ATLANTA — It was snowing on Peachtree Street, a very rare event indeed, and I was navigating the wet roads. I was the very first journalist to drive the Wheego Whip Life, from a car company based in MNN’s backyard. With luck and success in forthcoming crash tests, Wheego will have this two-seater affordable ($32,000 before a $7,500 federal tax credit) battery car on the market as early as June. You can already get your name on a waiting list, but if you're impatient, their non-highway version is already available for purchase for around $20,000.
The Whip Life is a big deal, because getting plug-in cars on the market has become a competitive race. Wheego will have fierce competition in the next year, not only from established players such as Nissan (the Leaf) and Chevrolet (the Volt plug-in hybrid), but also start-ups such as Coda (the Coda sedan), Think (Think City, the closest in approach to the Whip), Fisker (the luxury, performance-oriented Karma) and others. Tesla plans a mass-market car as its third entry, once it gets the high-speed Model S sedan on the market.
Despite the snow that sent Atlantans into a panic and closed schools, the tiny Wheego team let me take the Whip Life on the road, including on the vividly named Lester Maddox Highway. The car is very light, and with a 28-kilowatt-hour battery pack and an electric motor capable of 60 horsepower it moves off the line with alacrity. Here is a video moment behind the wheel of the Wheego:
The power steering is particularly well-weighted, and the tiny car is very maneuverable, with a tight turning radius. It exhibited no bad behavior in my hands, other than some wheel spin on the slippery roads. This will be remedied with optional snow and mud tires, and a planned movement of the battery pack forward in production cars. The car felt very tight, didn’t squeak and rattle as many prototypes do, and offered comfortable (though hardly luxurious) interior accommodations. Gauges on the dash monitor your state of charge, and also whether you’re conserving electricity with “eco-driving” techniques.
Located on an Atlanta side street with a jukebox in the lobby, Wheego is hardly your average green car start-up. CEO Mike McQuary is a serial entrepreneur who built Mindspring into a hard-charging ISP before its merger with EarthLink in 1999. He also runs a record label, Brash Music, and I was more than happy to spend half of our face time talking about singer songwriters (we both love Alexi Murdoch, a Scottish bard whose music is heard to good effect in the film Away We Go). I walked away with a pile of Brash CDs.
The company has just five employees, and only President Jeff Boyd (ex-Penske and Miles Electric Vehicles) is an experienced automotive hand. Right now, there’s no huge Wheego factory with workers in logo jumpsuits making cars using Toyota’s lean production methods. Instead, Wheego buys the chassis in China — it’s from a Smart-like gasoline-burning commuter car sold there as the Noble — and has it shipped to California, where, at a company that makes plug-in golf carts, batteries from Flux Power and an electric motor from Leeson are shoehorned in.
At Mindspring, McQuary was big on getting feedback from his customers, and you can e-mail him with questions about the Wheego. The company has already sold nearly 300 of a look-alike neighborhood electric vehicle (the basic $20,000 Whip) that can only be driven on local roads at 35 mph or less. “We’re not going to step into the pitfall of become a hype machine,” McQuary said. “We’re not going to set unreal expectations by saying the Life goes 200 miles on a charge, or make claims that fall outside the realm of known physics. The car goes 80 to 90 miles on a charge, depending on how you drive.”
McQuary spent 10 years at Mobil, and while there he did surveys about consumers’ attitude toward recycling. “One hundred percent thought it was a good idea,” he said, but when they found out they’d have to separate paper and plastic, the buy-in dropped to 20 percent. If they had to take recyclables to the neighborhood drop-off center, it fell to just 2 percent. "I came away with the fact that people don’t want to be inconvenienced," McQuary said. "So it is with EVs--they think they’re a great idea, but won’t buy them unless they offer the fit, finish, styling and convenience they’re used to.”
McQuary says he’ll be happy if 2,000 people buy Wheego Whip Lifes in the first year. He has 20 dealers now, and hopes to have 50 by the launch date this summer. If the car is a success, they’ll probably be teaching the company’s methods at Harvard Business School. Here’s the anti-GM: Launching an electric vehicle with just five people, outsourcing deals, and big dreams.