Chico, electrified

Locals take to the streets sustainably thanks to two new car dealerships

SIZE DOES MATTER!<br>This plug-in Xebra can scoot all over town (25 miles) and never needs to be filled up. The vehicle—much smaller than, say, a Ford F350—and others like it can be found at Chico Electric Cars. Another dealership, Chico Eco Cars, also sells electric vehicles.

This plug-in Xebra can scoot all over town (25 miles) and never needs to be filled up. The vehicle—much smaller than, say, a Ford F350—and others like it can be found at Chico Electric Cars. Another dealership, Chico Eco Cars, also sells electric vehicles.

Photo By matt siracusa

Hit the road:
For more info about Chico Electric Cars and Chico Eco Cars, visit their respective Web sites at and

Electric vehicles certainly are giving Chico something to talk about.

Nobody knows that more than Sally Lord, who estimates she’s given at least five impromptu interviews to people curious about her new wheels.

Lord drives a GEM, also known as Global Electric Motorcars, an electric vehicle manufactured by Chrysler that looks a lot like the love child of a golf cart and Volkswagen Bug. She’s actually been stopped twice in the same day; first in a Safeway parking lot by a curious driver, and then on her way to friend’s house by a bicyclist who wanted to know where she had purchased it.

Lord got her own introduction to electric cars when she spotted a GEM while driving down Park Avenue.

“I was on the phone with a friend at the time, and I told her, ‘I’ll call you later. I’ve got to follow this electric car,'” Lord said.

The driver turned out to be Kent Collins, owner of Chico Eco Cars, Chico’s first electric-car dealership, who was more than happy to pull over and answer her questions about the vehicle. Lord had recently retired from 39 years of teaching at C.K. Price Middle School in Orland, and was looking to do more driving close to her home in Chico.

While the technology for electric cars has been around for a long time, the demand has risen dramatically due to recent fuel costs. When Collins first opened his business in September, he was deluged with near-daily phone calls from drivers who sounded “panicky” because of record-high prices.

Getting flagged down by motorists isn’t unusual for the Chico businessman, who uses his own GEM for errands and, inadvertently, advertising. Traveling from his Entler Avenue dealership, he drives all over town and says he makes it back to the dealership with 60 percent to 70 percent of the car’s battery life remaining.

Collins said he first became interested in selling electric cars because of the potential commercial success. However, their environmental advantages sealed the deal.

“The more research I did, the more I realized that these cars could solve transportation needs,” said Collins, who decided to go with the Chrysler-owned GEM Co., which has been producing electric cars for a decade.

He also drew inspiration from the city of Lincoln, a Sacramento suburb he says is home to more than 1,000 GEMs (versus 50 in the Chico/Paradise area). Collins visited the area and observed several programs the city had implemented, including allowing GEMs and similar electric vehicles into expanded bike lanes, and providing plug-in stations near city merchants.

He would like to see something similar happen in Chico.

“I really think electric cars are going to be more visible than ever before,” Collins said.

SUSTAINABLE SALESMAN<br>Matt McBride beams during the grand opening of his dealership two months ago at his northwest Chico lot.

Photo By matt siracusa

A few months ago, a second electric-car dealership, Chico Electric Cars, opened its doors in Chico.

When owner Matt McBride held a grand opening for the business in October, his lot in northwest Chico along Highway 32 was bustling with people curious about the inventory of ZAP vehicles.

“People in Chico are ready to accept different modes of transportation,” he said.

McBride offers two different three-wheeled models, the Xebra Truck and Xebra Sedan, the latter of which is available with black-and-white zebra stripes. The cars come standard with completely enclosed cabs. They differ from the GEM brand, which has the option of regular doors, removable canvas doors, or no doors at all.

McBride, who also sells electric scooters, said part of the reason he opted to sell ZAP cars is because the company promises to plant 200 trees for every car sold, with the goal of planting 1 million trees by 2010.

ZAP and GEM vehicles are Neighborhood Electric Vehicles, a generic term for slow-moving electric cars. GEMs typically reach a top speed of 25 mph and the Xebra can be driven up to 40 mph, so both are banned from highways, freeways and on roads where the speed limit exceeds the car’s maximum speed.

Both vehicles plug into a standard 110-volt outlet. GEMs can travel up to 35 miles on one charge, while the ZAP Xebras have a limit of about 25 miles.

Production of freeway-legal, all-electric cars is on the horizon. One of the more promising vehicles appears to be the Aptera, which has a range of 120 miles. This three-wheeled model looks like it drove off the set of a Star Wars movie and is scheduled to hit the streets early next year with a price tag of about $27,000.

Perhaps no one in Chico knows more about electric cars than Chuck Alldrin, president and founder of the Chico chapter of the Electric Auto Association. He owns an NEV and a Toyota RAV4 EV, an all-electric, freeway-legal sport utility vehicle the automaker discontinued in 2003.

With decades of experience in the electric-car world, Alldrin is a guru of sorts. He converted a Fiat into a fully electric car more than 25 years ago, for example. More recently, he’s been helping promote both Chico dealerships by holding EAA meetings at the locations.

ZAP is scheduled to offer a freeway-legal car in 2009 for $32,000. For those who don’t need to hop on the highway, NEVs are much more economical. ZAP Xebras retail for about $12,000 at Chico Electric Cars. The GEMs of Chico Eco Cars are about $6,700 new, though Collins does sell used models.

Lord bought her GEM used for about $4,500 and is hoping she’ll recoup the cost from the money she’s saving on gas, which previously totaled about $100 a month.

These days, she spends much of her time volunteering with kids at Parkview Elementary in Chico. As a teacher, Lord did a lot of self-educating before she made the purchase. That’s something she wishes some of the public would do, too, recalling a day when an impatient driver honked at her for driving slowly.

“There’s a different cultural mindset needed to accept electric vehicles that don’t pollute,” Lord said.