“So you want to drive the speed demon, huh?” The local eco-dealership was empty save for a salesman spinning laps around electric cars and trucks in a Zap Zappy, a sort of poor man’s Segway. “You know the ZX40 won’t do more than 25 miles per hour, right?” asks the sales manager. She looks as if this revelation typically scares off twenty-somethings like myself. “Sure,” I say. How bad could it be?
As we walk through the dealership, the Miles ZX40S instantly stands out from its competitors thanks to the fact that it actually looks like a car. This is no coincidence. While the Zap Xebras that crowd the lot are little more than tarted-up scooters -a fact readily admitted to by the surprisingly forthright sales manager- the Miles is based on a Chinese license-built Daihatsu Move. This means four wheels, four doors, trunk space and “real” suspension- features which make this model so popular among EV early-adaptors.
In fact, the Miles ZX40S is so popular that I was only able to test drive the outgoing model. Its DC motor offers less hill-climbing ability and lacks the regenerative braking that makes its AC-powered replacement model fly off the lots. But a brand-new ZX40S is listed at $20k (if you can find one before it sells), while this outgoing model is on “internet special” for $14,999. For that money you get such “real car” amenities as a CD player and foglamps.
But it doesn’t take long to realize that as “real cars” go, Chinese-built Daihatsu Moves barely pass muster. The body is remarkably like a smaller (yep!) Mk1 Scion xB, with room for four adults and a surprising sense of spaciousness. Inside though, “cheap-and-cheerful” doesn’t begin to describe the Wal-Mart-grade upholstery and interior materials.
The “straight out of Tianjin” impressions continue as you struggle to make your seatbelt work and jiggle the ignition switch endlessly. The surprisingly unembarrassed sales manager had just concluded that she had grabbed the wrong key when the toylike LCD display finally lit up.
Any of the ZX40S’s similarities to a “real car” are quickly proven coincidental by its performance. Though its internals can haul it to 45 mph, federal legislation electronically limits the Miles to a sedate 25 mph. Flip the dash-mounted toggle switch transmission to its single “forward” gear and mash the throttle, and the ZX40S pulls away from the dealership with the urgency of a well-laden golf cart.
On quiet residential roads, the ZX40S is in its element. Roll down the window, crank up whale songs on your CD player and you could cruise for hours (well, 50 miles if you’re lucky), blanketing the neighborhood with zero-emission smug. There’s plenty of throttle travel to ease comfortably into the 17.6 peak kilowatts, and additional passengers eliminate any chance of a snappy power response.
When egged on by the sales manager to “open ‘er up” on Portland’s Sandy Boulevard, the I got the ZX40S to hit a federal-law-flouting 28 mph. This prompted a round of jokes about Justice Department investigations and the dangers of high speeds, not all coming from me. My minder expressed frustration at the onerous Low Speed Vehicle (LSV) laws, pointing out that states are repealing them. When asked about the federal laws which trump state deregulation, all I got was a vague “Miles is working on that.” Questions about a planned $30k, highway-capable EV sedan get the same answer.
But despite the ZX40S’s many shortcomings and the wide variety of far more capable vehicles available for $15-20k, the Miles is selling. While Xebras sit, unloved and unloveable. If the speed regulator and weak-sauce range aren’t enough to turn you away, the Miles does everything an LSV should. It’s got a flexible design with space for a small family, and it exudes an undeniable quirky charm.
But take care not to take on the ZX40S’s eco-friendly compromises too lightly. Buy one and you will be constantly reminded of your dedication to environmental sustainability. Like, whenever you try to buckle your seatbelt. Or spend five minutes trying to start the thing. Or watch your interior rattle itself apart at 25 mph.
The bottom line is that it will never match similarly-priced (or cheaper) “real cars” like the Fit or Yaris in quality, performance or usability. If your mantra is “earth first” rather than “pocketbook first,” the ZX40S may be your best bet.