Some dealers see small firm's electric cars as way to go
Wheego Electric Cars Inc. is entering its second year by planning to launch an all-electric 2-seater and signing up 25 more dealers in select markets.
Wheego CEO Mike McQuary calls the Atlanta-based firm's new Whip LiFe model the “most affordable” of the new crop of EVs and hybrid vehicles hitting the market, such as the Chevrolet Volt andLeaf.
A late entry into the season's upcoming major auto shows, starting with Los Angeles next month, Wheego harnesses a lithium-ion battery for its Whip LiFe, which ia in production. The firm's first product this past year was the Wheego Whip, which uses a lead-acid battery.
The Whip LiFe base model's price is $32,995, plus a $1,995 air-conditioning option, but minus a tax credit of $7,500. The Whip is priced at $18,995 for the base model and $21,990 fully equipped with a $1,000 freight fee.
“E-cars have all but priced themselves out of the market,” says McQuary. “Our dealers have urged that the Whip cars not be tagged by this fate.”
The front-wheel-drive Whip LiFe weighs 2,667 lbs. (1,209 kg) and delivers 60 hp at 8,500 rpm.
A key supplier and partner is the producer of Wheego's charging stations, AeroVironment Inc. Station terminals will be included as part of the vehicle package by Wheego dealers.
“Our first dealers are without a doubt the most innovative in their markets,” says McQuary.
About 300 Wheego Whip cars have been sold in 2009 and 2010, with U.S. sourcing accounting for 75% of contents. But McQuary expects that to pick up substantially with the model and a potential new assembly plant.
The vehicles currently are made in Ontario, CA. The firm plans to build new plant facilities in either Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma or Virginia.
The firm expects to have 50 dealers by year-end, says Wheego President Jeff Boyd, a 25-year dealership veteran who worked for the United Auto Group.
“As the electric-vehicle market expands — and we've heard forecasts of 1.5 million to 2.3 million EV sales in the U.S. by 2015 — we'll sign on to more dealerships,” he says. “No stand-alone Wheego showroom is required.”
Wheego's 20 charter dealers include a number of market leaders or groups, including Ellis Brooks Auto Center, San Francisco; Foreign Affairs Auto, West Palm Beach, FL; Troy Auto World, Troy, MI; EVCARCO, Fort Worth, TX; Jim Ellis Automotive, Atlanta; Wheego Hawaii, Honolulu; Bob Hook Chevrolet, Louisville, KY; Prichard Automotive, Ithaca, NY, and Ted Britt Automotive Group, Fairfax, VA.
Nearly all of Wheego's dealers have or had other franchises.
Michigan is served by Richard A. Mealey, who lost his-Jeep franchise in Troy when the auto maker reduced its dealership ranks last year. He now owns a Sears Auto Center.
“I'm gung-ho about Wheego,” he says. “It opens up a new world in automobiles, eliminating so many things, like gas fillups, emissions, speeding tickets, parking problems and repair costs for the old fashioned batteries.”
Banks have frowned on financing EVs because of their “newness” and absence of floorplan income, Mealey says. But there are indications that lenders may get more involved with loans and leases if volume rises for the new Whip LiFe.
Mealey is aided locally by the efforts of the nearby city of Ferndale, MI, to install charging poles at its municipal parking lots, high school and elsewhere.
“That's what we see happening across the country as sales of electric vehicles grow,” Boyd says. “Malls, movie houses, museums, restaurants, schools will be installing poles that can be plugged into by Wheegos.”
The first dealer in the U.S. to undertake a separate EV sales and marketing program is the Atlanta-based Jim Ellis group.
“We're on the cusp of a fuel-saving revolution,” says Jimmie Ellis, vice president and son of dealer principal Jim Ellis.
“Dealers have to be ready, and we're making moves to be Atlanta's expert dealer on EVs, hybrid-engine vehicles and the crucial things motorists have to be aware of if they drive one,” he says.
“Those web sites have generated amazing feedback all across Georgia,” Ellis says. “We have a ‘gotta-have’ on our hands, and what we're promoting at Ellis is buying an EV for commuting back and forth in Atlanta, where traffic is horrible, and using an SUV or minivan outside the city.”
Ellis also has tackled the issue of range anxiety. Wheego buyers are presented with a road-aid policy that provides pickups 24-7 if a motorist runs out of power within 15 miles (24 km) of the city.
Georgia was one of the first states to supplement the $7,500 federal tax credit on EVs with a $5,000 state credit on the vehicle and $2,000 on a 220-volt charging station.
“That's the clincher,” says Ellis. “Folks want to go green, and the total $14,500 tax credit taps into a universal desire. My dad Jim and I see every urban market going the EV route. The timing for this is right on.”
Another charter dealer is Halleen Chevrolet and Kia in North Olmsted, OH, near Cleveland.
“We are patient, but totally optimistic about Wheego's and electric vehicle's future,” says Mark Halleen, general manager of the two dealerships. “My dad, Carl Halleen, has been an electric-car enthusiast since we took on the franchise a year ago.”
The Halleens are looking to big Wheego numbers when the Atlanta-based e-car pioneer opens its assembly plant in the Southeast. With no further Wheego dealerships on tap for Ohio, the Halleens are planning to be the state's sole sales outlet.
“Meanwhile, we're indoctrinating our loyal suburban market with trial runs and exposure to the Wheego cars, and they're the talk of the town,” Mark Halleen says.
Halleen Chevrolet signed a Wheego franchise just after it received notice of the Chevrolet termination, effective in 2011. It is appealing the termination, but “we thank our lucky stars” for the remaining Kia business, Halleen says.
“I drove a Whip all through last winter, and have found that overnight charges at home provide plenty of range for trips in North Olmsted and even to downtown Cleveland and back,” says Carl Halleen, 75.
“Realistically, and our customers here agree, the Wheego will be an ideal commuter or student car. It will be economical and minimal on service needs,” he says.