Tiny Wheego Gets Big Jump on the ElectricCar Competition CBS News

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Wheego LiFE Electric Cars

Tiny Wheego Gets Big Jump on the Electric-Car Competition

Last Updated Mar 3, 2010 2:03 PM EST

Can an electric vehicle startup with just five employees find success in the cash-intensive, cutthroat automotive world? Maybe, if the five people have deep business experience, a savvy marketing sense and a compelling product.

And that just might be the case with Atlanta-based Wheego . which will get a highway-capable electric car on the road as early as June, ahead of Fisker . Coda . Think, GM and Nissan . If the two-seat lithium-ion battery car passes crash tests, it will be on sale for approximately $32,000 at (the company hopes) 50 dealerships across the country.

I was the first journalist to drive the car, known as the Wheego Whip Life . on the snowy streets of Atlanta. I enjoyed the quiet, squeak-free operation, the ultra-tight turning radius, and the nicely appointed (but not luxurious) interior. Like most EVs, the car features very quick acceleration, but this one also exhibited good regenerative braking response and generally good ergonomics.

I experienced some wheelspin, a factor both of the wet roads and the light front end; the company plans to address this by moving the heavy battery pack forward.

The Life is a variation on a Chinese-made gasoline car (with a strong styling parallel to the Smart fortwo ) called the Noble . which has not been a big success. For that reason, when Wheego CEO Mike McQuary came calling at the Shuanghuan factory two hours outside of Beijing, the management was ready to make a deal to convert the Noble to battery power.

The cars are assembled in Ontario, California at Hi Performance . and the 28-kilowatt-hour lithium battery packs are made by Flux Power in Escondido, California. The electric motors (60 peak horsepower) are supplied by Leeson . a division of Regal Beloit in Wisconsin.

The Life will has a range of 80 to 90 miles. and a top speed of about 67. It’s a logical extension of the low-speed vehicle (LSV) version of the Whip, which looks much the same but is speed-governed to 35 mph and is not allowed on interstates. Despite these restrictions, Wheego has managed to sell almost 300 LSV Whips—many in the state of Oklahoma, where a combination of generous state and federal tax credits meant that, until January 1, consumers could buy them for an astonishing $2,500.

Our ambition has never been to be the biggest and sell the most, McQuary said. We’re trying to create an affordable, best-in-class electric car, form a community and have a dialogue with our drivers [who already get regular newsletters]. He said the company would be satisfied if it sells 2,000 Wheego Whip Lifes in the first year.

McQaury is anything but an auto industry lifer. has an interesting back story. He joined Mindspring in 1995 and stuck with it through a merger with EarthLink in 1999. The combined entity became the second-largest national ISP behind AOL. with McQuary as president. As he tells it, he left EarthLink after failing to convince the company to start an online music store to service what became Apple’s iPod.

Wheego LiFE Electric Cars

McQuary founded Brash Music . an independent label. in 2002.

McQuary brought two of his Mindspring/EarthLink colleagues over to Wheego, a spinoff of Ruff Tuff Electric Vehicles (which makes plug-in ATVs in the $7,000 to $13,000 range). McQuary also brought in Jeff Boyd as president. Boyd is an experienced auto executive; he is a veteran of Roger Penske’s company and Miles Electric Vehicles . which is launching the Coda battery sedan later this year.

We are running a very lean operation that allows us to put most of our money into RD and technology instead of overhead, Boyd said. An advantage of our size is that we can be extremely nimble, but the car will have to stand or fall on its own.

According to Boyd, Wheego will follow the Life with a small four-door crossover SUV in 2011, a utility truck for commercial use and fleets in 2012, and a sports roadster in 2013. The goal, he said, is to keep the price below $30,000 (before tax incentives) for all the models.

Photos: Jim Motavalli

© 2010 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Wheego LiFE Electric Cars
Wheego LiFE Electric Cars
Wheego LiFE Electric Cars
Wheego LiFE Electric Cars
Wheego LiFE Electric Cars
Wheego LiFE Electric Cars
Wheego LiFE Electric Cars
Wheego LiFE Electric Cars
Wheego LiFE Electric Cars
Wheego LiFE Electric Cars

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