Pulling out of the parking lot in the Th!nk City electric car yesterday, the first thing I noticed was the sound. No, not the wonderful silence that is usually first on my mind when I'm on an EV, but something loud coming from the front of the car. Turns out, this is the sound of the vacuum pump for the brakes recharging. It wasn't there every time I slowed or stopped, and once we were underway I was just glad to be cruising through Ann Arbor without any emissions and didn't notice it again. Still, eliminating or getting people used to the sound is just one of many hurdles that Think North America will need to clear before it begins U.S. sales of the City in 2010 (for fleets) and 2011 (for the rest of us).
Right now, though, there's a lot to love about driving the only Th!nk City that Th!nk North America has brought to the U.S. thus far.
The Th!nk City has two drive modes, a standard drive mode and an economy mode. In econ mode, acceleration is decreased and regenerative braking is increased. Since there is no gearing involved, you can shift from one to the other on the fly and you really notice the regen brakes kick in when driving in econ mode. Why use econ mode? To go further, naturally. Our Th!nk representative who came along for the ride told us that the car gets a range improvement of about 10-20 percent when in econ mode, although I'm not sure if that's on top of the stated 112 mile range of the car or if you need to use econ mode to reach 112. The spec sheet simply says that the 112 miles are what you get using summer tires with the heat and air off. Of course, the list of equipment the Th!nk provided us does not list an A/C option and the model we drove did not have A/C buttons, so I'm not sure what's going on here. Let's just say that econ mode gives you a few more miles, doesn't let you sprint off the line and slows the car down quickly when you take your foot off the accelerator pedal.
For the most part, driving the City is a lot like driving any other EV. Easy, quiet and fun. Like other non-NEVs electric vehicles, you get a lot of oomph from a dead stop thanks to the electric motor's instant torque. Keeping up with traffic wasn't a problem at all. In fact, other cars had a hard time keeping up with us.
On the inside, the car feels quite roomy and visibility is good for the most part. The side mirrors look a bit funky from the driver's seat, but are quite functional. At times, the rear window didn't seem high enough and I couldn't get the rearview mirror to angle correctly to see well out the back.
In front of the driver, the information cluster is simple and easy to read. Speed is front and center. On the right of the dashboard cluster is a little analog needle that tells you if you are driving efficiently or not (green = good) and is nearly impossible to get into the red. An analog charging scale showing the battery state of charge is on the left of the cluster. When you're running low on juice, a little gas pump/plug symbol (right) lights up to remind you to charge up somewhere. Should you start to seriously run out of juice, the City moves into limp-home mode when you can go another 6-7 miles. This will take some willful intent on the driver's part, since the battery state of charge will not drop suddenly, Th!nk representatives told us.
There is no "on" button à la the Prius. Instead, putting the key into the steering wheel column and turning it powers up the car; drivers of traditional cars will feel right at home. The open "glovebox" space that sits on top of some fuses in front of the passenger takes some getting used to, but adds to the feeling of openess in the City. All European Th!nk City vehicles come with a standard assist button, an OnStar like roadside service that uses the City's built-in "Mindbox" and GSM to help in case of an emergency. The City also features plastic, dent proof panels.
In our ten minutes with the Th!nk City, we didn't have time to do fun tests like driving it up an mountain and spinning out on icy roads, but you can see what that's like here. You can also watch a video of the City in Ann Arbor, along with two video ads provided by Th!nk, below.
The big question remains: $20,000 plus $90 a month for this? We'll have a better answer once we learn more about Th!nk North America's plans and get to spend some more time behind the wheel of this fun little electric car.