LA 2010: driving the Wheego Whip LiFe, the electric car from an aggressive little company

Wheego Whip – Click above for high-res image gallery

Where do you go when you're starting with "The Cadillac of Neighborhood Electric Vehicles"? If you're Wheego Electric Cars, a U.S. EV manufacturer that uses bodies built by China's Shuanghuan Automobile that look suspiciously like a Fortwo but are totally not-a-Smart, then the answer is to get aggressively into the full-speed electric vehicle game. That's just what happened at the Los Angeles Auto Show when CEO Mike McQuary took to the floor of the Wheego booth and lashed out against Nissan, Coda and many other electric car players. The message: you're all doing it wrong.

Los Angeles is the perfect place to launch the 70 mile per hour top speed, 100-mile range LiFe car, McQuary said, not only because zero tailpipe emissions can help reduce air pollution, but because:
In Los Angeles, perhaps more than any other city in America, you are what you drive. People's identities are wrapped up in the cars that they drive. If you go upstairs in some of the larger booths, I think the message is clear: buy a luxury sports car and you, too, can be rich. You can be famous, you can be a celebrity. You can have a beautiful wife. You can have a sexy girlfriend. Heck, if you get the right sports car, you can have a beautiful wife and a sexy girlfriend. But what we're going to tell you in our booth is that that's not the Wheego message. The Wheego message is a bit of a challenge to that thinking. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, ask not what your car can do for you, but ask what your car can do for your country.
That all sounds good, but McQuary followed it up by getting mean, as you can read after the jump.

Wheego LiFe
Wheego LiFe
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Photos copyright ©2010 Sebastian Blanco / Weblogs, Inc.

wheego CEO Mike McQuary

By way of introduction to his company, McQuary said sometimes it's easier to define oneself by saying what one isn't. To that end, he said Wheego is not like Tesla and he was not like Tesla CEO Elon Musk:
Up until two years ago, I thought Elon Musk was the cologne I wore in college. Apparently Elon Musk is a genius. I have never met him, so I'll just have to take his word for it. Also unlike Tesla, we make affordable electric cars. ...
Unlike Chevrolet, we make electric cars. I don't believe that competitors should snipe at each other in an emerging space and I believe that a rising tide lifts all boats in a space, but when they launched their ad campaign centered around the concept of peace of mind, meaning that you don't have odometer anxiety, I thought it was a particular cheap shot and I will take every opportunity to call them out for the hybrid that they are. ...
Nissan has a great car. Anyone considering an electric car should go consider a Nissan Leaf. I think Carlos Ghosn is probably the smartest auto executive in the industry today. Everyone should consider one of those cars, if you live in one of the seven or eight cities where it's actually going to be available and, in this economic crisis, if you don't mind your hard earned yen – I mean dollars – going to a Japanese company.
That last dig is a little precious, considering the LiFe's Chinese roots. Sure, Wheego's car may have 75 percent U.S. content (details here), but the Leaf is going to be built in the U.S. in the near future, so it seems like McQuary is just attacking for the heck of it. Maybe he feels he has to, since the LiFe, priced at $32,995 or, $25,495 after a $7,500 federal tax credit, is slightly more expensive than the much-better-equipped and designed Leaf. In any case, the LiFe will begin shipping to 22 dealers across the U.S. (who all needed to buy six LiFe vehicles, one in each available color) before the end of the year. If you don't live in an area with a dealer, Wheego will ship the car to you. The company is ready to go, too. McQuary said his company could make and sell a few thousand vehicles next year. So far, Wheego has collected around 200 orders for the LiFe. The company sold roughly 300 copies of the low-speed version, that supposed Cadillac of NEVs.

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Driving the LiFe

Presenting a different, friendlier side of the company was President Jeff Boyd, who rode with us during a quick spin around the LA Convention Center in the LiFe. The car's 30-kWh lithium-iron battery (from where the car gets its name, from the chemical symbols Li and Fe) gives a solid center of gravity to the car, but you can't get past the cheap look and finish of the interior on the production model we drove. The vinyl seats we suitable, but not extermely comfortable. The production model we drove was also a little noisy, especially when we stepped on the go pedal. Boyd said customers enjoy the sounds. "They want to hear the car go," he said, "they like some feedback. They want some whirr or some sound on acceleration. So we left that in by design."

The LiFe has three transmission modes: normal, sport (which bumps the motor controller to work at 650 amps instead of 550, which in turn raises the 0-30 acceleration rate by around 25 percent) and eco mode that extends range. The car also has four-wheel, anti-lock breaks, tire pressure monitoring system and regenerative breaking. The brakes felt soft, which is, again, something Boyd said customers wanted. They didn't like the firmer, grippier regen the car had earlier, he said, so the engineers toned it down. The car does creep at up to three mph and acceleration – in any mode – is decent but nothing to write home about. Boyd said the creep was put in there to make driving the LiFe as similar as possible to driving a standard gasoline vehicle. Other things to note are a dash that is dominated by a bright LCD screen that is easily visible in strong sunlight and the car's small size, which means it's a fine urban performer – as anyone who's handled a slightly smaller Fortwo can attest.

Our short drive wasn't enough to give a full recommendation or review, but sometimes one spin around the block is all you need. This is going to be a tough sell, given the other plug-in vehicles available in the very near future. Boyd said he's willing to let the market to decide which electric car is right for people and doesn't concede any advantages to his competitors just yet. It won't be long before we will all see what those results are.

Wheego LiFe
Wheego LiFe
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