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Plug in and Go

Remember when the future used to be cool?By the year 2000, we'd all be wearing silvery space suits, living under glass domes, and buzzing around in electric cars. Didn't pan out—for the most part. After years of being scorned as glorified golf carts, electric vehicles (EV's) are finally making their debut as practical, drivable cars.

Since December, EV Rental Cars and Budget have jointly rented EV's at Los Angeles International Airport (and, starting this month, at Budget's Beverly Hills office). Models from four manufacturers—Toyota, Honda, Ford, GM—cost $49.95 to $69.95 a day. Each is a marvel, but the head-turner is GM's EV1 two-seater. The 1999 version offers an optional nickel-metal-hydride battery pack that can carry the car up to 130 miles on a single charge and power it from 0 to 60 mph in less than nine seconds—faster than a BMW Z3.

As a test, I planned a spin down the coast to San Diego; it's a 3 1/2-hour tour de force for an EV. Fully charged, the EV1's 1,175-pound battery pack carries an amount of energy equivalent to that produced by just two gallons of gas. To nurse the juice, the car is engineered for maximum efficiency. The body is lightweight plastic around an aluminum frame, and its shape is the most aerodynamic on the road. The car even recycles: its braking system can regenerate energy and send it back to the batteries.

Drivers have to do their part, since jackrabbit starts and abrupt braking waste energy. To help ensure optimal performance, EV Rental Cars gives first-timers a 10-minute lesson. So on a bright L.A. morning I met with Terry O'Day, director of planning and operations for the agency.

According to a California government mandate, O'Day told me, 10 percent of new vehicles sold in the state by 2003 must be emission-free. GM has invested $350 million in its EV1 program, but only 600 EV1's have been sold since 1996. Few believe that California will meet its deadline.

O'Day, however, remains optimistic. "Within three years we'll have chargers up and down the coast," he says. "And the new generation will be able to give a full charge in just fifteen minutes instead of five hours."

He led me to my EV1. The front end is conventionally sporty; the rear is tapered downward like the back half of a tuna. But somehow it all works. Even on a lot crowded with Mercedes and Jaguar convertibles, the car has a magnetic effect on passers-by.

I slid behind the wheel. An LED panel showing the battery-charge level and current power usage juts from the dashboard. Between the seats, beside a keypad used to control the car's functions, stands a shifter that looks like a fighter-jet joystick. I punched in a five-digit code, and a strip of warning lights on the control panel glowed to life. You don't start an EV1, you boot it up.

After making sure I knew what I was doing, O'Day handed me a binder of maps locating the 94 charging stations in the county and a list of the 300 or so elsewhere in the state. My first miscalculation wasn't my driving style but my choice of routes. When the legendary Pacific Coast Highway passes through the southern sprawl of Los Angeles, it is neither coastal nor a highway—it's a string of stoplights and low-end stores glued together by traffic. Would all the starting and stopping drain the batteries?No, it turned out: the regenerator worked like a charm, and soon the "range remaining" readout had actually climbed five miles.

Nevertheless, with at least 100 more miles to cover I played it safe, stopping after an hour at Duffy Electric Boats, in Newport Beach. I plugged in the car and strolled down the street for lunch. Ninety minutes later the EV1 was fully energized—for nothing, since most public charging in California doesn't cost a cent.

On the freeway, I momentarily succumbed to temptation and floored it. Smoothly, with no gear change, the EV1 zoomed forward. Oops: in 90 seconds, my range remaining dropped by five miles. I eased back down to the speed limit. All that instant LED feedback had turned me into a conservation freak, and I felt guilty about burning too many amps.

The hope is that charging sites will soon be so abundant that miserly driving won't be necessary. At the moment, though, travelers have to plan their itineraries around them. The Hyatt Regency La Jolla has a charger, so I pulled up, plugged in, and conked out for the night.

Fortified by a long sleep, I awoke ready for a good day's work: tooling around San Diego. The car shines in the city—flaunting its acceleration at traffic lights, whipping around curves as if it were on rails. I ladled on the power, knowing I wasn't ever far from a charger. The EV1 never so much as hiccuped. I decided that I would really push the envelope the next day; on the way back, I'd drive nonstop to Beverly Hills.

From the start, there were intimations of trouble. Soon after merging onto I-5, I passed a sign: LOS ANGELES 101 MILES. The readout stood at 103. It'd be close, but I knew that conservative driving would increase the range. Sure enough, after I'd traveled 71 miles the gauge was at 70, with L.A. just 30 miles away. I felt good. Then it struck me: L.A. is a big place. What did LOS ANGELES 30 MILES mean, anyway?If the border was 30 miles away, then Beverly Hills might be . . . 40?80?I had no idea.

At Long Beach, my remaining range was down to 40 miles. I fumbled through my map book; Beverly Hills seemed far off. The charger at the Santa Monica Pier looked closer. Not my destination, but it sounded scenic.

By the time I reached the Santa Monica Freeway the range was down to 22. The coast was only a few miles away now.

Then things got weird. From 20 miles the range suddenly dropped to 14, then 7. I found my exit and pulled up to a stoplight within sight of the ocean. Range remaining: 3. I coasted a few blocks. Ding, ding, ding! CHECK MESSAGES, the readout commanded. BATTERY LIFE was lit up in orange. My range remaining was "— —."

Another block. Ding, ding, ding! Another message: REDUCED PERFORMANCE. Did someone pour molasses into the motor?Fortunately, the charger was exactly where the directions said it would be, on the wooden pier overlooking the beach.

I made it. Sort of. Sure, I had to worry more than I would've liked about power levels. But the sheer futurism of the EV1 was a thrill—not to mention its rocket-sled acceleration, movie-star glamour, and the fact that I didn't contribute a single wheeze to the orange cloud bank over Los Angeles. That had to be worth something, right?In my book, at least $49.95 a day.

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