There’s something inherently weird about three-wheeled electric cars. Take (please!) the Zap Xebra. This is one of the cheapest ways you can get with the plug-in program, since the lead-acid battery Xebra retails for just $11,700, but it looks like a polliwog with a steering wheel. And say hello to the Elio!

Even weirder is the Aptera 2e, which has gullwing doors, a cabin apparently borrowed from a Piper Cub, and pod-like wheel extensions. The Jetsons are filing a missing vehicle report. Nevertheless, the composite-bodied, lightweight 2e will be one of the first EVs on the market, maybe even before 2009 slips into 2010. It will sell for $25,000 to $40,000 and have a range of 100 miles. The company claims the equivalent of 250 mpg from its ground-level rocket ship.

Here’s what the Aptera 2e looks like on the road:

Three-wheelers don’t have to go through crash tests and are classified as motorcycles, which reduces start-up costs for EV entrepreneurs like Aptera and Zap. But they got left out in the cold when the Department of Energy started handing out loans in the hundreds of millions of dollars to four-wheeled firms like Tesla and Fisker.

Enter the white knight. Aptera is in Vista, Calif., and is represented in Congress by Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., who pushed through an amendment redefining passenger cars as “fully enclosed vehicles that are capable of carrying two adults and getting at least 75 miles per gallon [equivalent].”

“This is a huge win for scientific innovation and the environment,” Bilbray said. Not to mention, it benefits a company in his district. “I’ve always said that we need more innovation and less regulation when it comes to promoting new ways to save energy while saving money at the pump.”

Marquis McCammon, chief marketing officer for Aptera, told me that the company plans to promptly resubmit its DOE loan request. It asked for $75 million the first time around, and was turned down last year because, frankly, it wasn’t a passenger vehicle. Now Aptera CEO Paul Wilbur is wrapping himself in the flag.

“This bill shows that Congress and the Obama administration support real American green tech innovation and are behind companies that create manufacturing jobs in America,” he said. The company says it can employ 1,500 people directly, as well as provide work for thousands in support roles.

The real test, of course, will be getting Americans to actually buy three-wheeled cars. There aren’t many precedents for that. Does anybody remember the 1950s BMW Isetta? It’s probably the only one that sold in any volume. Here’s a used one for sale — just $14,900.

But here are some even cooler three-wheelers that may soon be coming your way now that the law has been changed, courtesy of the estimable The Chinese are buying Hummer, so stranger things have happened. And a three-wheeled Smart: Why didn't I think of that? Herbie will be just as audacious on three wheels, and it could start a whole new franchise:

Images above courtesy of

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Four wheels good; three wheels better?
EV trikes are now eligible for lucrative federal loans, so expect a flood of new (and very strange-looking) plug-in cars on the market.