Battery-powered 'Sparrow' turns heads

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SNOQUALMIE - When Philips Oral Health Care automation engineer Chip Doring drives to work every day to Snoqualmie from Seattle, he can't help but get a couple stares, smiles and confused looks as he zips down the highway.

Doring, who has always enjoyed using unusual means of transportation, has been cruising to work for the past few weeks in the three-wheeled Sparrow, an electronic vehicle so small that four can fit into one parking space.

"For me, it makes perfect sense," Doring said. "I thought of what would be a perfect electronic vehicle, and when this came out I said, 'That's it!'"

The Sparrow, the not-quite-car, not-quite-motorcycle, not-quite-scooter developed by Corbin Motors in California, has been the buzz of the small but growing electronic transportation community since it first appeared in 1999. Unlike "hybrid" cars made by major car manufacturers that employ a mix of electricity and fossil fuel, the Sparrow runs entirely on batteries. The cars costs about $15,000 and can include many of the same accessories a gasoline car has. Although developed for urban stop-and-go traffic, the Sparrow can reach up to 70 miles per hour on the freeway and has a range of about 60 miles before the batteries need recharging.

The Sparrow has drawn praise from car enthusiasts and the alternative car community alike. One Domino's Pizza franchise in California got the car for deliveries, and a Japanese company was so excited with the new car it ordered $1 million worth. There is no special certification outside of a regular driver's license needed to drive one, it can travel in HOV lanes and has also made appearances in the futuristic Fox Television show "Dark Angel."

"Now is the time [for the car]," said Pamela Denner, marketing and communications manager for Corbin Motors. "We are more conscious of our atmosphere and of our dwindling resources. This could be part of the solution, and I think it will be."

The buzz has been perfect but not everyone is as excited about the new electric wheels as the press and its manufacturers. Nat Priest, president of the New York City-based Electric Vehicles Inc., saw disappointing sales in the urban setting that was supposed to be the Sparrow's prime demographic area.

"I didn't sell any cars," Priest explained. "When people came in and found out what they were getting into, they didn't buy any."

Priest said the long wait to get a car was one of the main deterrents in turning away potential buyers. The Sparrow plant in California manufacturers about two vehicles a day at peak production, and the waiting list to buy a Sparrow is six to eight months long unless the car wanted is already on a lot. These, and other problems, forced Priest to abandon selling the Sparrow earlier this year.

"I'm guessing there has been a 100 percent turnover in dealers since they started selling," Priest said.

There are also laundry lists of complaints posted on Internet sites that serve Sparrow owners. Everything from squeaky breaks to engines that don't turnover have some owners fuming and longing for the days of gas guzzlers. Since parts are made only at the plant in California, maintenance can be a chore.

Even those in the field of developing electric vehicles said the future of electric cars is starting to dim. Rob Schurhoff, a research assistant at the University of California-Davis who works on the Future Trek program at the Hybrid Electric Vehicle Center, said the only modes of transportation that have a real future with electricity are two-wheeled bikes and scooters. Since the batteries needed to power the larger vehicles are so expensive and have a limited range, larger cars and trucks have an uncertain future unless they use some form of fossil fuel.

"It's a tough sale, but I'd like to see it happen," Schurhoff said.

According to Doring, however, all of these complaints need to be taken in stride. Knowing that he would encounter the problems of investing in a technology just getting off the ground, Doring said the right attitude is necessary when buying a Sparrow.

"We [Sparrow buyers] all knew we were buying a Beta car," Doring explained. "Someone at Corbin said, 'We knew we were pioneers and we knew we were going to get shot in the back.' That makes sense."

Doring said part of the excitement was seeing a small company like Corbin step up to the plate and take a real swing at what some of the major car manufacturers had deemed a failure.

"GM spent half a billion dollars developing the EV1 [an electronic car that looked like a gasoline-powered car] and said it couldn't be done," Doring said. "Now if a little company like Corbin can do it, we know the other big companies can."

Sparrow owner and Colorado resident David Andrea said his Sparrow has been unreliable, but said the problems he has dealt with are small compared to the satisfaction of helping the environment and battling the SUV mentality that "the road belongs to me."

"It's really worth it, even with the hassles," Andrea said. "I'm still driving it."

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