The influx of sub cars

Jan. 1, 2020
The sub cars under discussion here are the growing class of small, environmentally-friendly vehicles meant to cruise economically around urban settings and college campuses.

Sorry to disappoint you, James Bond fans, but we won’t be discussing the Lotus Esprit that turned into a submarine in The Spy Who Loved Me. The sub cars under discussion here are the growing class of small, environmentally-friendly vehicles meant to cruise economically around urban settings and college campuses. Many of these are offered as both electric and gas-powered vehicles. Many can be driven on city streets, meaning a large exposure to other vehicles, so the chance of literally running into one of them is growing.

The ZENN (Zero Emissions, No Noise) car is a good example of the new sub car class. The ZENN is a two-seat, full battery-powered electric car built by ZENN Motor Company. According to the company’s website, the ZENN has a range of up to 40 miles (64 km) and is speed-limited to 25 mph (40 km/h) – ideal for a neighborhood run-about. The manufacturer is based in Canada, but the ZENN is not legal in most Canadian Provinces. It is, however, legal in most U.S. states. Because it qualifies as a neighborhood vehicle, it doesn’t require side beam protection or airbags. You can watch how easily the plastic body crushes in the IIHS test by visiting abrn.com/ZENNtest.

Another vehicle in the sub car class is the Tiger Truck, which is aimed at taking out the ‘Cushmann carts’ we remember from our school campuses. Unlike the ZENN car, the Tiger Truck is not legal for street use, but since 1999 the Tiger Truck company has been delivering a series of light utility trucks and vans for “off-road use” (meaning around large campuses). The unique thing here is that all Tiger vehicles meet the stringent EPA standards, are available powered by a variety of fuels or an electric motor, and feature a traditional standard shift transmission. Tiger Truck has the largest available array of truck body options for niche applications. Primary distribution in the U.S. is through a select dealership network. Tiger Truck is headquartered in Poteau, Okla., where the company has an advanced assembly plant with more than 180,000 square feet in five interconnected buildings. It sources components both domestically and globally.

Limited-use vehicles like the ZENN and the Tiger Truck may sound like toys, but wait, there’s more.

Moving into the mainstream and definitely street legal is the upcoming BMW i3. This little urban car is almost ready for U.S. streets and will be priced at $35,000 – around the price of a new 3-Series Beemer. And what will that $35K get you? BMW has leaked some interesting details. The i3 will feature a surprising 150-horsepower motor – a lot for its size and good for a range of 160 miles between charges. Of course, if you take the i3 to its alleged 100-mph top speed, that range will probably be drastically reduced. With the electric motor mounted in back (like the old VW Beetle), the i3 leaves 14.1 cubic feet of luggage room up front and under the seats. In a joint venture with Volkswagen, the passenger cell will be made from carbon fiber to keep weight down and balance out the batteries that line the floorboards.

Advanced technology doesn’t come cheap. BMW is banking on moving 40,000 examples annually from its Leipzig plant, which is currently being retooled to produce “i” electric vehicles. The i brand is BMW’s future sub-brand of clean, cheerful electric vehicles, meant to coexist in the same slightly bizarre temporal plane with Mini Cooper’s electric 1-Serieses.

So, while the ZENN and Tiger, with their limited use, may have limited exposure to crashes, the BMW i3 will definitely be out there trading paint with other mainstream gas-powered and hybrid vehicles, albeit with panels and structure made from carbon fiber. The question is: will BMW’s repair strategy for its carbon fiber shell be similar to their restrictions on aluminum?  We will have to wait and see.

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