Mix an old non-descript suburban Detroit warehouse with some new Ikea furniture and fixtures, throw in some entrepreneurs with extensive auto industry experience and a plan to attack an environmentally conscious market niche and you have American Electric Vehicles (AEV). AEV President Scott Thornton invited AutoblogGreen to visit their factory in Ferndale, MI to see their production process and drive their first product, the Kurrent neighborhood electric vehicle.
ABG talked to Scott in late December about his company, the Kurrent, but this was the first opportunity to see this Italian-designed NEV in person. The Ferndale warehouse serves as headquarters, engineering facility, parts warehouse and assembly plant for AEV. Most of the staff are auto industry veterans, including Thornton who has 27 years in the business, much of it with Jeep. Right now, apart from the office areas, the build is divided into two main areas, with one being used for parts storage and the other for assembly and testing. As production ramps up through this year, the parts storage area will be switched over to a second assembly area. Continue reading about the assembly process and driving impressions after the jump.
Click to watch a short video the assembly process for the Kurrent NEV
Due to the relative simplicity of the Kurrent, the assembly area has no moving line, but uses a cellular process instead. The major components like the body panels and the frame are produced by suppliers off-site and delivered to the AEV facility ready for assembly. The mechanical components are all off the shelf parts such as the front shock absorbers which are sourced from Ducati motorcycles, all of which helps to keep the overall costs of the Kurrent to a minimum. The ABS body panels have the color molded in, so no painting is required. The aluminum "egg-shell" tube frame also comes into the plant painted, and is exposed to view in many areas of the vehicle. Check out the video for nice overview from Scott of the whole assembly process.
Right now there are about a dozen people working on assembly and each car takes about 16 man-hours to assemble and test, and they are turning out about one complete car a day. The AEV team are currently refining all the assembly processes to make it easier to build and speed things up. For example they had been assembling the doors horizontally on a workbench but are now doing upright on a special jig. They hope to get the production rate up to about 10,000 cars annually by the end of the year. If sales justify it, they also plan to add a second assembly location on the west coast.
After seeing the assembly process, we went for a test drive in a Kurrent. The Kurrent is far more than your average golf cart, but it certainly isn't a car for everyone. The thirty-five mph top speed means that drivers aren't going anywhere near a highway. On the other hand if you live in a gated community or work on some kind of campus, this could be a very economical way to get around. It could also work in smaller to medium sized cities like Ann Arbor, MI or Madison, WI. If you live in the city not too far from the downtown area, it makes a very efficient, clean way to go to a class, work, or grocery store. Speaking of the latter, the Kurrent has a real locking trunk that easily hold three or four bags of groceries.
While not luxurious by any means, the Kurrent is relatively fully equipped. It has locking doors with roll down windows, a radio, heater, windshield wipers, seat belts, hydraulic brakes and a choice of either a glass roof or a folding fabric roof. The Kurrent is small at a mere 92 inches long, and a weight including the batteries of 1080 lbs. The is plenty of head and leg room but shoulder room is tight with two passengers, since the car is only 50 inches wide. The glass roof in the example I drove does helps make the car feel more open. There is no transmission, just a rocker switch on the dash to select Drive or Reverse. To drive the car, you turn the key, select D or R and step on the accelerator.
Given the 4.1 kW motor, acceleration is leisurely, particularly with people aboard. Lifting off the go pedal reveals fairly aggressive regenerative braking to maximize the battery range. Speaking of range, it maxes out at about 40 miles, but is reduced depending on your driving habits, use of the headlights, radio, etc. The car feels fairly solid, thanks to the stiff aluminum frame. Anyone who has spent any time driving in Michigan, knows that we have almost certainly the worst roads in the nation. Given that, even with the short wheelbase, the ride was stiff but not intolerable, and it didn't feel like the car was going to fall apart. Handling isn't really much of an issue for a vehicle with such a low top speed, but it certainly didn't feel tippy going around corners. The brakes felt fairly strong, although most of this was probably the regen.
This is certainly not a car for everyone, but if you fit the profile, it definitely feels like a very reasonable choice. It's cheaper than a GEM and much better equipped. Styling is always a matter of taste, but the Kurrent has plenty of character for such a small car, and it's definitely better than your average golf cart. If a neighborhood electric vehicle meets your needs, the Kurrent is definitely worth checking out.