The ZAP Xebra is a three-wheeler running on basic batteries, silent and easy to maneuver. It is more than a golf cart and less than a compact car and costs just under $10,000.
"They are cute in their own ugly way. They are the VW of the electric cars. They are the car of the people," said ZAP CEO Steve Schneider, pointing to a Xebra fleet painted in Kiwi Green, Lipstick Red or Zebra Flash (with stripes).
While others hammer away at battery technology to make all-electric cars go farther and cost less, ZAP (as in zero air pollution) believes it has the formula in the tiny Xebra cars made in China: Plug it in at home and go up to 40 miles per hour for up to 25 miles.
"The key is to keep the car simple," said Schneider, noting that a single-wheel front end is a crucial part of containing costs.
ZAP last month anchored a $79 million order from Chicago-based The Electric Vehicle Company, which aims to sell 10,000 ZAP electric cars and trucks to local governments, universities and companies like Domino's Pizza, which is testing the Xebra for deliveries.
That may be the largest order for electric vehicles in history. But even with increased awareness about global warming produced by carbon emissions and the high price of gasoline, America's masses may not be ready to jump on the electric vehicle.
"Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money for a limited function vehicle," said Ron Cogan, editor of Green Car Journal.
While all-electric vehicles emit no pollution when they are driven, they are still responsible for emissions at the power plants that generate the electricity to charge their batteries.
"If you are going to be living in a retirement community or if you are doing all your travel in a downtown area where the speed limits are appropriate, neighborhood electric vehicles or low-speed ones are great," Cogan added.
Betting on the Volt
Indeed, America's urban areas have just sprawled too much to make a low-speed electric vehicle a viable option for many. While it could work wonderfully in Santa Rosa or even San Francisco, hardly anyone in freeway-mad Los Angeles could get by with one.
That is why electric car enthusiasts are placing their mass-market bets on General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in electric car with a small combustion "range extender" engine.
Now still a concept car, GM will begin production as soon as battery costs fall below $3,000 per car. Its experience with the EV1, its defunct electric car featured in the film "Who Killed the Electric Car?", has been instrumental in developing the Volt and its battery.
"We hope the battery can catch up to us and it is not too far out in the future," said Tony Posawatz, vehicle line director for the Volt. "It is probably sooner than most people think."
GM plans to price the Volt at a premium over the standard compact price of $20,000 and make it "accessible to a larger volume of potential customers," Posawatz said.
The Volt will have a 40-mile range between charges, which covers most commutes in the United States, according to Sherry Boschert, author of the book "Plug-in Hybrids: The Cars That Will Recharge America."
But she said the idea to give it an engine as a back-up to those who fear getting stranded is a wise one.
"I love all-electric cars and I actually think they are much better in a lot of ways," said Boschert. "But I think most Americans who are unfamiliar with driving on electricity will be more comfortable starting out with a plug-in hybrid."
Cogan calls the Volt "an intelligent short-term answer and an important pathway for future products."
As battery technology develops, Cogan believes manufacturers will sell different versions, including lower priced ones with a shorter range.
High-end electric roadster
No carmaker seems content to stay focused on just one segment of the electric car market.
Maverick Tesla Motors is starting at the high end, selling its sultry Roadster sports car at over $90,000 and boasting a waiting list of 400. It is also moving down market to a sports sedan to cost between $50,000 and $65,000.
"I think they have a good chance of following through to something everyone can buy," said Boschert.
And ZAP, although it has yet to see its main market take off, is developing the ZAP X with Lotus Engineering, a $60,000 vehicle with a range of up to 350 miles and a range extender.
But Schneider remains attached to the potential of his ugly-cute, three-wheeler and hopes a celebrity or two will adopt the Xebra, like Leonardo DiCaprio adopted Toyota Motor Co.'s Prius hybrid.
"We have a challenge of adding the cool factor to the economic factor," said Schneider.