October 22, 2003, Wednesday Late Edition - Final

Section G Page 16 Column 1 Desk: Cars Length: 1536words


CALIFORNIA/MOTOR CITY; Leased and Abandoned: Revolt of the EV-1Lovers






TWO summers ago, Peter Horton drove home in the car of his dreams.Mr. Horton, a star of ''Thirtysomething,'' had signed a three-yearlease with General Motors for a Saturn EV-1 electric car, joining 800other California and Arizona drivers behind the wheel of the mostenergy-efficient, lowest-emission vehicle ever produced by anAmerican manufacturer.


Mr. Horton will not have it much longer.






Next July, he must return the car to G.M., which is ending theEV-1 project. That move has set off a contentious debate between theautomaker, which introduced the model with great fanfare in 1996 butnow says that demand was not high enough to justify keeping it on themarket, and drivers like Mr. Horton, who not only like the car'senvironmental qualities but also the two-seater's pep and handling.G.M. wants all its electric cars out of private hands when the lastleases expire in August 2004. The car was never offered for sale.


Most EV-1's, which are sitting on a vast lot in Van Nuys, Calif.,will be dismantled and their parts recycled, G.M. says. About 75 willend up in Rochester, where they will be driven by the company'sfuel-cell researchers and other employees; a handful will go tocolleges and museums.


Disgruntled EV-1 lessees have formed a loose online support group,relaying stories and strategies as they try to hang on to their cars.In July, 100 celebrities, engineers and fans even gathered at theHollywood Forever Cemetery and staged a mock funeral.


Some drivers have asked for lease extensions or offered to buy thecars and release G.M. from the responsibility of providing parts orservice. They have even sent good-will checks of $1,000 or more.


G.M. says that extending the leases could cost the company lots ofmoney in warranty claims and parts overhead. It argues that therelease of liability would be a bad business decision, one fraughtwith peril if a buyer sells a car to someone who demands parts andservice.


Adding to the dispute are assertions from angry lessees and apresent and a former G.M. employee that the company is trying toerase all trace of a car that it never intended to succeed. Thecompany denies this, saying it would never have spent $1 billion overthe last decade on a car it did not plan to sell in large numbers.


The EV-1's history is intertwined with a 1990 California mandatethat 2 percent of all cars sold in the state in 1998 be zero-emissionvehicles, or cars that could not emit any of the usual tailpipegases. The figure was to rise to 10 percent by this year. The mandatewas bitterly fought by automakers, including G.M., as an unreasonablemanipulation of the marketplace.


Yet in the early 90's, Roger Smith, who was G.M.'s chairman,publicly professed hopes that tens of thousands of EV-1's would soontravel up and down California, recharging their lead-acid batteriesas they went at convenient plug-in stations.


That never happened. Construction of the car ended in 2000, withjust over 1,000 vehicles made and 800 leased. Only a smattering ofrecharging stations was spread around the Los Angeles area.


Ken Stewart, the EV-1's brand manager, contends that the car is asuccess, at least technically. ''It's still the most efficient car onthe road,'' he said. ''From a commercial perspective, it was a realstruggle. No manufacturer goes into business to mass-produce vehiclesonly to end up with less than a thousand. The program gets to becost-prohibitive when the numbers are so low. So at this point, whykeep them on the road?''


Mr. Stewart said that with the leases expiring, it made sense toend the program. ''We certainly want to honor everyone's lease forthe full duration,'' he said.


California has since relaxed its 1990 law, and to meet the currentmandate, automakers can include partial zero emission vehicles, whichare particularly efficient but otherwise conventional. The list alsoencompasses cars and trucks powered by hydrogen fuel cells and hybridgas and electric vehicles.


Toyota is already marketing its hybrid Prius, and Honda introducedthe Insight and now the Civic Hybrid. Next year should bring hybridsport utility vehicles from Ford and Lexus and hybrid pickups fromG.M. and Dodge, a unit of DaimlerChrysler.


Chelsea Sexton, a former Saturn saleswoman and an EV-1 specialistuntil 2000, when G.M. stopped leasing EV-1's, described a strongdemand at first for the original batch of several hundred EV-1's andthen a drop after potential customers found the $550-a-month leasestoo expensive. This seemed especially high for a car that seats onlytwo and has limited luggage space.


But, Ms. Sexton said, a 1997 recall to replace a faulty chargerand inadequate batteries led to a reborn Generation II car with a$275 monthly lease and batteries with a range of 100 miles betweencharges, instead of 50 to 60 miles.


At that point, she said, interest increased. But G.M. built only500 of these new models, enough to satisfy the California 2 percentmandate. ''I was on my own waiting list for two years,'' she said.She eventually got a car, the same azure blue EV-1 that Mr. Hortonnow leases.


Ms. Sexton said that she was one of the last 13 EV-1 specialists.''As people left, I took over their business,'' she said. ''In theend, I had thousands of people who were telling me, 'I will write youa check today.' ''


Mr. Stewart acknowledged that more than 4,000 people had requestedmore information about the car. ''Yet in 2001,'' he said, ''when thecompany asked those people if they would sign a lease for a carshould one become available, less than 50 people wanted to go to theextent of actually leasing.''


Another issue that divides the two sides is how committed GeneralMotors was to the EV-1. One G.M. employee who was involved with theproject said: ''We launched the car in December of 1996, and by aboutApril, I figured we'd been duped. They weren't marketing thevehicle.'' He insisted that his name not be used because he wasafraid of job repercussions.


He said that the no-purchase policy limited the car's appeal.''Jay Leno even wanted one,'' he said, but G.M. turned him down.


Marvin Rush, an EV-1 lessee and a cinematographer for the ''StarTrek'' television series, used his own money -- and the cast of theshow -- to create radio advertisements for the car. But they flopped,he said.


As he put it: ''I tried to sell that car, and I think G.M. didtheir dead-level best. They only gave up when it was pointless.''


Mr. Leno, who has an extensive car collection, confirmed that hewanted to buy an EV-1 but was turned down. He harbors no ill will.''G.M. is very proud of that thing,'' he said. ''Here was essentiallya zero-emissions car that had A.C., a stereo and low drag. It wassexy, too.''


Mr. Leno said he drove a Lamborghini Diablo and an EV-1 for aweek, ''and I actually had more fun with the EV-1.''


As Mr. Horton drove his EV-1 up the Pacific Coast Highway fromSanta Monica, he expounded on its virtues.


''Along with simply loving the car,'' he said, ''there was a sensethat if this succeeded, it would significantly change the automotivelandscape.''


Mr. Horton, who wrote an article about his experience with the carfor The Los Angeles Times Magazine, contends that G.M. is letting anopportunity slip by. ''Why aren't they being saviors instead oftrying to kill it? I think that's part of what drove a lot of itsowners to stand up.''


At a scenic overlook atop Topanga Canyon Road, Mr. Horton, whocurrently has a role in the new ABC series ''Karen Sisco,'' met a fewother disgruntled EV-1 compatriots: Ellen Crawford, a star of''E.R.''; her husband, Mike Genovese; and Chris Paine, a filmmakerwhose EV-1 lease has ended.


Mr. Paine, who said that he was considering producing adocumentary on the car, describes the situation as ''incrediblyfrustrating.''


''We're getting massive smog alerts,'' he said, ''and they'regetting rid of a zero-emissions car.''


Ms. Crawford compares her little red EV-1 to the defunct LosAngeles electric trolley system. ''Those things went everywhere,''she said, ''and they ripped them out. We saved on gas, and we cleanedthe air, but they're doing it again.''



Images: Photos: UNPLUGGED -- A group of EV-1 loyalists gathersabove L.A. From left: Peter Horton, Chelsea Sexton, Ellen Crawford,Mike Genovese and Chris Paine, who calls the loss of the G.M.electric car ''incredibly frustrating.''; IDLING -- Leases ended,many of the EV-1's sit on a lot, waiting to be dismantled.(Photographs by Gerard Burkhart for The New York Times)