Maybe Electric Cars Aren’t So Great After All

Here’s a 2006 Zap Zebra that’s already ended up at an towing auction, expected to sell for a rock bottom bargain price as little as a few hundred dollars.

The car only has just 2854 miles on it. Yet, it’s already a towing auction special. The little Chinese made electric cars were plagued with more than a few problems from the very first production models. Early models were plagued with problems that included charging systems that didn’t work right, water leakage that caused electrical malfunction problems, body problems and other issues. Some reports claim only 150 units were sold in the U.S., that had a blazing top speed of just 40mph with a range of just 20-25 miles before hours of recharging was required just to use the car again. Without regenerative braking like a hybrid, the little cars also had some real limitations. Suddenly, saving the environment doesn’t seem to be such a great idea when far more dependable fossil fuel burning cars have this car beat hands down for a much longer service life and far more reliability.

With the three wheeled design, the cars are probably likely to tip over in a real sharp turn, so care must be taken not to oversteer. Classified as a motorcycle rather than an automobile, these cars likely required most drivers to spend extra time and money acquiring a motorcycle endorsement just to legally drive these cars.

Some dreamy-eyed businesses bought a few of these electric cars to use as delivery or business vehicles. They thought that they were saving the planet. Instead, most of the time you saw the little cars being towed around rather than driving under their own power. To say that these cars were not reliable is a gross understatement.

Not many cars end up at a towing auction with less than 3,000 miles on them. But, one of these lemons sure did. It’s strange they named the car after a “zebra”. A “turkey” would have been a far better name choice.

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  • It’s an Electric Reliant Robin!

    • Come to think of it, there is an amazing similarity between the two cars in many ways. Thanks for mentioning the Reliant Robin. I’m a big fan of the three wheeled motorcycles because they have a stability and two wheel drive that other motorcycles don’t have, but the three wheeled cars seem like a just plain bad idea. The center of gravity just looks too high with body, with too much propensity towards flipping over on a tight turn. On the other hand, a chopper trike I have has the seat only 20+ inches off the ground, despite the platform for the rear wheels and transaxle, and with the long springer front end has enough of a wide wheelbase where the overall stability is quite good. I’ve never once come close to tipping it.

      During the 1960’s Monogram models issued a model kit of a futuristic 3-wheeled VW based show car, the Futurista. It had a domed roof and looked like it had a very good center of gravity. It was also molded in bright yellow plastic where it mostly didn’t require painting either. It was my favorite Monogram kit of this era. With the exception of the dated white wall tires, the same car could be produced today and would look perfectly modern. The only issue to work out is something more acceptable than the dome roof, which would allow way too much sun in, and some more conventional doors.

      The real shame about the Zap Zebra is that it tried to achieve a modern electric car, but too many issues made the car unacceptable as a good choice. The technology wasn’t good enough, the quality wasn’t good enough, and the three wheel design was another weird feature on top of the strange styling. The car would have been so much better off as a real high mpg 2cylinder city car with four wheels. As it stands, the Zap only had around 6.7hp, which was way underpowered, which is amazing because most electric cars are known for lots of torque as well as excellent response.

      Why build a car like this?

      • To be a bad example for the next manufacturer?

        I’ve seen the Top Gear segment on the Robin. Even though it was small and low, stability seemed to be a real problem. Could be it was too short – and with the driver off-center there’d be a real balance problem. Maybe with a couple of 50-lb sandbags in the passenger side it was stable…

        I think someone at Zebra basically went “We have to get this out, because if we establish the name then we’re going to be the leader in electric cars. It might not be optimal, might even be pretty crappy – but we’ll can do better down the line. The Model A Ford put out in 1903 wasn’t all that hot – but he kept improving things. That’s what we’ll do also.”

        And then they didn’t sell well enough to provide the money to do so. Ford’s Model A sold because it was pretty good and there weren’t many alternatives… while the Zap wasn’t.

        Oh, well.

        • Strangely, the Zap seemed to have a number of problems that the all electric Baker didn’t have in the early 1900’s. Why the Zap was even less dependable than these cars is a very good question? The Baker had fault that really hurt it’s reputation, and that was many suspension problems due to the poor condition of the streets and roads back in the early 1900’s where the Model T was just far more durable on poor roads than the Baker was. Otherwise, the electric portion of the Baker worked extremely well despite the very old battery technology.

          Apparently, the Zebra was a U.S. design, assembled in China to save money on labor and materials and to keep the price down. However, some important things such as adequate waterproofing of the electrical system were ignored in the early 2006 versions of the car, which was unfortunate because of the 150 cars sold the first year, many ended up in Portland, Oregon, a city known for it’s excessive rainfall. By, 2009, the Zebra model was apparently dropped. The company still appears to be in business, despite some huge financial losses, and is still selling something according to the latest information I can find. The company also had a failed history marketing the Smart car in the U.S. as well. Another company managed to get that contrat away from this company.

          I’m not investing any stock money in this company. I know that much from all of this.