The 2011 Wheego Whip LiFe is a small, two-seat electric car from a startup company you've never heard of with an unusual name.
It doesn't have the fit, finish, or driving quality of a 2011 Nissan Leaf or the Japanese-market Mitsubishi "i" we tested two years ago. And it's only got two seats, which condemns it to a tiny sliver of the U.S. new-car market.
In other words, it faces some pretty long odds in getting a foothold in the brutally competitive U.S. new-car market. Especially with a list price of $32,995, which makes it $215 more expensive than the five-seat, five-door Leaf.
Beating Nissan to market?
Wheego says it will be first to bring an electric car onto the market and into dealerships, beating Nissan--which will only deliver five Leaf electric cars in December--by a few weeks. The company is now awaiting formal approval from the EPA to sell the Whip LiFe, which it says it expects to receive by the time its cars ship to dealers next month.
According to president Jeff Boyd, the genesis of the car--and the Atlanta-based company--was its founders' search for an inexpensive vehicle that could provide "gliders," or donor bodies to be fitted with electric powertrains in the U.S.
The Chinese company that makes the Noble on which the Wheego is based, Shuanghuan Automobile, got permission from the Chinese government to build an economical two-seater urban car. Some might call it a knockoff of the Smart ForTwo, although the Wheego is larger in every dimension.
Unfortunately, newly affluent middle-class Chinese car buyers had little interest in fuel economy. Instead, they bought the largest, most opulent vehicles they could afford, especially those carrying prestigious Western brands. The Noble languished until Wheego came calling.
Over the last year, the company has sold a few hundred Wheego Whip low-speed neighborhood electric vehicles, or NEVs, fitted with lead-acid batteries. NEVs are restricted to a top speed of 30 mph, but must meet far fewer regulations to be sold for local and off-street use (regulations for where they can be used vary by city and state).
U.S.-built lithium-ion batteries
Now Wheego is on the verge of launching the 2011 Wheego Whip LiFE, the suffix standing for the lithium-iron-phosphate cells in the 30-kilowatt-hour battery pack that replaces the lead-acid batteries. The result is a highway-capable vehicle expected to pass all NHTSA equipment and crash testing, so it can be licensed anywhere.
While the lithium-ion cells are sourced in China, Boyd says, the battery pack is assembled in Vista, Cailfornia, by Flux Power. The vehicle uses fully 90 percent of its 30 kWh, a more aggressive state-of-charge range than either the Nissan Leaf or Chevrolet Volt.
Like the Nissan Leaf, but unlike the Chevrolet Volt, the Whip LiFe uses airflow to cool its battery pack. Boyd said liquid cooling would be "extraneous" in the 2600-pound vehicle.
The drive motor is a 45-kilowatt (60-horsepower) unit, and the 2011 Wheego Whip LiFe is fitted with four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, a tire-pressure monitoring system, and other mandatory safety gear.
Small, primitive, and cheap
Boyd stressed that the vehicle we drove was a pre-production model, with final tweaks to the suspension, control software for performance, and braking feel still underway. Final performance figures will be released December 10, he promised.
Nonetheless, the Wheego Whip LiFe is not a particularly pleasant car to drive. The doors shut with a tinny bang, and without an adjustable steering column, the bottom of the small square digital screen that displays a virtual instrument cluster was blocked by the steering wheel, even with the driver's seat raised as high as it would go.