Curbside Classic/Review: Zap Xebra – The Justified Assassination

Three-wheeler week wouldn’t be complete without a Zap Xebra. The Chinese-built Xebra surfed the 2006 – 2008 wave of EV enthusiasm, only to find itself all washed up once buyers realized what a piece junk it largely was. Frames hastily welded up from ungalvanized channel stock rusted out, bodies leaked, switches failed, and most of all, battery packs fried, often within months. By 2009, Xebra production ended, and Zap found other ways to perpetually tease its investors; most recently by partnering with the third-tier Chinese automobile builder Jonway, whose main products are gasoline-powered Toyota-clone SUVs. Not that it’s done much for Zap’s stock price, currently at $0.193, and flirting with all-time lows.

In March of 2008, I wrote the only real review of a Zap Xebra, a scathing one at that, which went viral and may (hopefully) have contributed to its demise. I’d like to think so, anyway. So rather than write some new text for this lovely Xebra sitting out front with the garbage, I’ll just re-run it here; a bit of a time capsule:

(written in 2008):  According to GM Car Czar Bob Lutz, “The electrification of the automobile is inevitable.”  Inevitability also applies to the sun going cold. But with rising gas prices, some of us old timers are getting impatient (having had our youthful appetite whetted by GM’s Electrovair way back in 1966). The Li-ion-powered Tesla Roadster is simultaneously sold out and yet not in production. Dozens of other miraculous EV’s are just a $5k deposit and an infinitely adjustable (and not so inevitable) delivery date away. Meanwhile, down at your local Zap dealer, the banner proclaims: “Saving the planet, One vehicle at a time.” Their Xebra is all charged-up and ready to roll.

The idea of the Xebra has certain compelling aspects. A “fill-up” cost as little as thirty-five cents. Its advertised top speed is 40mph. The (advertised) 30-mile range would do the job for a round-the-town errand mobile. And $11,200 buys approving looks from PC neighbors for reducing one’s carbon footprint; at one-tenth of the cost of a Tesla.

Anyway, I’m thinking Tesla’s got it all backwards. Why spend $125k for a Roadster AND a conventional car (a necessity for longer trips, going shopping, or picking up the folks at the airport)? Half that amount will put a Xebra on display in the driveway with enough left over to stash a Lotus, Boxster or ‘Vette in the garage. Run your errands all week for a penny per mile, and head for the hills on the weekend.

Unfortunately, Zap spends more time and energy on hyping vaporware (and its stock) than actually building functional vehicles, as documented in this scathing expose. Their web site entices eco-warriors with a cornucopia of EV’s offering blazing acceleration (0 -60 in 4.5 seconds) and miraculous range (240 miles). Delivery: TBD.

Zap’s stock peaked at $4 a share in 2004 with the announcement of its electric-conversion Smart car. After that program short-circuited, its stock began a protracted melt-down (currently $.58) (Update: now $.19). Desperate, Zap turned to China for something tangible to sell. Small electric three-wheelers are common and cheap there (about $3k), built in small factories that are anything but environmentally responsible. ZAP imports them with a hefty markup.

The Xebra’s questionable provenance is painfully evident. Its crudely finished fiberglass body is a rolling wart of huge panel gaps, wavy surfaces and rough edges. The tiny car’s interior unleashed a flood of childhood memories of being squeezed into an original Fiat 500, without the playful use of design and materials. The Xebra screams “kit car,” especially when checking out its primitive golf-cart mechanicals. Six conventional twelve-volt lead-acid batteries provide 72 volts to the 6.7hp (not a typo) coffee-can motor.

I arrived an hour too late to drive the one sedan at the dealer. The buyers were busy signing papers for the $16k heavily-optioned metallic-green apple of their eye. What did the extra $5k buy them? Air conditioning? Power windows? More power? Not available at any price. We’re talking “custom wiring,” an upgraded controller, LED lights, alloys and a custom paint-job that would make Earl Scheib proud.

Once I squeezed myself into the Xebra pick-up, I had to contort my legs to operate the two pedals located on the left side of the steering column. As I turned into traffic, I was overwhelmed by the sensation that I’ve just committed a youthful prank– stealing one of those electric garbage-can haulers from a convention center. And I’m having doubts whether I’m going to be able to outrun the security guard running after me.

Flat-out and level, the speedometer eventually finds an unsteady waver between thirty-two and thirty-four. A moderate hill quickly drops “speed” into the teens. Every bump, crack and pothole becomes an obstacle to avoid or regret. The motor whines like a hairdryer about to expire (the salesman admits the sedan is even noisier). I have no desire to check the actual range of this motorized wheelbarrow/hair-shirt. Which way is back to the convention center? Why does my xB suddenly feel like a Bentley?

A Xebra owners’ on-line forum reveals a consensus on range: 15 to 17 miles. And there are tales of endless woes of terrible build quality and material defects. Zap’s six month warranty is a small consolation. Discussions abound on ways to fix and improve the Xebra’s multitude of shortcomings. ZAP dealer Mark Higley bluntly responds to a damsel in distress with a dead Xebra: “I never recommend it as a primary source of transportation”.

The weekend Boxster is going to have to wait until someone builds my formula for a cheap urban electric errand-mobile: convert a $2500 Tata Nano (which looks downright spacious, well finished and safe compared to the Xebra), give it a genuine 30 mile range and a 45mph top speed, and price it at $8k to $10k. That’s so obvious, it should be inevitable.

Postscript: There were a number of Zaps around Eugene a few years back, when I shot the zebra-striped one. But the only one left is this magenta sedan, which is still functioning, a rolling relic of an era that now seems almost absurd. in the face of the EV currently available. Of course, it was probably no coincidence that Zap killed the Xebra shortly after the Nissan Leaf was announced. Zap prices plummeted; dealer were selling their stock for 50% or less of MSRP. Used Zap prices collapsed accordingly. Zap dealers, who invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases, were also zapped.