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July 15, 2012

News & Features

Road test: A Seattleite tries an all-electric car for a week

Special to NWautos

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The writer in her loaned Wheego Whip. (Courtesy of Cody Ellerd Bay)

I have to admit I was skeptical. I'm all  for clean energy and better air quality, but, in my mind, electric cars are driven only by employees of forward-thinking city governments or wealthy CEOs who can afford to call a car a "toy." Normal people who just need to get things done and do it on a budget? Well, wouldn't that be nice someday?

So when I sat down in the driver's seat of the Wheego Whip that Seattle's MC Electric Vehicles loaned me for a week, I thought this little game would be fun. I could enjoy a short reprieve from ballooning summer gas prices and give myself a pat on the back for spewing fewer emissions — and then go back to my perfectly satisfied life as a Subaru Outback owner.

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The Wheego Whip is a two-seater that tops out at 35 mph. (Wheego)

MC owner Jim Johnson gave me a quick tutorial of my loaner, a tiny, red all-electric two-seater with a 40-mile range and a top speed of 35 mph. I put the key in the ignition and turned it; nothing. "Don't worry, it's on," Johnson said. "It just doesn't make any noise."

I pulled out of the dealership in the International District and looked at the clock. The all-too-familiar panic hit: It was 5:50 p.m., and I had a 6 p.m. haircut in Georgetown.

As the little Whip muscled its way up Beacon Hill with a determined, high-pitched hum, I pushed the gas pedal to the floor and went exactly zero mph faster. When they say 35, they mean 35 and not a single mile more. Yikes. This is not the best car for someone who is always running late.

There are high-speed, highway-capable all-electric cars on the market, of course, including the Nissan Leaf, Honda Fit electric and Ford Focus electric. The downside is that there are long waits for delivery, and they typically cost upwards of $30,000. MC sells the Whip for about $17,000 and offers financing at about 2.5 percent interest. A monthly car payment of around $200 would indeed be less than I'm currently spending on gas.

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If my hair stylist was miffed about my lateness, it was quickly erased by her curiosity about the funny-looking ride I had pulled up in. Driving an electric car, if nothing else, is a quick way to make friends.

Back at home, I parked the Whip in my backyard, running an extension cord through the kitchen to charge it overnight. Plugging into a standard wall outlet for the 10 hours needed for a full charge, according to Johnson, adds about 30 cents to your utility bill.

Over the next week, I took the bus to work as usual and drove the Whip to run errands in the neighborhood, go to a Mariners game (where I was able to squeeze into a tiny parking space no one else could fit into) and meet friends for weekend brunch. I kept an extension cord in the trunk in case I needed to pull up to a coffee shop for a cappuccino and emergency fuel charge, but, given the short trips I was making, the necessity never arose.

And, I must say, zipping past gas stations showing prices at more than $4 per gallon made the 30 cents I had spent to run my errands that day feel more and more satisfying.

At the end of the week, I returned the Whip and got into my Outback. I turned the key and the engine rumbled to life. It felt like an awful lot of car for just a drive down the road back home, but off I went — though not before having to stop for gas.

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