It's over. The arguments, the wrangling, the discussion, the regulation, the speculation. For the past few years -- really, since the 1990 California Air Resources Board (CARB) decree obliging automakers to sell electric vehicles (EVs) in California by 1998 -- there's been enough talk about EVs to test the patience of the most ardent tree huggers.

But now it's over. General Motors Corp. will in a few months place its EV1 -- formerly known as Impact -- in Saturn dealerships in southern California and Arizona. They'll be for sale to regular customers like you and me. End of story, right?

Hardly.

GM's development of the first purpose-built EV made in modern times by a major automaker is a heady achievement, no question. But its very availability represents a curious, almost nonsensical anticlimax to the evolving heated debate about alternative-vehicle technology, environmental regulations and the politics that intertwine the two.

EV1 stands as the car, if you'll remember, that for all the years subsequent to the 1990 mandate the Big Three kept telling CARB couldn't be made. Or that one could be produced, but at such a hideous price it could never be sold. Moreover, they chided that the constraints of available technology would so limit utility that even if such an EV could be produced at a prohibitive price, STILL nobody would buy it, not even the rich, because its range and accommodations would be scandalous compared to even the most humble conventional automobile.

This was the automakers' dogma, and it was reiterated ad nauseum not only by GM but Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp., tool. In evidence of their corporate good citizenship, the Big Three sugarcoated these laments with an outpouring of money and other resources into EV-technology promoting projects like the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium (USABC) and the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV).

`No sale,' said CARB; the Board hung tough on the mandate. It said the rule would force the automakers to cast off their legacy of regulation-balking and get to the task at hand. The Board said it was convinced the required technology could be developed by 1998. It said EVs would clean the state's air. No backing off, ever, on the mandate.

CARB said all of these things and kept on saying them -- right up to last March when it stopped saying them. Quick as a you can say bureaucrat, the mandate was gone.

Yet scant weeks before, GM announced it could make a marketable EV after all. And it would be ready for the public not in 1998, but at the end of this year.

The situation astonished industry watchers worldwide. After years of rhetoric, the opposing factions each executed an abrupt about-face. The argument said the mandate was silly because there wouldn't be a decent EV to serve it. GM suddenly says it's got the EV -- and the mandate immediately is lifted.

While the conspiracy theorists feast, we're now left to judge GM's EV1 not as a "stopgap" product built to satisfy a bureaucracy's misguided expectations but as the avatar of a fresh automotive paradigm.

What did GM get from its EV1 development team, now called GM Advanced Technologies Vehicle (ATV) Group, and the half-billion or so dollars the company's invested in creating the EV1/Impact?

Good and bad. From a hardware standpoint, little about the EV1 has changed from the Impact prototypes about which WAW has written before (see WAW -- March '96, p.95). What's more important now is how the EV1's attributes and limitations will affect its chances with a potential customer.

THE GOOD:

* Dynamically, the EV1 is quite rewarding. The car handles briskly, rides comfortably, brakes assuringly and accelerates superbly (0-to-60 mph [0-97 km/h] in nine seconds!). It's nearly silent operation imparts unparalleled serenity to the driving experience.

* EV1 is at the technical cutting edge. It faces the wind with the lowest drag coefficient (0.19) of any production vehicle. Its cabin is conditioned by the world's first automotive heat pump. Its aluminum chassis is remarkably stiff: 25 Hz in the beaming mode, 35 Hz in torsion. Lightweight, high-tech, one-off components are too numerous to detail, and the interior is a Jedi-wannabe's nirvana. The magical inductive charging system merits a podium in the Smithsonian. This all should score points with the sort of well-heeled, techno-oriented buyer likely to be waiting at the Saturn dealer for the first EV1s to arrive.

* There is, of course, no direct pollution. And no more filling up at the gas station. ATV engineers claim fuel cost, in a bestcase equation, could be markedly less than gasoline, on a per-mile basis. EV1's 137-hp AC motor is essentially maintenance free, as are almost all of the other major components.

THE NOT-SO-GOOD:

* Range is not terrific. The ATV team cut loose a bunch of heavy-footed journalists near its Chelsea, MI, proving grounds to drive the EV1 recently; they were asked to drive in a consciously energy efficient fashion. Those who did so managed about 60 miles (97 km), mostly without using the heat pump for air conditioning and cutting back on the use of other accessories.

* The range problem is a direct result of the compromised battery technology. Although EV1's lead-acid batteries are the most sophisticated of their type, lead-acid's main attraction is that they're a known, reliable commodity.

Weight is the mortal enemy of any EV and lead-acid batteries are heavy in proportion to their ability to store energy. It equates to perhaps the cruelest irony the EV1 endures: in a vehicle whose every component is optimized to the gram, its "pack" of 26 lead-acid batteries weighs a colossal 1,175 lbs. (530 kg) - almost 40% of the car's entire weight. Yet those batteries can only store the energy equivalent to about one-and-a-half gallons of gasoline. "It's like having a thousand-pound tank to hold a gallon of gas," laments Mike Liedtke, EV1's chief engineer.

Better batteries are supposedly on the horizon, but John Bereisa, chief engineer-advanced propulsion, admits nobody knows when they'll be ready. The front-running technology is nickel-metal hydride, under development -- in conjunction with GM -- by Energy Conversion Devices (ECD) and its Ovonic Battery Co. The venture is headed by former GM chairman Robert C. Stempel. WAW attempted to contact Mr. Stempel at his ECD office for an interview supplementary to this article, but calls were unreturned.

* Charging the batteries isn't quick. Today's gasoline fuel tank fills in about two minutes, but the 220-volt charger that will be installed in the home of EV1 owners requires about four hours to fully charge the batteries. The 110-volt charger that travels with the EV1 needs something more than half a day to deliver a full charge. Needless to say, GM will recommend potential owners do not venture far from the security of their 220-volt home system.

But the last piece of the puzzle may be the most critical. Certainly it is to customers: the EV1 ain't gonna be cheap. While GM and Saturn execs right now only provide sketchy details regarding this crucial matter, they intimate the "capitalized" price for the EV1 likely will be in the mid-$30,000 range.

One can almost bet the selling arrangement will be structured as a lease-only deal that will include the cost of installing the 220-volt home charger; the lease term will probably be fixed closely to the expected lifespan of the battery pack, which Mr. Bereisa says is approximately 1,000 charge/discharge cycles, or about three years worth of driving. Right now, GM doesn't want to worry about customers' reaction to the current cost of replacing the battery pack -- a cool three grand, give or take.

It appears the buying public will settle the debate of whether EVs are viable products in today's market. Hey, there's a novel idea. Maybe that's the way it should have been in the first place.