I did not hold up traffic or fear for my life.
Those were two of the more noteworthy – if seemingly unremarkable – facets of a test drive through San Francisco in the Whip, an all-electric car from Wheego Electric Cars. The two-seater, which resembles a Smart Car, kept up with the flow of traffic along the pancake-flat Embarcadero. When I needed to change lanes, it let me accelerate ahead of other cars.
Going up Nob Hill, I managed to accelerate from a standing stop to between 20 to 25 miles an hour on some of the steepest sections and maintain speed.
"Steve McQueen is probably rolling in his grave somewhere," joked CEO Mike McQuary, a former internet exec, after we realized we were driving on some of the same blocks where Bullitt was filmed.
Although those aren't Porsche speeds, I was able to keep an even gap with an Econoline van behind me on one block and catch up to an empty Toyota pickup on another one. I purposely hit a few potholes and only felt a moderate lurch. (A video will come to the site soon.)
While Tesla Motors brought back the concept of electric cars from the dead with its Tesla Roadster, the job of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and oil companies will likely fall to economy automakers like Nissan, Subaru, Mitsubishi who have or plan to release eco eco cars.
With some luck and capital financing, smaller companies like Coda Automotive, Wheego, Electrovaya and Zenn Motors will be able to participate in the market as well.
Wheego right now sells a low-speed all-electric version powered by lead-acid batteries. It's what I drove. Although the car could go close to 50 miles an hour, it contains a governor that limits the speed to 35 or 25 miles per hour, depending on the state where it is sold.
The company hopes to release a freeway-legal version powered by lithium-ion batteries with a 100 mile range. Two of the initial markets will be California, where surveys indicate that urban drivers want small electric vehicles, and Oklahoma, where the state has passed a tax credit that can go up to approximately 50 percent of the cost of the car, said McQuary.
The low-speed lead-acid car costs $19,000. Adding lithium batteries will boost the price to $29,000 before the $7,500 federal tax credit or any state credits.
Will Wheego make it? It's hard to say. Overall, it felt like a slight step down in performance and handling from my utilitarian second car: a 2004 Nissan Sentra we bought used form Hertz. Still, it felt and drove like a car: It did not scream "golf cart" like some other lower-end electric vehicles I have known. The turning radius was small enough to let me pull a U-turn on a narrow street with a parked car on one side. The Sentra wouldn't have made it.
The brakes also grab pretty well and it is short enough to fit into tight spaces. For urban commuting, this car with a little more power and some further refinements will work fine for consumers. As a city delivery vehicle, it's ready.
The downside? It will be hard to match the performance and handling of the Nissan Leaf. We drove the prototype of the Leaf last year and it definitely had an edge on performance. Nissan has also indicated it will sell the car for around $30,000. If Nissan can hit that mark, Wheego (and some of the other economy car startups) will have trouble competing. GM's Volt, with a range of a few hundred miles, will only be around $10,000 more.
It also didn't have the speed or space-age suavity of the three-wheeled Aptera 2e. When the Aptera pulls up, people stop to take photographs and ask question. Barely anyone gave us a second notice.
Then again, when it comes to electric cars, indifference can be considered a good thing.