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Is the Wheego Whip "The Cadillac of Neighborhood Electric Vehicles"? That's one description that we heard during our very short test drive of the NEV during the Santa Monica Alt Car Expo last weekend. Marc Korchin, owner of the Green Motors electric vehicles dealership in Berkeley, rode with us around the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in the Wheego and explained why this car is, in many ways, the best he's ever sold.

Having driven the Tesla Roadster and the Dodge Circuit, we know what pure EVs are capable of. But this car costs about a sixth of what the Roadster costs – and the Circuit is just a prototype today – so we had to make sure to evaluate the Whip on its own NEV merits. Is the Wheego worth it? Find out after the jump.

Photos copyright ©2009 Sebastian Blanco / Weblogs, Inc.

First off, what is the Wheego Whip? The Whip is an all-electric low-speed vehicle that is made in California but based on a platform that comes from China's Shuanghuan Automobile. According to Wheego, about 100 people pre-ordered $18,995 not-so-Smart car before it became available this summer. For your $19k – minus a potential $7,500 from the federal government – you get a compact two-seater that "when it makes a donut, it doesn't even leave a hole," Korchin said. Above all, this is a city car. There is no tremendous get-up-and-go in the Whip, but it performs just fine in city traffic. Except for a long straightaway on the way back to the Civic Auditorium, we never felt out of sync with the speed of traffic. It's easy to imagine that most people will be able to make an NEV like the Wheego work just fine in day-to-day use, perhaps with a few adjustments to drive mostly in residential areas.

How does it drive? Getting in is easy enough, and the car clicks on without hassle. Drive direction is selected using a gearshift-like rod that offers drive, neutral and reverse settings. Moving from one to the other requires putting up on a collar ring and then moving the shifter. An LCD display on the dashboard lets the driver know which gear is selected. Yes, the NEV is silent and even in a parking lot full of people there just to learn about green cars we were worried no one would know we were coming. A CD of engine noises is available, but Korchin said most people just turn the radio up a bit to let people know the car is about to move.

Once on the go, the Wheego does have a very simple ecometer to provide feedback to the driver about how efficienently the driver is operating the vehicle. A series of five lights that run from green to yellow to red indicate how much energy it takes. We couldn't get the red lights to turn on, just the orange ones when we sped up to the Wheego's top speed of 25 mph. Standard eco-driving tips, like coasting up to red lights - Korchin says he keeps an eye on pedestrian signals to alert him to upcoming traffic light changes - can keep the eco meter in the green and extend the Wheego's 40-55-mile range.

For drivers worried about how many more miles are left in the pack, the analog state of charge energy meter on the left of the dash is incredibly accurate as to how much energy is in the pack, Korchin said, because it doesn't base its prediction on what the driver is doing at any given moment (i.e., if you're speeding up, it doesn't assume you'll be speeding up until the pack runs out). When it dips into the yellow or red, then you'll want to find a charge somewhere. To get from 20 percent up to 100 percent full takes about 10 hours using the Stage One Charging system, Wheego says (PDF spec sheet) and the Wheego does have a 220V quick charge option. The Wheego's warranty, which Korchin said was the best of any NEV he's ever sold, covers parts (including the batteries) for two years and labor for a year.

During the drive, regenerative braking does recapture some of the energy that was used to make the car go. The regen braking in the Wheego is incredibly soft, especially compared to the one-foot drivability of the Tesla Roadster. We were able to coast for a full block from over 20 mph and still needed to tap the brakes at the stop sign. The Roadster won't let you do that and we kind of like keeping out foot off the brakes. You can't get going any faster than 25 mph in the Whip, at least not in California, and pressing the brakes is somewhat heartbraking. There are nine states where NEV laws allow the Whip to top out at 35 mph, and Korchin did bring up the issue of changing California's laws to allow NEVs to go faster in the Golden State with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger when he stopped by the Wheego booth during AltCar 2009.

So, is this the "The Cadillac of Neighborhood Electric Vehicles"? It certainly has more car-like features than, say, a GEM (until the Peapod makes it big, maybe) but that bar is set pretty low. The car's iPod-ready stereo, power windows and mirrors are all nice touches. If you want to spend more than $18,995, air conditioning is a option, along with a spare tire carrier and "The Cadillac of Neighborhood Electric Vehicles" dual charging system. The air conditioning took a few minutes to kick in, but was plenty cool on a decently hot day in Santa Monica when it got going. The interior certainly doesn't have a Cadillac-level of luxury – there is cheap plastic everywhere – but Wheego didn't set out to make a Cadillac; just the NEV version.

There are sacrifices to be made with any NEV – no one will dispute that – but if you're willing to make them, the Wheego is a solid choice. Korchin said that people should evaluate their daily driving style and see if a zero-tailpipe-emission, 25 mph top speed vehicle is right for them. If so, we ask: why not go Wheego?

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