Monday, December 31, 2012

Alameda Street Sighting - 2008 ZENN LSV

We now live in a world where the electric car has gone mainstream. Unlike the small leased fleet of GM EV1s or the smattering of electric-converted Ford Rangers and Toyota RAV4s of the 1990s, people are now rushing out to buy Nissan Leafs and Chevy Volts (the latter actually a gas-electric hybrid of sorts). Luxury and performance electrics like the Tesla Roadster and Fisker Karma sedan now exist and can command six-digit prices. The Tesla Model S just won Motor Trend Magazine's 2013 Car of the Year award, a first for an all-electric vehicle. But it's been a bumpy ride for electric cars, and the road to mainstream adoption is littered with small upstart companies that hoped to make a difference. In a blog that features all manner of cars from A to Z, it seems fitting to end the year with ZENN.

The ZENN (Zero Emissions, No Noise) low-speed vehicle was conceived much like many of its contemporaries - a proprietary battery and propulsion system engineered into an existing body from an outside supplier. The ZENN is based on the French Microcar MC2, which in its home market was classified as a quadricycle rather than a "real" car. The Microcar was powered by a small diesel engine. The ZENN received six lead-acid batteries hooked to an electric motor, and was certified for up to 25 mph with a range of about 40 miles between charges. Some argue that the ZENN was actually capable of higher speeds but was limited for political reasons. Built in Ontario, Canada, the ZENN was not actually legal in its own country for two years because Transport Canada felt the car was not safe for use at higher speeds.

While ZENN was a fairly credible first offering (remember that Ford's Th!nk and DaimlerChrysler's GEM both resembled golf carts and were limited to the same low speed restrictions) the car was not profitable. Only 500 were built between 2006 and 2010, and it is said that for a while the company was losing $65,000 on every car they sold. Toyota used to lose money on every Prius they sold during that model's early years, but they made up for that loss with profits from selling hundreds of thousands of Corollas and Camrys until the technology became cheaper. Now the Prius line consists of three models and the hybrid technology has trickled into several Toyota cars and SUVs. ZENN was not blessed with having other popular models to help it stay afloat.
Today the ZENN Motor Company is trying to get other manufacturers to adopt its electric vehicle propulsion technology, and working with another company called EEStor to develop a replacement for batteries in electric cars.
The ZENN is a car that I expect to find only in communities that have progressive, environmentally friendly policies and low speed limits. Unsurprisingly, this car was found in Alameda, where the speed limit averages roughly the top speed of the ZENN. The overall design has a very utilitarian look about it. The curved cutout of the door matches the rear wheel arch, a holdover from the Microcar MC1 which had a shorter wheelbase than the MC2. The ZENN has no airbags and few niceties, though options such as a fabric sunroof, air conditioning and fake wood dash trim were available. This example even has alloy wheels and a roof rack that I suspect is aftermarket. All ZENNs came with the triangular caution sticker on the back to prevent other throttle jockeys from slamming into the back of the slow-moving little cars.
To date, this is one of the newest vehicles I've photographed as a street sighting feature, and I'm still left wondering how significant it is in the grand scheme of things. The ZENN is arguably outclassed by a Nissan Leaf in power, range, safety, interior space and even style, but the Leaf wasn't developed on a shoestring budget by an upstart company. And the ZENN is certainly more rare than most vehicles, electric or otherwise. It's an interesting footnote in automotive history.


  1. I guess this is the equivalent of the petrol powered vehicles that were first seen between 1895 and 1900. In the fullness of time they will develop into something a little faster and more reliable.

  2. 2010, ZENN canceled production of their vehicles and released employees to conserve cash. ZENN's remaining business is focused on the EEStor technology and their rights to it