Automaker aims to bring clean cars to the masses

Will ZAP's ethanol and electric minicars be a hit on the road? If anything, they are fun to drive. Photos: ZAP cars scream green

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
5 min read
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.


"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.)

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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."

At the moment, electric cars, at least inexpensive ones, need work. While the Xebra can go 40mph, it takes awhile to get up to top speed. Flooring it, I cranked it up to 30mph, but it took about six seconds. The battery charge lasts for about 40 miles. The performance and range, however, will increase with better batteries. Currently, the Xebra runs on a lead acid battery.

But I do have to admit, I smiled the whole time I was driving it.

"This is a second car or even a third car," Schneider said. Ninety percent of all car trips in the U.S. are under 21 miles, and most of the time the driver never cranks up the car past 40 miles an hour, he added. Thus, a market could exist for cheap commuter cars.

By contrast, the scooters are a different story. The Zappy 3 picks up quickly and turns well. It is also much easier to learn to drive and seems to be faster than a Segway. The Zappy 3 costs only $700, far less than the thousands that Segways cost.

May buyers of the scooters are big fans. Ken and Diana Ackerman, who were visiting ZAP's warehouse, have bought 20 ZAP scooters for residents of their trailer park in Calistoga, Calif. "We ride every night at 7 p.m.," Diana said. The riders, some of whom are around 80 years old, will soon participate in a parade.

The Zappy 3 is supposed to top out at 15 miles an hour. Schneider, who lives on a hill, recently took a Zappy up to 40mph, but wiped out and broke four ribs and some other parts.

"I took it way past its capabilities," he admitted.