September 3, 2007
LINCOLN, California -- For many, the term "NEV" evokes images of open-air vehicles that look more at home on the golf course than the road. Neighborhood Electric Vehicles are a practical option for local transportation, and come in many shapes, styles, and models. But in a market where doors are typically sold as an optional accessory, one Canadian company has introduced a remarkable vehicle that gives prospective buyers a completely different choice: the ZENN.
ZENN stands for "Zero Emission No Noise". The ZENN is reminiscent of a European micro-car, but is fully electric, and has a top speed of 25 MPH. Its small size makes it easy to maneuver and park, while still providing an ample interior. Sold as a luxury NEV, the ZENN has all of the amenities of a standard car--without the pollution, noise, maintenance, or high cost of fuel.
If you aren't familiar with the concept of a NEV, you may still be reeling from the top speed. Yes, the top speed is 25 MPH; no, these cars aren't for long-distance commutes. Think of a NEV as a transportation tool for short trips around town (less than 30 miles round-trip). You wouldn't use a 50 ft extension ladder to reach a box of cereal on the top shelf of your pantry. Instead, a convenient step-stool would do the trick. The same applies to cars: NEVs are great for short trips around town, but won't replace your traditional car for long-distance excursions.
We recently had a chance to test-drive the ZENN, and were very impressed with this two-passenger runabout. Immediately upon opening a door, the window springs to life, descending about four inches. This smart feature eliminates any uncomfortable cabin pressurization, and makes the door easier to close. Once the door is shut, the window automatically slides back up to the closed position. The ZENN's "window drop" feature is not uncommon to small luxury vehicles, but can be annoying if you want the window to remain down.
Sitting in the cabin, you'll quickly forget you're in a NEV. In the middle of the dashboard, an illuminated console displays battery charge, speed, and distance. Below that, a standard car radio lets you listen to your favorite tunes. A three-position rocker switch selects drive, neutral, or reverse. Side-view mirrors are manually adjustable from within the cabin, and the windows and optional sunroof are all electric. Externally, the body looks metallic, but is actually made of impact-resistant ABS plastic. The resilient body makes it very difficult to damage--even for the rogue shopping cart.
After inserting the key and turning it forward, you'll almost miss the sound of an engine roaring to life. Instead, you'll hear absolutely nothing. It's not until you press the accelerator that the faint sound of the electric motor is heard as the car smoothly accelerates. While the brakes and steering are not power-assisted, it doesn't take much physical exertion to turn or stop. The car's suspension is comfortable, and handles potholes and dips with ease. In short, it drives just like a traditional car.
|Top Speed:||25 MPH|
|0-25 MPH:||9 seconds|
|Battery:||Gel or AGM|
|Cargo:||13 cu. ft.|
The ZENN takes about nine seconds to reach its maximum cruising speed. While it feels like it could go much faster, the built-in limiter engages to ensure the car complies with state and federal regulations for low speed vehicles. The acceleration is slower than some NEVs, but the gradual start helps the ZENN achieve a true 30 mile range on a single charge. While other manufacturers claim a similar range, many fail to deliver under real-world driving conditions. With the ZENN's optional AGM batteries, the range is truly impressive.
Another optional feature of the ZENN is air conditioning--which is unique in the NEV market. Since we were driving on a hot summer day, a cool breeze would have been a welcome addition. The vehicle we drove was equipped with the optional sunroof, which retracts over 75% of the roof area when open. Even with the huge sunroof and open windows, the airflow is still well below that of an open-air NEV.
The most obvious difference between a ZENN and a typical NEV is the appearance: its car-like style tends to befuddle other drivers and pedestrians. As the car approaches, many assume it is a traditional vehicle. But as the ZENN zips by, people notice that it's no ordinary car--it is totally quiet. Driving through Lincoln, CA we got many stares and waves, as well as a surprising number of thumbs-up signals from teenagers making their way home from the local high school. If you like being the center of attention, you'll love the ZENN.
The car's unique styling does have a down-side. Some people expressed concern that the ZENN is too car-like, and that it may confuse other drivers who see it driving in Lincoln's shared Bike/NEV lanes. The concern is that other drivers may follow the ZENN into the NEV lane, thinking it is a standard traffic route. Installation of NEV decals on the back and sides of the vehicle helped to differentiate the ZENN from other cars on the road. However, the car-like appearance may still cause some confusion on the road.
Starting at $12,750, the ZENN is certainly not the lowest-cost vehicle on the market. But as the old adage says, "you get what you pay for." The ZENN is unique, comfortable, and a whole lot of fun. While some will prefer the open-air feel of a traditional NEV, the ZENN offers a very attractive option for those looking for a more car-like vehicle that shields its occupants from the elements.