Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Lust for a Good Ride: Bending California's Backroads with Electric Roasters

Wet Nellie

Bond Cars and VehiclesI was thirteen when I saw my first Lotus.  We were on a family vacation driving from western Massachusetts up to ski country in Vermont when a 1977 Lava Orange Lotus Esprit raced pass us on Route 91 just outside of Amherst.  I was leaping and shouting from the backseat of our gold Plymouth Fury, much to the awe and disgust of my younger brother.  He said it wasn’t a Lotus and what did I, a girl, know about sports cars anyway.  I insisted that it was, which our mechanic step father promptly confirmed. 

Gloating aside, I was ecstatic to have seen, and been able to identify, the angular Esprit, especially given how rare they were in the United States (U.S.) at that time.  A deviation from the subtle roundness of the late 1960 “mod” models such as the Elan, James Bond’s sweet submersible Esprit aptly nicknamed “Wet Nellie” debuted that same year in the film For Your Eyes Only helping Lotus make a splash into the U.S. market. 

"Simplify, then add lightness," declared Lotus’ founder in 1952, establishing the company’s design parameters.  Ironically, that’s what my current life is all about, keeping it simple and light. 
In 2009, after my youngest became engaged, I put everything into storage and hit the road. a year and 17 states later, driving on Route 89 south to 395 from Lake Tahoe to San Bernardino in my five-speed Celica, I seriously itched for a more powerful ride. 

Lotus Esprit: The Complete StoryA gear-head wannabe, I had fallen hard for the sport cars reviewed in my stepdad’s auto magazines early on, long before I understood that the world of fast cars, let alone the road to Formula One (F-1) racing, was still virtually barricaded to women.  While there will always be those trend setters who have what it takes to drive head on through such barricades, I was not destined to be one of them.  While I was memorizing the multiplication tables and the water cycle like other average run-of-the-mill school kids, Lella Lombardi started in 17 World Championship Grand Prix and roared around Daytona’s NASCAR track.  As I was plowing through books at college, Giovanna Amati climbed the ranks in the F-1 race circuit and a few years later, as I was changing diapers and correcting homework, she placed in the top ranks at the Grand Prix.  These high speeding women drove cars I could only dream about as I schlepped my kids around in much more practical “family” vehicles. 

For Your Eyes OnlyA country living, seriously entrenched hippie throw back, I even selected a practical, economical sports car when I officially became an empty nester.  I chose one with a hatchback that would still enable me to take the recycling to the county’s collection depot and would get reasonable gas mileage during my monster commute across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge into the DC suburbs.  A few years later however, leaning into the curves on the outstanding California back roads with awe inspiring vistas high in the Sierra Nevada’s, I was wishing I hadn’t been quite so practical in purchasing my ultra-light 1.8 liter 4 cylinder rice-burner with its barely sufferable 140 horsepower.

A Good Ride Defined

Tesla Roadster (Full Throttle 2)Lusting for a good ride--for more power and better overall handling--as I was, my quest for serenity in nature along with any semblance of a social conscience, would have dissolved instantly had I been strapped in behind a roaring V10 engine with 650 horsepower, oh say like the Dodge Viper, yielding maybe 15 miles to the gallon on a good day, if I was lucky and had the wind at my back.  Thankfully, looming on the horizon are cleaner roadsters expected to ensure a guilt-free exhilarating ride at comparable prices. 

For the record, there are several factors that contribute to my considering a sports car a good ride and, ironically, top speed isn’t one of them.  Firstly, understand that sports cars are high performing vehicles with integrated capabilities that exceed those of standard vehicles specifically to enhance the driving experience.  Primarily, I like my ride low and wide because there is undeniably an obvious difference driving a car equipped with a wide axel stance and thick tires.  Tires, as they relate to cornering (gripping) and steering, can make or break your ride as much as acceleration, or more specifically torque, can.  A smooth ride is an absolute must and factors that enhance the driving experience include aerodynamics, brakes and suspension, seat contour and support, cockpit layout and utility, mirror positioning, and the noise factor.  And call me picky, but I want juice when I need it.  That’s where torque comes into the scenario.

Simplified, acceleration results from the power, (as in horse), produced by the torque and revolutions per minute (RPMs) of the crankshaft that through the car’s transmission and rotor enables the wheels to turn.  Horsepower is the rate at which it takes a car to achieve peak torque, i.e. the actual output of power in a given timeframe.  Thus, the horsepower required for acceleration is dependent on torque.  Although both affect overall performance, it’s the torque that’s felt during acceleration.  It’s the torque we yearn for.

An internal combustion engine does not produce peak torque until the RPMs are in the thousands.  Gears, or multi-speed transmissions, stretch out the peak torque that has a tendency to dissipate rapidly.  With an electric motor, peak torque is available immediately and isn’t reliant on high RPMs, negating the need for, or usefulness of, gears.  This makes the electric motor much more efficient than its petro peer. 

The Zero-Carbon Car: Building the Car the Auto Industry Can't Get RightPoint in fact is the well publicized zero-emission all electric Tesla Sport Roadster with its 288 peak horsepower and 295 pounds per foot of torque currently in production.  It accelerates from 0 to 60 in 3.7 seconds, which is a faster rate than that of most sports cars on the mass market.  To give you a perspective, the $484K Porsche Carrera GT makes 0-60 in 3.9 seconds.  Although its 125 mile per hour (mph) top speed is half that of other sports cars, the Roadster exhibits performance capacity comparable to the competitively priced Viper and ZR1 Corvette selling at $90K and $110K respectively.

Catalyzing Change

Who Killed the Electric Car?Founded in 2003 by Silicon Valley engineers with a global vision to “catalyze change,” Tesla Motors Incorporated produces a variety of high performance zero-emission vehicles affordable to mainstream consumers.  The sleek Model S hatchback, Tesla’s high performance four door coupe due for production in early 2012, is being marketed at half the price of the Roadster with base price of $49K.  This price puts it in the ballpark with some of the more affordable sports cars on the market today, such as the BMW Z4 with selling price of about $62K.  But, Tesla Motors is not the only electric car company trying to tap into the rapidly growing “green” market.

Venturi F├ętish: Venturi Automobiles, Currently Available Electric Cars, Tesla Roadster, REVA, Kewet, Lumeneo SMERACompetitor Venturi has opened its North American Headquarters in Columbus, Ohio in order to manufacture and distribute the America, modeled after the mother company’s 300 horsepower, 280 pounds per foot of torque Fetish launched in Europe in 2004, which accelerates from 0 to 60 in 4 seconds and whose top speed has been recorded at 320 mph, far exceeding the 257 mph clocked by the SSC Ultimate Aero, generally considered to be the fastest sports car in the world. 

Like the Tesla Roadster, the America will top out at about 125 mph.  Unlike the Tesla, the more expensive high body America is being targeted to the new and upcoming luxury sports crossover market as a mixed-use all-terrain leisure vehicle.  The expected $580K price tag on Venturi’s dune-buggy/sports car does not even include doors as do the other expensive supercars that these electric models are up against, such as the $475K+ Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren and Ferrari Enzo.  None-the-less, the founders of Venturi are visionaries as well since they aim to provide practical solutions to ending petro dependency and eliminating the related emissions polluting our air.

Trendsetter Clara Ford

Blue Collar Comedy Tour: One for the RoadAt the turn of the last century, six years after her husband introduced the dashing Model T to the world, a very modern, eco-chique Clara Ford was driving a 1914 Detroit Electric Model 47 Brougham hot off the assembly lines, marketed on its facility of the push-button ignition that eliminated the need to stand out in the weather ankle deep in dirt to turn the hand crank.  Women took to the road in droves and by the mid twenties, automobile manufactures were actively marketing to women as drivers, not just passengers.  Today, women comprise more than half the market for new cars, spending just shy of a $100 billion annually on combustion engine vehicles that haven’t improved on gas mileage much since the 20 mpg Model T hit the dusty streets a century ago.

As they were more than one hundred years ago, today’s electric vehicles (EVs) are simple to operate and maintain.  Oil changes, tune-ups, emission tests become a thing of the past with electric motors.  There are fewer repairs because there are fewer parts, and they produce no particulate matter or noise pollution. 

Best part, though, is that they cost less to run.  According to the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, an EV traveling 40 miles a day costs as little as $.56 to charge during off-peak meter hours.  At $3.00+ per gallon, comparable petro internal combustion engine vehicles can cost more than $5.00 in fuel a day to drive the same distance.  And, unlike conventional cars, electric motorized vehicles can be recharged by rebate eligible solar panels, liberating the owner in perpetuity from petroleum dependency, foreign or national. 

60 Minutes - The Race for the Electric Car (October 5, 2008)With a whopping 300 mile (or five hour) driving range thanks to an extensive lithium-ion battery bank that includes almost 7,000 cells, Tesla’s high performance EVs are hardly limited by their electric motors.  However, not every EV can boast such an expansive range.  In fact, all the electric cars soon to be appearing on the U.S. market will have a driving range of 80-100 miles including Nissan’s LEAF, Ford’s Focus and the compact Transit Connect Van, Mitsubishi’s iMiEV, Think’s City Car, the Coda, and the Smart4two from Daimler.  BMW’s Field Trail of their all electric Mini-E sent engineers back to the drawing board to correct battery issues that resulted from cold climate testing.  But, it too will yield the diminutive 100 mile driving range.

This range wouldn’t have come close to accommodating my former extreme commute defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as one that consumes 90+ minutes (or 90+ miles) each way.  But, for the more than 130 million people commuting only about 40 miles a day, 75 percent of which shamefully drive alone, this lower range would be sufficient.

Although the battery packs used by EV manufacturers vary in both size and type, most dealerships are claiming that the “5-10” year battery lifespan depends on both weather conditions and the frequency of rapid recharges, (i.e. 440-volt charging units that can provide a 75 percent charge in under an hour versus the overnight lower volt standard outlet systems).  Under “normal” driving conditions, lithium battery packs are expected to retain up to 70 percent capacity after 5 years or 50,000 miles, and some even up to 80 percent after 10 years or 100,000 miles.  Tesla’s packs are expected to last 7 years or 100,000 miles.

As with other auto manufactures, they offer bumper-to-bumper 3-year, 36,000-mile warranty, an extended power train warranty and a battery replacement warranty.  With EV battery packs ranging in price from $10,000 to $36,000, other dealerships may follow Tesla’s lead by offering buyers a discounted pre-purchase option for pack replacement.  With vehicle 100,000 mile life fuel and standard maintenance costs for gas models beginning at $12,500 and $2,000, respectively, the battery replacement costs aren’t as scary as they initially seem.

Currently available federal, state and county tax credits, which in some areas can total almost $13,000, provide added incentive towards the purchase of both EVs.  EVs receive a full waiver on all sales, luxury and use taxes in some states and are eligible to utilize high occupancy commuter lanes and free parking.  I’d have to say though, the fact that Tesla Motor’s Service Rangers make house calls is what tips the scales for me.

Lake Tahoe: A Fragile BeautyDriving an EV is a quiet, smooth, fun experience not to be missed.  With dealerships and recharging stations going up all across the country, and Tesla’s collectible Roadster in its last year of production, eco-savvy consumers are lining up for their very own test-drives.  Although almost half the acceleration speed of the stock cars that contemporary Indy drivers Danica Patrick, Sarah Fisher, and Milka Duno are accustomed to driving, I’m certain even these professional drivers would be hard pressed to not enjoy plunging Tesla’s silent, breathe easy Roadster down the steep switchbacks along California highway 89 west of Lake Tahoe and tearing across the wide open stretches further on down Old Route 395.  A word of advice: do as the professionals do.  Tie back your hair, ditch the heels, clip the nails and omit the lip gloss (bugs stick--it's a topless thing).  Be sure to plan ahead by scheduling your test drive on a breezy, sunny day, locating the perfect back road with climbs and corners, and prepare to lean back into the contoured seats to experience the ride of the century.

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