college campuses, and military bases.

A number of analysts and observers in the clean-tech community view Zap with some suspicion. The company has been around for years but has not had a break-out hit. Nonetheless, it's been quite active lately.

It signed a deal with a Chinese company for lithium ion batteries and hired Albert Lam, former managing director of Lotus Engineering. Zap is also working with Lotus to design all-electric sedans and SUVs for 2008.