Zipping in the ZENN

Taking the Zero Emission—No Noise car for a test drive

Reaching “bodhi” — or enlightenment — is one of the key aims of Zen Buddhism, especially when it’s done through quiet meditation.

Not something that usually relates to cars, but the ZENN (Zero Emission—No Noise) electric car is different. Slam on the brakes and it glides to a silent halt. Sitting behind the wheel at a stop sign on a city street has never been as peaceful as it is with the ZENN. Birds chirp. The wind rushes by. This “bodhi” thing, whatever it is, might even be achieved.

That’s because the car, distributed by Cushman Motor Company, 2909 E. Franklin Ave., since last September and currently on display at the Linden Hills Co-op, 2813 W. 43rd St., is 100 percent electric.

ZENN is an accurate acronym — the only sound it makes is a quiet, steady whir. Turning the ignition key doesn’t produce the coughing sound of starting an engine, it just lights up a digital display showing speed, battery level and time.

Click the simple drive/reverse switch, step on the “gas” pedal, and off the ZENN car goes. It won’t peel out or burn rubber, but it’s got respectable acceleration. Be warned: This is no glorified golf cart. It’s a hatchback assembled in Montreal with heating, a stereo and 13 square feet of cargo room. Its body is lifted from the Microcar, a French diesel automobile. Its ABS plastic won’t ever rust, said Derek Bakken, the ZENN authorized seller at Linden Hills Co-op.

The current fully loaded LX model can travel only 35 miles on a full charge, but it’s fun, fuel-efficient, and environmentally friendly. It takes four hours to charge from zero to 80 percent; eight total hours to charge fully.

With gas prices averaging $3.25 per gallon in the Twin Cities, the ZENN is a cheaper alternative, at about $0.56 for a full charge based on Minneapolis electricity costs, Bakken said. A window sticker on the co-op’s demo model states that it gets 245 miles per gallon, based on the energy equivalent of 33.5-kilowatt hours in a gallon of gasoline. Bakken said for $3.25 worth of electricity, the car gets enough juice to drive 180–190 miles.

Critics say producing electricity at a coal-fired power plant to fuel cars like the ZENN is no better for the environment than burning gasoline. According to the ZENN Twin Cities website, though, driving the electric car a mile relates to only one-fourth pound of carbon dioxide released. That’s six times cleaner burning than gasoline-fueled cars that average 25 miles per gallon. Electric cars don’t need oil changes or other oil-related maintenance, either.

The ZENN is fueled through a three-pronged power cord that connects a normal 110- or 120-volt home electrical outlet to the car’s six 12-volt heavy-duty, sealed, valve-regulated, spill-free lead acid batteries. That’s right — a car that plugs into the same outlet as a coffee maker, or any number of other everyday appliances, according to Cushman President Tim Commers.

Its sticker price? About $16,000, fully loaded. Its six batteries must be replaced every three years — a total cost of $1,800, Bakken said. This comes out to an average of $50 per month.

While its relatively low price and high fuel-efficiency may seem too good to be true, Bakken admits the car isn’t for everyone. It’s a good fit for people looking for a second car to take care of short-trip needs, Bakken said.

“It does have a limited range and speed, so it might not work for people who say, ‘Oh, I’m looking for a ‘car’ car,’” Bakken said. “You know, if people are driving to Duluth or Iowa, or wherever people go.”

On the other hand, if people just need to get to their kids’ school, the grocery store or bank, the ZENN might be a good alternative vehicle. According to ZENN, between 50 and 80 percent of trips people make are less than 10 miles from home. If so, then the two-seater ZENN seems viable — as long as no more than one passenger besides the driver is involved.

“Right now, it’s a niche market [for electric cars]. People that are buying them have a car, but are interested in breaking free of foreign oil independence and want to reduce their carbon emissions,” Bakken said.

But many people drive more than 35 miles per day, and under state law, Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs) like the ZENN are only allowed on roads with 35 miles per hour speed limits. Even then, NEVs can’t legally travel more than 25 mph. This might get bumped up to 35 mph after the current legislative session, but the ZENN is hardly ideal for, say, that daily 20-mile commute on Interstate 94 from Minneapolis to St. Paul. It’s great for tooling around the neighborhood and running local errands, Bakken said.

Bakken also said that at minimum, the test drives he brings people on create awareness of electric cars’ viability in the marketplace. A recent spin around Lake Harriet affirmed that driving the car is fun; the Smart Car-on-steroids look of the car turned heads, and more than one, “Hey, nice ride!” was shouted by passersby. Even two leather-clad, grizzled bikers spotted in the rearview mirror following the test drive had to grin.

In terms of financial success, ZENN sold about 250 cars nationwide last year, several through Cushman and the co-op, according to Bakken. Most importantly, he said, his work promoting the ZENN fits with the co-op’s mission by providing people an alternative to gasoline-burning cars.

“I have yet to meet a person who thinks this is a dumb idea. Everyone says, ‘Wow, this is so cool. I’m so glad you guys do this,’” Bakken said.

For those waiting for an electric car without limitations, in late 2009, ZENN will release the cityZENN, a highway capable electric car with a 250-mile range and maximum speeds of 80 miles per hour. This will be possible if EEstor, Inc. of Cedar Park, Texas, successfully develops an ultra capacitor for use in the cityZENN.

“When the EEstor battery comes out, we’ll know more,” Bakken said. “This would change the future of automobiles. In terms of mainstream electric cars, this is the best prospect.”

Contributing writer David Streier lives in the Kenny neighborhood.