Amp isn't the first company to figure out that luxury vehicles can better hide the cost of an expensive battery pack than an econobox – Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive pioneered this strategy – but this is a case where you don't have to be first to benefit. After spending a few years learning how to convert standard ICE vehicles from General Motors to electric drive (the Saturn Sky and Chevrolet Equinox), Amp last week delivered its first converted Mercedes-Benz: a honking ML 350.
Now called the Amp ML EV, the world's first production all-electric SUV was the star of the show at an event held last week attended by all of Amp's top brass as well as the mayors of Cincinnati and Blue Ash (the suburb where Amp is located) and a representative of the governor of Ohio. In their speeches, the politicians made it clear they were proud that a local business would be giving an environmental benefit to a country halfway around the world, and that this showed the region's economic powerful reach. The real reason for the shindig, after all, was to hand over the keys to the ML EV's first and most important customer: Gisli Gislason, the chairman and CEO of Iceland's Northern Lights Energy (NLE), which has ordered 1,000 of these babies. We were on hand because Amp promised to let us drive it. Continue reading...
[Images: Copyright 2011 Sebastian Blanco / AOL]
From 2 to 1,000 and beyond
Gisli Gislason is a red-headed, Icelandic version of Elon Musk. He's outspoken and charismatic, strongly committed to electric cars but has plenty of interests outside of getting an entire nation to change the type of vehicles it drives (prime example number one: the 2009 horror flick Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre. (For more details on the NLE "plan," or whatever it is, read this.) In Ohio, Gislason referenced Iceland's history of making big leaps away from fossil fuels, all of which need to be imported. In the 1970s, he said, Iceland imported huge amounts of oil to heat people's homes. There may only be 320,000 or so people in Iceland, but the winters are long and cold. Someone realized it would be possible to invest in geothermal power instead of importing oil, and the country got rid of oil as a heating fuel in about ten years. Gislason said he is confident Iceland can do the same shift with gas-powered to electric vehicles, adding that the U.S. could manage this feat, too, but Iceland will do it first. NLE is not dealing exclusively with Amp, but the ML EV will be part of the EV avant-garde.
Currently, there are only two ML EVs in existence, Amp's test vehicle and the one that Gislason drove out of the packed showroom onto the Ohio roads (no need to worry about spewing noxious emissions when you've got electric drive). Before he did that, we took a turn, hitting both the highway and some residential streets for around 20 minutes. It wasn't enough to see what it's like to live with one of these, but it was plenty of time to prove that anyone who is looking for an all-electric SUV that drives exactly as you'd expect such a beast to drive and has all of the amenities of an expensive German vehicle. In the days following our test drive, the ML EV was bound for the east coast and then on to Iceland, where it will be used for test drives as NLE gets ready to start selling the vehicle through the upcoming EVEN network.
EVEN stands for Electric Vehicle Environment (or something like that), but Gislason's right hand man, Sturla Sighvatsson, told AutoblogGreen that what it really stands for is one-stop EV shopping. Based on Apple Stores, EVEN concept stores will offer a variety of electric vehicles (NLE is talking to 16 different companies right now) as well as insurance, financing and power subscription plans. Currently, NLE has set its sights on Norway and Iceland for the first two stores. In other parts of Scandanavia, NLE will sell the vehicles through established dealerships. Distribution numbers for NLE vehicles throughout Scandanavia could be announced later this summer. The Iceland store will open early next year and NLE is committed to getting at least 1,000 vehicles from Amp. Sighvatsson said that, based on what he and Gislason saw during their drive in the ML EV, this is just the beginning: "This is solid. There were some glitches here and there in generation 1, 2 and 3, but what they have now is a pretty solid product. They're still working on some minor details, but we're at the stage of a deliverable product now. We're going to buy more vehicles from Amp, that's for sure."
This confidence is why the number of ML EVs out there will increase rapidly soon. Amp representatives told us the company will start building/converting between 20 and 30 units a month (the maximum capacity at its current Cincinnati location) and begin "volume deliveries" to Iceland in September. The official plan is to convert and deliver the initial 1,000-vehicle order over five years, but AMP's President and Founder, Steve Burns, told us that he expects things to escalate soon, saying that a five-fold increase in sales is possible from various buyers. To prepare, Amp is already looking for a larger facility in either Ohio or Michigan, where people are motivated to work and factories are cheap. He said Amp wants to secure the land this year and is also considering using the old Think plant in Norway or maybe making the Amp electric drive parts in Ohio and shipping them to Iceland where they would be used to convert vehicles. Since Amp currently buys stock ML 350s from Cincinnati-area dealerships to convert (at a discounted fleet rate, which Burns said, "brings the cost down nicely"), there is no reason they couldn't be purchased in Europe. Right now, Amp resells the engine and transmission, but Burns said he's love to get a glider deal direct from Daimler but the relationship – such as it is between the two companies – isn't that evolved. After all, Daimler is working with Tesla and BYD, and has its own plug-in program. "I don't want to call it a relationship," Burns said. "We got some help from them and got their blessing, and I hope we have a relationship with them. But they told us the first day we met them that they wanted to make sure there were no conflicts."
Cruising in the ML EV: 5,000 pounds of smooth
However they did it, Amp has certainly created a no-conflict vehicle, at least for the few miles we got to put on the tires. When we got behind the wheel, there were already 3293 miles on the odometer, a sign that Amp engineers have been doing some testing. Still, as is pretty common when we drive Amp vehicles – see here and here – the ML EV a bit of a work in progress. For example, the gas gauge corresponds to the battery state of charge, and the tachometer displays power going in to or out of the battery, with 12 o'clock/the top indicating that no current is moving. Small changes, but something that will have to be changed before average Icelandic drivers take them home.
When they do, they'll find that the ML EV is undeniably a nice ride, marrying the best parts of Mercedes comfort with the silent smoothness of electric drive. This is by far the quietest vehicle Amp has ever made, thanks in part to Mercedes' already-isolated interior and the fact that most of the rubber molding holding the motor in place can remain in place when Amp puts in the battery and motor. It's not just the quietest; as far as we can recall, this is the biggest EV available right now (not counting things like buses), making it a great everyday driver ... if you happen to need to carry five people every day. For single of double occupancy, the ML EV is complete overkill.
Amp has programmed the vehicle to perform most impressively between 40 and 70 mph, sacrificing a bit of speed off the line to get better highway performance. This doesn't mean that the 0-40 mph run is slow; it's just that you realize you're hauling a 2.5-ton SUV down the road when you get going from a stop sign. The official 0-60 time is "less than 10 seconds." You don't care about this when you're dealing with what we feel is the ML EV's best feature: simply wonderful coasting. When you take your foot off the accelerator, you kind of feel like you could go forever which is great for people who like to hypermile. "The ML EV coasts so great because they don't have differentials or trannys," Burns said. "We don't do regen letting off the pedal" because harsh regen "throws people." Drivers get used to it, he said, but first-time EV drivers don't expect it, and that's something Amp wants to avoid. For now, Amp has decided against selectable regen, but the engineers have discussed putting in a sport/eco mode. When you step on the brakes, what regen there is isn't readily apparent. You can see it on the dial, but what you feel through the pedal is pretty much identical to stepping on standard brakes. At parking lot speeds, there is the tiniest bit of creep, so weak it doesn't move the car on even the slightest uphill slopes. (For other companies' takes on coasting and regen, see these articles – here and here – about the Toyota RAV4 EV and this article on the Volvo C30.)
Of course, there are some annoying parts of the ML EV that Mercedes put in and Amp couldn't take out: a terribly located cruise control stalk that constantly pretends it's the turn signal is the main offender here. And Burns told us that figuring out how to make the power steering work smoothly was a challenge, because the ML 350 weighs around 5,000 pounds. Nonetheless, Amp's 37.6 kWh li-ion phosphate battery is apparently good for 100 miles real-world driving range, less than the Equinox's 150. With a top speed (electronically limited) of 100 mph and the ability to charge from both 110- and 220-volt outlets and a J1772 connector.
A few other stats. The ML EV has a 5.5 kW on-board charger that offers a charge time of 15.5 hours (using 110 volts) or six hours (220/30A). You can pack in 72.4 cubes worth of stuff, just like in ICE version. The two Remy rear-mounted direct-drive permanent magnet AC motors offer 164 kW/220 horsepower and 320 Nm/236 pound-feet of torque. Amp will freely share these number, but there's one number no one will discuss: the price. This hasn't been officially set or released, and that means all we can do is guess. The 1,000-vehicle order is worth up to $100 million, which comes to $100,000 per vehicle. You probably couldn't walk up to Amp and buy one for that price, but that's what the math tell us. Should the vehicle ever get a real price tag and be available to buy in the U.S., the ML EV is everything you'd ever want for daily all-electric SUV driving.
[Images: Copyright 2011 Sebastian Blanco / AOL]