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Exclusive drive: BG C100 brings Chinese electric car to life

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  March 17, 2009 06:31 PM

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BG-rear.jpg(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.

All photos by the author and The Boston Globe.

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This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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31 comments so far...
  1. It uses the lead acid battery that couldn't get the EV job done for years, why try again with the failed technology?
    The car doesn't go fast, or quickly, can't stop well, and has less steering precision than a 10 plus year old rental truck.
    The business plan involves manufacturing automobiles in New England - someone should tell me why here.
    And he wants tax payer money for it all. Didn't they tar and feather this type in the past?

    A
    Google doesn't turn up much on the man or his company either.

    Posted by Mike March 17, 09 10:19 PM
  1. I'm hoping that they build a factory here.

    That would increase QUALITY.

    This is the PERFECT city car.

    Although, I'd really like to buy an affordable CONVERTABLE version, and maybe something that uses film based PV to charge on sunny days in the parking lot.

    And also on my wish list: Litium batteries instead of lead/acid.

    Maybe a sportier design?

    Posted by FrankD! March 18, 09 12:20 AM
  1. Why buy this looser when you can pick up a honda hybrid for similar change?!

    Posted by thinkingdem March 18, 09 04:09 AM
  1. Wait, I have a napkin somewhere around here, let me come up with a better price.

    Posted by LUF March 18, 09 06:49 AM
  1. The car itself looks very finished and production worthy.

    But why is it that entry level cars have to have the worst looking seat fabrid the creator can find. It always reminds me of a city bus. In this case they sould look at the Nissan Versa's muted offerings for seat coverings.

    And the price seems a little high. I could just as easily buy a gasoline powered car with a great warranty and build quality for less money. Sure I wouldn't be saving the planet but I'd be saving a few thousand dollars.

    Posted by Andy March 18, 09 09:21 AM
  1. Think this is a great step in the right direction. So there are some things that need to be worked on but people should be rallying behind Bernsten and BG - it's a first gen product.

    Posted by Ian March 18, 09 10:16 AM
  1. Don't bail out bad companies and support innovative new companies so we can have an environment that enables good cars. Courageous but handcuffed in execution. Don't bail out failures and we might have a chance of a good US or globally made EV car.

    Posted by John de Sherborn March 18, 09 10:52 AM
  1. Improve the breaking and steering, give it Li-Ion/Li-Poly batteries, side curtain air bags, and a motor that can handle hills then give me a call.

    Posted by Francis March 18, 09 11:03 AM
  1. We need an affordable electric car that doesn't look like a vehicle from Disney's ToonTown. It's got to be cool and the people will buy.

    It's going to be a hard sell if your appealing to the family car market. People with family's want a car that's safe. This car might be but buyers are more likely to find something larger or from a reputable company.

    I agree with a convertible model with a sportier design. Gen Y's will buy if it's cool.

    Posted by Andy March 18, 09 12:03 PM
  1. Slow acceleration, bad handling and brakes that barely work. Now just tell me that the warranty is backed by Bernie Madoff and the car's interior is made with lead.

    Posted by daveVN March 18, 09 12:36 PM
  1. The electric only technology is not ready for big time. What if you have an emergency and have to take wife to a hospital at 2 AM and your electric car is plaged into the wall? Will it drive on 3 hours charge? It seems that we'll have to buy two of those. One to drive while another is charging. Or stick with somethng that have a good old internal combustion engine in it even if its only a back up.

    Posted by GeneB March 18, 09 12:48 PM
  1. Lead acid battery EVs won't work well in New England. Power and range will drop 50 percent in the cold winter weather. Try California first. When better batteries are ready, bring it here.

    Posted by Simon March 18, 09 12:55 PM
  1. Among other things about this car that make it look poorly thought out, replace the go-cart wheels! Those tiny wheels will transmit so much vibration from our pot-hole laden streets to the car and driver that the car will not last a year and the driver will need to replace his/her (chipped) teeth...

    Posted by jman March 18, 09 01:19 PM
  1. Nice idea and effort, but If the electrical components are all US made, why not just "electrify" a SMART or similar small car that already has good mechanical engineering? That target price is at least 2x too high for such a limited utility low tech/low quality vehicle. They will never sell 15k units/month.

    How can TATA produce a similar (if not superior) car (albeit gas-powered) for $2k? Even if they federalized it I'll bet it would still be 1/4 the price of this car.

    I can accelerate 0-25MPH faster on a bicycle! WAY too slow for use in this city.

    Posted by carguy March 18, 09 01:20 PM
  1. I don't understand why he paid so much for a sloppy EV conversion. He can get a real clean conversion in the US for $20-30K. Sound like yet another leach trying to pick up some fast money from us taxpayers.

    Posted by Bob Gee March 18, 09 01:22 PM
  1. Why are they looking for government money? I guess that means that they don't think the cars make economic sense and so it would not be possible to attract financing form people who expect to earn a positive rate of return on their investment.

    Posted by Sam Rocco March 18, 09 02:57 PM
  1. Why anyone would want to drive this glorified golf cart is beyond me, apparently it's saving the environment over personal safety.

    That thing would lose in a collision with a bike messanger.

    Posted by vmanv March 18, 09 04:00 PM
  1. this is absurd let me guess the motor is bolted toa transaxle the motor belongs in the wheel !!! there also needs to a generator even a small one 7 kva
    poor steering,brakes,and aceleration???are you kidding me do it right or go home

    Posted by edgusss March 18, 09 10:56 PM
  1. What a piece of yit. Seems pretty questionable to claim it's American-made when so much of it is actually Chinese. Here's a thought.....make a quality vehicle out of domestically produced components!

    Posted by George Washington March 19, 09 01:41 AM
  1. That good and bad, keep in mind that 80% of our electricity still comes from coal.

    so we are not doing anything for the environment,

    Posted by bdt March 19, 09 07:39 AM
  1. silly, gimmicky piece of junk. and from china? let me guess: the seats have lead in them, the paint has a ton of lead in it, and the steering wheel is full of lead or other poisionous chemicals.

    save your $$.

    Posted by FJ March 19, 09 08:33 AM
  1. Chinese junk if you ask me. How many people died in the manufacturing of this product?

    Posted by Murf March 19, 09 09:29 AM
  1. 9,600.00 EUR equals $13,155.54 USD
    and for that much money you can get this

    http://www.alibaba.com/product/jiayuanev-11993404-0/Happiness_Angel_Electric_Vehicle.html

    Posted by Keith March 19, 09 11:22 AM
  1. have to start somewhere dont think the wright brothers flew far fast an safe from the start

    Posted by rayvon graham March 19, 09 12:39 PM
  1. Slipping through empty spaces gets sloppy - turn the wheel about 15 degrees in either direction, and you're still headed straight.

    This is a great safety feature! Just think, all those morons that have to text message, talk on the phone, or read the paper while they should be paying attention to the road will now not be drifting into other lanes!

    Posted by Ken March 20, 09 09:03 AM
  1. It seems the price should be more like $4995.
    I wouldn't count the Chinese out, given how much of their other junk we buy. It may be reassuring that the Chinese don't currently have the quality obsession like the Japanese do, but recall where the Japanese started.

    Posted by John Adams March 20, 09 05:05 PM
  1. BG checked (as Boston Globe reporter should have) and found that after the Cliff test drove the BG-C100, the mechanic found a lose wire from the power brake system. They hooked it back up in 30 seconds, and the ABS-Power Disc brakes worked perfectly and "stopped on a dime". What I do not understand, is why would a local Boston area reporter discourage an investment in Mass that would create 500+ jobs in the next 120 days and possibly 1000's of jobs (and a new auto industry for Mass) in the next few years? Seemed like he was more upset that BG interupted his lunch.

    Posted by Linda March 23, 09 12:27 PM
  1. After asking the company about Linda's account, Barry Bernsten confirmed the brake issue in a March 24 e-mail:

    "Yes, after we drove the car and you mentioned the brakes were tight, I decided to check myself that same evening. Yes, it felt like the power brakes were disconnected. I called my engineers and they advised on where we can check for problems, and sure enough, I noticed a wire was disconnected that triggers the pump that controls the disc brakes. I reconnected the wire, and the brakes worked like butter. The brakes worked perfectly and stopped dead when we slammed them on, unlike the slower stop when you test drove."

    Posted by Clifford Atiyeh March 24, 09 10:23 AM
  1. People asking for a convertible with more efficient batteries are asking for an increase of $10,000 or more in price, and/or putting off production by years. This car would not be for everyone, but would be great for people like me or my wife who drive short distances.

    Mr. Bernsten said that he chose the chassis for its relative strength and safety; obviously he also would need to consider its price. The SMART is an expensive car to use as a starting point. The TATA doesn't have airbags - you couldn't sell it in the US. As for general safety, it would need to be crash-tested before it was allowed to be sold in the US, just like any car.

    GeneB, if you have a 2am medical emergency then maybe you should call an ambulance, but especially if your car is not charged (or out of distilled dinosaur juice!)

    The points about cold-weather performance, and about private financing are good ones. I'd like to know the answers to those. Still, I think this kind of car shows a lot of promise, and might buy such a thing if the opportunity arises.

    Posted by Tom in Wayland April 10, 09 03:20 PM
  1. This is so fustrating! It looks in every way what so many people would love to have. But 45mph top speed is useless to everyone except grandma going to get her hair done...
    If only it could do 55mph or a little more the car would be perfect. But why go to all that trouble and only installing small motor. A 70kw unit like the WarP 9 is well within reach. It's as easy to do it right as sell a golf cart.
    I am such an enthusiast about EVs but who is going to buy this? What a pity...

    Posted by Stephen McCormack April 12, 09 10:30 AM
  1. Hi. Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day.
    I am from Tonga and , too, and now am writing in English, tell me right I wrote the following sentence: "If the cooperation uses a network, for card, because it is never at a set system baroque, currently it would be scoring credit and terminal to the card."

    Thanks for the help ;-), Anne.

    Posted by Anne September 5, 09 04:02 AM
 

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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