Special Coverage

Greater L.A. Auto Show

LOS ANGELES – Wheego Electric Cars Inc. is chasing a bigger slice of the electric-vehicle pie with an emphasis on customer service and a new full-speed model that holds its own in downtown L.A. traffic.

The 2-seat Wheego LiFe, unveiled at the auto show here and named for its 115V lithium-iron battery pack, faces its stiffest competition from General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.’s Leaf EV, both nearing retail launch in limited markets in the U.S.

However, the LiFe is on sale now throughout the country and comes with a promise from the auto maker to keep in close touch with its dealers and customers to resolve any ownership issues that may arise.

“It’s a huge differentiator, because I think the car is half technology, half automotive,” CEO Mike McQuary says of the customer-service pledge. “I believe the technology model of customer service is going to be the prevailing model.

“Right now, if you have a problem with your software or your internet service, you call techno support or customer service and they’ll stay on the line and help you,” adds McQuary, who once headed up Internet service-provider Mindspring. “I don’t think the automotive industry’s done a very good job of (mimicking) that.”

Dealers, he says, will be a complimentary part of that service equation, not the only part.

“It’s a different approach, and I think that’s important because our drivers are going to want to know a lot about the car,” he says. “They’re going to want to know about the technology. They’re going to want to know about the software.”

By keeping the lines of communication open and educating Wheego customers, those same people “are going to become our best sales people.”

Capable of traveling about 100 miles (161 km) on a single charge and reaching a top speed of 80 mph (129 km/h), the Wheego LiFe taken for a test drive here the day before its debut demonstrates it has the acceleration and maneuverability needed to negotiate midday traffic along the surface streets and freeways of downtown L.A.

A “Sport” mode provides even better off-the-line acceleration.

The LiFe’s interior doesn’t feel cramped, and the dashboard controls are straightforward but easy on the eyes. Its digital readout includes a speedometer/odometer, a volt meter, monitor for the battery’s overall charge and a tool that calculates the car engine’s energy efficiency.

However, without the radio turned on and the windows partially up, the hum of the motor is quite noticeable, particularly at higher speeds. The gear selector is a bit tight and not the easiest to shift.

Still, even though it is small, the LiFe feels and acts like a conventional car.

The Wheego EV is available in red, white, blue, black, silver and green and comes fully-equipped with driver and passenger airbags, antilock brakes and power windows and locks. Air conditioning is optional.

The car’s battery can be charged from a standard 120V outlet, a 240V outlet or any of the J1772 standard charging stations being installed in public locations throughout the U.S. Priced at $32,995, the LiFe qualifies for a $7,500 federal tax credit as well as various state incentives.

Wheego plans to add a 5-passenger sedan and a light truck to its lineup within the next 18 months.