A spate of technically intriguing vehicles have cropped up recently, some nearly ready for the road, others still in the dream stage. WAW takes a close look at a selection on the following seven editorial pages, starting with General Motors Corp.'s EV1 electric car and including Delco Electronics SSE and Chrysler Corp.'s Prowler and Viper Coupe.

Whether or not General Motors Corp. makes money on its EV1 electric car that goes on sale this fall at 25 Saturn dealerships in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Tucson, may matter less in the long run than what it learns from building a lightweight, low-volume car with an array of new technology.

At $35,000 per car and strict geographic limits on performance, it will be years, maybe decades, before the industry's first from-the-ground-up electric vehicle recoups the $350 million GM has invested in it. Still, GM is clearly committed to testing the waters in a market it has regarded skeptically.

Early next year, GM begins building an electric-powered version of its S-series pickup trucks alongside the conventional gasoline-burning pickups at its Shreveport, LA, assembly plant. Ten of the nation's largest utilities have promised to buy more than 900 of them.

GM's EV program is a technical testbed for every division within Delphi Automotive Systems. Delco Propulsion Systems, a two year-old joint venture involving Delco Electronics, Delphi Energy & Engine Management and Allison Transmission, supplies EV1's battery pack, electronic controller, inverter (which transforms the batteries' direct current to alternating current for the vehicle's motor), its console, air-bag sensors, inductive charger and charge port.

"We need to go through building electric vehicles to get to the next level of technology, which is probably some kind of hybrid," says Robert C. Purcell Jr., executive director of GM Electric Vehicles.

Some of EV1's components are finding markets already.

Donald L. Runkle, GM vice president and general manager of Delphi Saginaw Steering Systems, says his division has sold the electro-hydraulic power steering system developed for EV1 to an unidentified European automaker for an upcoming gasoline-fueled car.

"Today, power steering uses energy whether you're using it or not," Mr. Runkle says. "The pump on this system doesn't directly draw power from the car's engine. It can add about half a mile per gallon, depending on the vehicle's weight."

The seats, developed by Delphi Interior & Lighting, weigh 60% less than conventional seats because the cushion frame uses cast magnesium, and the seat-back frame is made of extruded aluminum. Both are virtually ready for prime time on small fuel-sipping cars of the near future, says Mr. Runkle.

Delphi Chassis' Virtuoso suspension system, which features extensive use of aluminum and polymer composites, cuts at least 25% from the weight of conventional suspensions, a major contributor to boosting EV1's range. The car can go 70 miles (112 km) on one full charge if driven in city traffic or up to 90 miles (145 km) in highway driving.

The electric car's other potential payoff could be its ability to reach people in subtle, intangible ways. The Saturn connection (the car will carry a GM badge) plays off a certain "this-is-not-your-father's-car-company" attitude.

Saturn Corp. President Donald W. Hudler says dealers will invest "several hundred thousand dollars" to equip their service departments to handle EV1. Sales and service people will go through three weeks of training.

"It's important they convey to customers what this car can and cannot do," says Donald Young, Saturn's representative to the GM EV program. "We don't want to sell it to someone who drives 60 miles (96 km) to work each way."

Consider the impressions of Susan Norton-Scott, after spending two weeks driving the Impact -- EV1's name during its market test -- around metropolitan Phoenix.

"It is fun to drive, the pep and vitality of the car are impressive, and the ease of recharging it is a big surprise," says Mrs. Norton-Scott, an elementary school music teacher in nearby Mesa and one of nearly 700 people who have driven it for between two and four weeks, keeping a diary of their reactions and experiences.

She fondly remembers one guy following her home from the grocery store and pleading for a test drive. Her students also begged for rides. "Where can my parents get one?" they would ask. "Will it fly?" others wondered.

Another Phoenix-area test driver, Greg Miller, remembers being smiled at, stopped by strangers and frequently interviewed by reporters during his gas-free fling in the fall of 1994. "I felt like Charles Barkley for a month," says Mr. Miller, a customer service representative for Revlon Inc.

But beginning this fall the question the auto industry and air quality regulators will be asking is, "Will people like this pay $35,000 for a car that will go no more than 90 miles between rechargings?"

Given a 10% federal income tax credit -- up to $4,000 -- and other state or regional incentives that could save electric-car buyers another few thousand, the actual price will be closer to $29,000 in most cases. Still that's nearly three times what Mrs. Norton-Scott paid for her 1987 Toyota Corolla. Mr. Hudler says leases will be offered on EV1 for customers who can't make a large down payment.

"If I had it (the cash), I sure would," she says.

Mr. Miller is a bit more skeptical.

"That's a little steep for me," he says. "I would like to see a quicker charging system. Now it takes about two hours to recharge it if the batteries are completely drained. I'd like to see that cut to 12 to 15 minutes. I'd also like to see the range pushed closer to 150 miles (241 km)."

Mrs. Norton-scott also offers some suggestions that may or may not be met by the Lansing-built electric cars.

"The gauges sometimes misled me about how much fuel remained. Windows would fog easily," she says. "When a shorter person like myself drove the car, the seat was cramped and the visor would hit me in the head."

But both Mrs. Norton-Scott and Mr. Miller rave about the ease of recharging and the freedom from time-consuming fill-ups at the gas station. While there is a 110-volt charging port on the car that can be engaged with a paddle-like device, most test drivers simply plugged EV1 into a 220-V, 6.6-kW recharging unit that comes with the car to be installed in one's garage.

By offering EV1 through Saturn dealerships, where 73% of sales are to people whose second choice is not a GM vehicle, GM has a chance to alter the consciousness of import-loyal customers. Neither Mrs. Norton-Scott, her husband nor Mr. Miller drives a GM vehicle now. Mr. Miller's regular car is a Nissan 30OZX.

GM's Mr. Purcell is hoping to launch pilot production at the Lansing Craft Centre by late March or early April. He deftly dodges any questions about how many he expects to build. His primary mission: to drive costs down.

GM declines to discuss how much the 50 prototypes cost, but sources familiar with the program estimate that each car cost between $350,000 and $500,000 to produce.

"I don't, want to get bookkept into meeting a volume projection," says Mr. Purcell, whose prior assignment was executive-in-charge of corporate strategy development. "We'll start with a work force of 50 people and see how it goes from there."

The 30 Impacts driven in the preview test drive were not engineered to last more than a couple of years. To make the car viable for the real world it must be durable enough to last 100,000 miles (160,000 km) or more.

After cranking it up to 183 mph (295 km/h) in a performance test, engineers took some weight out of the drive motor and capped the top speed at 80 mph (129 km/h). Range, not speed, will make or break electrics in the marketplace.

Alcan Rolled Products Co. of Farmington Hills, MI, is supplying the aluminum space frame. By integrating the body and chassis, this design minimizes welding errors and tooling costs. It also is a major contributor to keeping EV1's weight at a svelte 2,970 lbs. (1,350 kg), which allows more precise handling and more responsive braking.

"The consumer today is oblivious to the fact the new Ford Taurus has an aluminum trunk lid," says Donald W. Macmillan, vice president of Alcan's automotive operations. "But when you start to remove 700 lbs. (318 kg.) from the entire vehicle, you change the whole dynamics of a car. The challenge is to do that and keep the vehicle within the range of affordability."

Alcan has provided body panels for such concept cars as the Mercury Sable Aluminum Intensive Vehicle, Jaguar's XJ220 and Ferrari's 408. But none of those were built in significant volume.

The first Impact cost "several million" dollars to build, says Mr. Runkle. So the cost-cutting crusade continues. Neither he nor Mr. Purcell will estimate Gm's cost for each of the early EV1's, but the most expensive component, the engine controller, is 60% to 70% less expensive, largely through design changes by Delphi Energy & Engine Management and Delco Electronics.

Then there's the political side of the equation. GM officials insists there is no quid pro quo between building EV1 and the chance California Air Resources Board may ease off its 1998 mandate that 2% of major automakers' new vehicle sales be electrics.

"Clearly they now recognize a market for electric vehicles, but if you're asking whether we discussed their announcement of EV1 production in exchange for changing the '98 requirement, the answer Not to my knowledge,'" says CARB spokesmen Jerry Martin.

The 2% requirement stands for now. Mr. Martin says CARB hopes to hold a public hearing in late March, after which board members may vote to modify the mandate.

But for each EV sold, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will grant GM credits of between 300 and 400 mpg (1.27 and 1.70 L/100km) toward its Corporate Average Fuel Economy.

As Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John F. Smith Jr. said when introducing the car earlier this year in Detroit and Los Angeles, EV1 "is even more important as the first in a portfolio of high-technology vehicles we will be bringing to market in the future."

The next step is likely to be an electric-liquid-fuel hybrid that will provide vastly expanded range at a more affordable price.

Says Mr. Purcell, "Basically, our planning window is 10 years."