(Clifford Atiyeh/Globe Photo)
UPDATE, 3/18: Thanks to an astute blogger at China Car Times, the BG C100's real identity has been revealed as the Chang'an Ben Ben, also known as the Chana Benni. That explains the logo on the steering wheel that I couldn't quite pin down.
Automaker CEOs don't make a habit of pulling up to The Boston Globe in a rental truck, dumping a prototype in the parking lot, and handing the keys to a writer. But that's exactly what happened Monday as BG Automotive president Barry Bernsten and a lime green hatchback made an impromptu visit as I returned with lunch. Usually food has a much higher priority than thoughts of obscure manufacturers and strange-looking concept cars, but this time, my chicken burrito lost.
Bernsten, a Philadelphia steel entrepreneur turned environmentalist, formed "Be Green" Automotive in 2005 to make low-cost electric cars "unlike Tesla or Fisker," the high-performance electric and plug-in hybrid models that sell for more than $80,000. Earlier in the day, Bernsten showed his C100 prototype to Massachusetts officials - including energy resources commissioner Philip Giudice - and is now in other New England states trying to drum up support for loans, including a proposed $150 million from the Department of Energy, according to a report from the Boston Herald.
"It's a very capital-intensive business," he said to the Globe. "If I finance it personally, we could put a hundred cars a month on the road. If we could get some public assistance and loan guarantees or low-interest loans ... then we could put 15,000."
Bernsten says he's on target for a May or June launch, but he hasn't figured out where he's going to build the car, which will sell from $16,000 to $18,000. The goal is to construct six $25 million plants, each with a capacity for 15,000 cars per month and a workforce of 400 to 500 people. The Globe reported last month that BG Automotive was looking to open its first plant in Massachusetts, but the company will likely go to whichever state opens its coffers first.
"We're looking to hire auto workers, while auto workers are going out of business in Ohio, in Michigan, in Illinois," he said. "We're trying to bring auto jobs."
But Bernsten, after investing more than $3 million of his money and churning out three prototypes, hasn't made a fully road-worthy car. His C100, which has a maximum speed of 45 miles per hour, is certified in 47 states as a "neighborhood electric vehicle," or NEV. That puts it in the same class as the high-end golf carts from Global Electric Motorcars, which are restricted to roads with posted speed limits of 25 to 45 miles per hour, depending on the state.
According to the official spec sheet, the 48-volt, 18 horsepower electric motor propels the C100 to 25 miles per hour in at least 20 seconds. More powerful 72- and 96-volt motors will be offered later, critical for areas like San Francisco that have lots of hills, which the 48-volt car could not handle, Bernsten said. He's quick to point out that the eight lead-acid batteries - two in front, and six huge, crudely stacked units that take up the entire cargo area - make more energy than the 16 kilowatt-hour system in the Chevrolet Volt. Total range is 60 to 80 miles, and charging from empty takes six to eight hours on a 220-volt outlet, or 10 to 12 hours on 110 volts.
Opening the hood reveals a big black box housing the electric motor and front batteries, a tangle of multicolored wires, and Chinese characters spread across several of the components. The entire car - save for a few parts - is made in China by a manufacturer Bernsten wouldn't name (it's not related with Chery, BYD, or Brilliance).
"After visiting about 16 different plants in China, we elected this body because we thought it was the strongest body and the safest body," he said. Several of the parts are made in the United States, including the voltage controller (Connecticut), motor (Philadelphia), and batteries (Ohio and Atlanta).
Without any license plates, I could only take the C100 for a spin in the Globe parking lot, where a large swath of mammoth delivery trucks and long rows of cars proved a substantial obstacle course. Starting the C100 is simple: flick the battery kill switch to the right, twist the key, and push the three-position joystick shifter forward. Getting it moving is tougher. Realizing that electric cars generate maximum torque at 0 r.p.m., I was cautious about putting the pedal down so I wouldn't launch back onto the car carrier. But that wasn't a problem as the C100 wasn't budging an inch. So with the accelerator floored, Bernsten and I crept away, the motor droning like an industrial forklift as the speedometer showed 10 miles per hour. It's not supposed to be Lexus-quiet, but some insulation would be very welcome.
Steering is light and a bit numb, and the car's approximate 30-foot turning radius is on par with other subcompacts like the similar-looking Daihatsu Cuore. Slipping through empty spaces gets sloppy - turn the wheel about 15 degrees in either direction, and you're still headed straight. Even a 1990s Ford U-Haul truck (that my girlfriend forced me to drive through Boston last winter) felt more connected to the road than the C100.
But if you ignore the noise and don't turn, the C100 comes off as a decent economy car. Despite the loose divider trim between the front seats on this prototype, the C100 is rather well-finished considering its Chinese origins. The driving position is comfortable and well within reach of the radio, in-dash CD player, and air-conditioning controls, which all work without fuss. This C100 had power windows and locks, which are standard only on the "Luxury" trim, but didn't have an iPod dock, which will be fitted to all production models. Dual airbags, fog lights, and front-wheel ABS brakes are also standard.
While front-only ABS is an odd and obvious cost-cutting move by today's standards, it's not terribly alarming considering the car's light weight, low speed, and the tried-and-true method of a front disc/rear drum setup. But that's being kind. These brakes, combined with a regenerative system, are very poor at stopping the C100 even in a moderate amount of time. Bernsten didn't seem at all concerned when I told him, politely, that a C100 driver would need to anticipate stops well ahead of time, despite applying full effort.
I've never been so nervous at parking lot speeds, as the very firm pedal felt as if the brakes were disconnected. Had someone started backing out a few yards ahead, there's no way I would have been able to stop the C100 in time. No buyer will feel comfortable with these brakes without a serious overhaul. (Note: A week after this story was published, Bernsten confirmed that a brake pump wire was disconnected.)
That's a big task if Bernsten plans to produce this car in as little as two months, and overcoming the wretched quality reputation of most Chinese cars - as Malcolm Bricklin realized when he scrapped plans to import the Chery brand - will be the toughest sell of all.
By 2010, Bernsten said BG Automotive will sell the C200, a lithium-powered electric sedan that can theoretically reach 75 miles per hour with a range of at least 120 miles, for $27,000. If he can convince the right people to fork over millions of dollars in this economy, the Chinese car revolution might be on its way.
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