TURKU, FINLAND — I have gone to the four corners of the Earth to drive electric cars, so it’s not surprising that I find myself in far-off Finland this week. In the pine forests (it looks like Michigan) is nestled a sleeper of a company called Valmet Automotive that, in addition to assembling high-end Porsches, also produces a tiny electric car called the Think City. And it will soon be on American roads.
The two-seat Think City is a cheerful little slice of eco-friendly Scandinavian design, with fully recyclable plastic body panels and a Zebra battery pack (EnerDel for the American market). Finnish-made cars will arrive in the U.S. by the end of the year, but Think has signed a deal to build Citys in economically challenged Elkhart, Ind. (once the “RV Capital of the World”). With incentives, you’ll be able to buy a City for about $30,000, and you can make that $25,000 if you live in California.
You don’t want to see sausage made, but it’s fine to see Think Citys on the assembly line. Fitting the Finnish temperament, the process is slow, exacting and completely non-mechanized. The only robot in sight was installing windshields in the Porsche Boxsters and Caymans. The lab-coated workers were putting the cars together with hand tools, then testing every component.
CEO Richard Canny said he will roll out an all-new Think City in 2012, but it won’t be moving upscale. Think is concentrating on the same urban audience that is the target of BMW’s Project i. The car is highly maneuverable and operates for 2 cents a mile.
I was able to pilot the Think City around the port city of Turku, and aside from a minor brake problem (a fuse popped), it felt fully ready for the market. A car I drove in Detroit had heavy steering but that has been addressed with nicely balanced power steering that will be in all U.S. market cars (they also get slightly elevated power and 70-75 mph cruising on the highway).
You can now buy the Think City in the car’s home country of Norway (still the best market, because of really great incentives there), Austria, Holland, Spain and Switzerland. It’s also coming to France and Belgium. Think technology is also in a neat program in Japan, installed in Mazda2s that fast-charge at a local grocery chain.
This is not the first go-round for the Think City, by the way. The company was owned by Ford from 1999 to 2003. When Ford bailed out, it planned to crush the orphaned Citys, but the automaker was spared a Who Killed the Electric Car? scenario because Greenpeace picketed Ford headquarters in Oslo. Instead, the Citys were rescued and sold as used cars on the Norwegian market. Some of them are still on the road, too.