BBC Autos

Alt-Green

Lightning bug: Driving the Zelectric Motors prototype

About the author

Editor of BBC Autos, Matthew is a former editor at Automobile Magazine and the creator of the digital-only Roadtrip Magazine. His automotive and travel writing has appeared in such magazines as Wired, Popular Science, The Robb Report and Caribbean Travel + Life. He lives in Los Angeles with his wonderful wife and four-year-old daughter.

 

HIDE CAPTION

David Benardo has a special connection to this red 1963 Volkswagen Beetle.

Benardo spent 20 years as a creative in advertising and marketing, working with a host of Silicon Valley tech companies, including Hewlett Packard and Electronic Arts. The 1963 Beetle spent 49 years powered by fossil fuels. This year, they are both reinventing themselves. Now the chief executive and director of research and development for California-based Zelectric Motors, Benardo is pursuing a big idea with a small car. He enlisted the aid of a handful of local subcontractors, including EV West, a San Diego-based electric-vehicle shop, to help transform this vintage Beetle, and others like it, to 100% electric power. The result is an ovation-worthy second act for one of the icons of the automotive world. Meet the ZelectricBug.

Benardo and EV West’s Matt Hauber, who masterminded some of the ZelectricBug’s more artful design elements (the engine compartment’s picture-perfect wiring, for instance), recently granted BBC Autos the opportunity to drive its newly operational prototype. The car, painted the ironically named colour Chevy Engine Block Red, will serve not merely as Zelectric’s engineering prototype, helping the team hone and refine the EV conversion process and settings, but as a company mascot, making rounds at auto shows and informal gatherings, whetting the appetites of a new sort of class-car enthusiast.

The prototype, although undeniably photogenic, remains a work in progress. Hauber and Benardo fuss over it like helicopter parents, buffing off fingerprints, adding bits of trim and tweaking such settings as ride height and regenerative braking – the latter requiring the AC motor to throw energy back to the batteries during deceleration.

The company is proud to point out the mechanical aspects of their Beetle – including the tires and torsion-bar suspension – that have not changed for its second life as a pure EV. “We didn't cut or weld anything on the car,” says Benardo. “It's still totally stock and someone can convert it back to gasoline in 20 years, but why would you?”

What may surprise EV enthusiasts most about the ZelectricBug is how its HPEVS AC-50 electric motor meets the Beetle’s original four-speed manual transmission. Peak torque is available at zero rpm, so there is no easing off the clutch to get rolling and no need to declutch when coming to a stop. In fact, the clutch pedal is visited only to change gears, and that is not often. First gear is essentially useless; during one around-town jaunt, the transmission stayed in second gear the entire time and the car seemed perfectly happy about it.

Make no mistake, while the ZelectricBug is remarkably easy to drive, it is fast. Very fast. For a 1963 Beetle, it is perhaps disconcertingly quick off the line, with a relentless thrust that feels decidedly more Porsche than Volkswagen. The car’s original 1.2-litre flat four-cylinder engine rattled out a modest 40 horsepower and 64 pound-feet  of torque, whereas the ZelectricBug’s electric motor spins out 85hp and 125lb-ft of torque.

The ZelectricBug does not insulate its occupants from the EV experience the way a volume-production electric like the Nissan Leaf does – and that is what makes driving it such a wholly endearing experience. Like all vintage vehicles, it requires a heightened state of attention. There is plenty of play in the steering, and braking requires more forethought than it might in a modern car. At full throttle, the electric motor yowls like a subway train, but easy cruising is pleasantly hushed, and at a red light, the cabin is crypt-quiet. The electrified Beetle delights its user in every way an unaltered Beetle does, and then some.

Zelectric uses two lithium-iron battery packs – a dozen cells beneath the hood, and 25 more behind the rear seat. Unlike the batteries in a Leaf, however, the ZelectricBug’s cells devote all their charge to propulsion, as there is no power steering, power windows or air conditioning to sap the charge. Testing is ongoing, but Benardo expects the ZelectricBug’s real-world cruising range to fall between 90 and 110 miles.

After the loss of the fuel tank and engine and the gain of the batteries and drive hardware, the car’s curb weight has increased by 365lbs, to a still-trim 2,217lbs. The chassis actually takes the additional weight well; the extra pounds up front  improved steering feel and directional stability – perhaps because unlike gasoline, batteries do not slosh. Moreover, the ZelectricBug’s custom-made aluminium battery boxes actually stiffen the car’s structure, improving handling.

Benardo has not set pricing for the ZelectricBug yet, but he offered that a finished and fully sorted example would command something close to $50,000. Benardo volunteered that the car might be the perfect weekend toy for the driver of a Tesla Model S sedan. No surprise, he intends to hang on to the red car, but its follow-up, a lustrous black 1966 Beetle, is soon to undergo “Zelectrification.” It should be completed this summer. Roundabout that time, Zelectric will be begin taking deposits to reserve a ZelectricBug of their own. Future cars will get a host of safety and performance upgrades, including seat belts, front disk brakes, a heavy duty clutch and gas shocks, along with a few creature comforts, such as a ceramic heater and a nostalgically styled RetroSound radio with integrated Bluetooth. Now that is progress.

For more information on the ZelectricBug and EV West, visit Zelectricmotors.com and evwest.com.

For a 1963 Beetle, it is perhaps disconcertingly quick off the line.