General Motors will be in for a shock when nobody takes to the electric car

January 08, 1996|By MIKE LITTWIN

EVEN PUTTING aside the problem of extension cords, I don't see the new electric car catching on.

I know, GM's new EV1 (Eveready 1?) doesn't actually require an electrical outlet. It's battery powered -- like the Energizer bunny or those annoying Duracell battery people of TV commercial fame.

But I wonder if that's an improvement.

It's hard enough to buy a car as it is. Now, we're looking at a time when, as you're ready to leave the showroom, certain you've been slickered out of everything but your Baltimore Browns boxer shorts, your final question to the salesperson will be: Are batteries included?

This is a new day. Which is not to say a good day.

As usual, it's California's fault. It was smog-filled California that insisted the car companies come up with an electric car, which, on one hand, does not pollute, but try getting those batteries out of the package.

By now it's clear to everyone (at least everyone who can see through the smog) that electric cars are a leftover idea from the time of defeatist, less-is-more, America is a second-rate power thinking. What I'm saying is, Jimmy Carter would drive an electric car.

Since that time, we fought the Persian Gulf war so we could have all the gas we'd ever need -- and none of the speed limits.

There are two kinds of car buyers, and it's not clear how the electric car appeals to either of them.

One is the kind of person who just wants to get from here to there with a minimum of fuss, a Honda Civic, Chevy truck, Grand Voyager or maybe a Volvo kind of person. This is a reliable person who wants a reliable car -- what used to be called meat and potatoes before everyone stopped eating red meat. I don't know what we call them now. Chicken and dumplings?

Well, the EV1 goes 90 miles. Then it stops. Then it needs three hours to charge the battery. And when the temperature goes much below freezing, the EV1 barely goes at all. It's the EV1, not the DieHard.

And then there's the not so chicken and dumpling price of $35,000.

The other kind of buyer is so insecure that he seeks to define himself to the world by the car he purchases. In other words, most of us.

There are several subsets in this category, including:

* The look-at-me-I'm-rich person, who drives a Beamer or a Lexus and drives it by your house, hoping you'll gape.

The look-at-me-I'm-a-'90s person, who drives a Jeep, as if his off-road driving weren't limited to his driveway.

* The my-wife-drives-the-good-car person, who drives in dark glasses, even at night, in the vain hope that nobody notices that it's him in the '82 Chevette.

* The look-at-me-I'm-pathetic person, who drives a sporty car, not a sports car, like a Celica or Miata, in an attempt to try to look hip and youngish and, instead, looks foolish.

* The listen-to-me-hum-"GTO" person, who drives a muscle car and thinks the best place to live is Montana, where there are now no daytime speed limits. In Montana, the official name for EV1 is road kill.

Where does the EV1 work for any of these people? It's barely even a car. When they introduced it last week in Los Angeles, it made no sound. Which brings up a philosophical question: If a car makes no sound on the freeway, is it really there? There is one advantage to the car. If you own an EV1, you'll be the one person who really won't have to spend a lot at Meineke.

I grew up in the muscle car era. When I was in college, one of my best friends had an Olds 442 convertible, which, basically, would not go under 100 miles an hour except when stopped. (Often by a cop. We got hit for doing 90 in a 70-mile-an-hour zone one spring break. The ticket costs $25. That's when America was America).

It had a V-8 engine of course, with more horsepower than the entire U.S. cavalry. Don't think of a V-8 as being something just twice as big as a four-cylinder. That Olds 442 was only slightly less powerful than a Saturn missile.

Gas was basically free in those days, and somebody actually pumped it for you. This era ended with the first oil embargo. By that time, I had been through two MGs and was driving, shudder, an Opel Cadet given to me by my grandmother.

Now, I drive a Celica. Yeah, one of those sporty cars that looks like a sports car and drives like a sedan. I'm pathetic.

But not pathetic enough for an electric car, which sounds like something you should give to your 12-year-old to drive in the back yard.

Like MTV, I'm into unplugged.

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