Electric Car Lets Family Save on Gas, with Flair

Tucson family standing in front of their electric car. i i

Sally Day, Todd Poelstra and their daughter Isabella in front of their electric car in Tucson, Ariz. Ted Robbins, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ted Robbins, NPR
Tucson family standing in front of their electric car.

Sally Day, Todd Poelstra and their daughter Isabella in front of their electric car in Tucson, Ariz.

Ted Robbins, NPR
The Zap Xebra electric car. i i

Poelstra and Day say the cost of electricity for their Zap Xebra is $10-$12 a month. Ted Robbins, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ted Robbins, NPR
The Zap Xebra electric car.

Poelstra and Day say the cost of electricity for their Zap Xebra is $10-$12 a month.

Ted Robbins, NPR

If you live in a metro area with good public transportation, you may be leaving the car at home these days to save money on gas. But tens of millions of people — especially in the West — have no choice: It's drive or don't go. So what to do? For one family in Tucson, Ariz., the decision was to stick out like a sore thumb with their electric car.

Todd Poelstra and Sally Day drive an all-electric Zap Xebra. It has three wheels, a rounded body (sort of like a Soviet-era car of the future) and is bright lime green — all of which makes it impossible for the couple to cruise down the road anonymously.

"We've had our picture taken countless times by people with their cell phones," Poelstra says. "People notice [the car] because of the color." Which is good, he adds, because "one of the major downsides is it is not the safest car around. It is the safest motorcycle you could ever drive."

And technically, that's what the state of Arizona considers it — a motorcycle. It has two doors and four seats. The Zap Corp. took the frame of something akin to a motorcycle rickshaw and had a Chinese company modify it.

The Xebra rides more like a 20-year-old car than a 1-year-old one. The company says quality is improving with newer models. So far, about 700 have been sold in the U.S., for about $12,000 apiece. California just passed a $1,000 tax rebate for Xebra buyers. The company says there is a backlog on orders. As the price of gas goes up, this all-electric vehicle looks more and more attractive.

Poelstra says back in the good old days when gas cost $2.50 a gallon — last year — he was spending $100 a month to fill up his pickup, just to travel to places like the grocery store. The cost of electricity for the Xebra is $10-$12 a month. He loves the car and loves telling people about it.

A passerby outside the grocery store inquires about the Xebra. Poelstra says the car is totally electric and requires minimal maintenance.

"Right on! That's pretty cool," Clay Dierdorff exclaims. Poelstra says he gets such inquiries all the time.

"Every time we park, somebody wants to talk about the car," he says. Poelstra's 12-year-old son Alex says that drivers in large SUVs occasionally aren't so polite.

"A couple of people yell when they see it," Alex says. Sometimes they use "words you would not want to say — especially on national radio."

The Xebra is obviously not for everyone. It can go up to 40 miles per hour, but it travels only 25 miles per charge. Poelstra says that's plenty for him and his wife to get the usual day-to-day shuttling done: "Shopping, dropping the kids off between swim meets, piano class — all that kind of stuff. It's just our normal everyday car."

But even this family also owns a minivan to haul kids and loads, travel out of town, or simply drive without attracting so much attention.

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