Saturn's Battery-Powered Car: The Saturn EV1

A widely hailed sign of the future arrived at select Saturn retailers in December 1996. The EV1 wasn't GM's first battery-powered car, but it built on decades of company experiments with electric vehicles.

And it wasn't just for fun. California and other states had enacted laws requiring automakers to sell a percentage of zero-emissions vehicles (ZEVs) as a condition for doing business in those states. Though lawmakers kept fiddling with deadlines and sales counts, clean-air mandates were a fact of life demanding alternatives to the internal-combustion engine. Most automakers started with electric cars.

EV1 was built to gain real-world experience with advanced technology and, just as important, to assess consumer interest in electric vehicles. Saturn owners liked new ideas, and the small lozenge-shaped electric coupe had plastic body panels over a steel skeleton, so it was right at home in Saturn showrooms. EV1 was not a Saturn, though, wearing the GM logo as a new one-model "make."

Evolved from the 1989 Impact prototype, the EV1 had a front-mounted AC induction motor driving the front wheels through a "1-speed" transaxle with reduction gear. The juice came from 26 lead-acid batteries arranged in a central T-structure and weighing some 1175 pounds, nearly half the car's curb weight.

For maximum driving range, a "regenerative" feature reversed the main motor on braking to replace some of the power used; a transaxle "coastdown" feature gave a similar effect when coasting on flat surfaces or when or descending hills. Recharging was by a 220-volt stand-alone unit or a 110V onboard charger. Recharging took 12-14 hours with the onboard unit, about three hours with the 220V equipment.

The EV1 cost a cool $350 million to develop, and GM said it should have sold each one for at least $35,000 just to break even on the project. That was deemed excessive for a fairly impractical car with unclear market prospects and embryonic technology. So instead, GM offered three-month leases that included all normal servicing, though not the required home charger.

Fittingly, EV1s were first leased in smoggy Los Angeles and San Diego, California, and in Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona. The program was extended to Sacramento, California, in 1997 and to San Francisco the following year.

"Owners" loved the cars, happily passing gas stations in eerie silence and zipping through traffic or along winding roads with verve. Acceleration was strong -- about 8.0 seconds 0-60 -- but you dare not use full power very often. Even careful drivers were hard-put to get more than 60 miles on a full charge.

With that and the rise of more-practical gasoline/electric "hybrids," interest in the EV1 tailed off. GM ended production in late 2000 after fewer than 1000 units, but continued the lease program for a time.

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