Canadian company ElectraMeccanica calls its three-wheel Sparrow the “Beetle for the 21st century”
By Andrew McCredie Driving
Originally published: July 10, 2015
VANCOUVER — I have driven the future, and it is now. Well, maybe.
In a world of two-buck-a-litre gas, this single-seat, all-electric enclosed three-wheeler is a game-changer. Throw in a provincial/federal EV rebate of $5,000 or so to offset the $19,888 price tag and the ambitious plan to build thousands of them each year in B.C. seems even more grounded in reality. Talk with ElectraMeccanica President/CEO, it’s all but inevitable.
“This is the Volkswagen Beetle for the 21st century,” Jerry Kroll declared in the Westin-Bayshore parking lot during my pre-test drive briefing. “After 30 minutes of driving it, you feel like you are wearing Robert Downey Jr.’s Ironman suit. You’re wearing the car. It’s the way driving should be.”
Also read: Our First Drive review of the Tesla Model S P85D
As Bruce Constantineau reported recently, ElectraMeccanica has designs on building these vehicles right here in B.C. for sale in Canada and around the world. Kroll is an entrepreneur who has spent his life around cars — racing them, building them — and for the past five years, he has been developing electric drive systems in race cars at the NASA Research Park in Mountain View, California.
He’s the brains behind ElectraMeccanica, while the brawn comes from Henry Reisner, the Vancouver-based owner and operator of custom car-builder Intermeccanica. As Chief Operating Officer, it will fall on Reisner to oversee production of the single-seater at a facility Kroll estimates will employ between 500 and 1,000 “clean-tech workers.” A site for the factory has yet to be selected, but Abbotsford is leading the pack so far.
“The [Abbotsford] mayor drove this and said ‘I want one!’” Kroll said.
So what exactly is it? If it looks somewhat familiar, that’s because this pre-production model is based on the Sparrow, first built by Corbin Industries way back in 1999. Kroll worked with Corbin back then, “trying to bring it into Canada,” and earlier this year EM bought the rights and existing assets of Myers Motors, which took over Sparrow production in 2004.
But the ElectraMeccanica Sparrow prototype that I tested is different from the original in a few ways. First, lead-acid batteries have been replaced by a state-of-the-art lithium-ion drive system; secondly, due to that powertrain upgrade, gross weight has been slashed from 1,600 pounds to just 1,275. That translates into more nimble performance, and more importantly, an increased full-charge range from about 40 kilometres to more than 100.
Kroll says the plan is to have 15 or so of these pre-production models built for sale by the end of the year before switching over to the EMV17 model, which uses the exact same lithium-ion drivetrain as in the fibreglass prototype but is housed in a made-in-Canada carbon fibre body penned by car designer Rod Trenne. The Detroit-based Trenne worked on the Chevrolet Corvette C5 and designed the Mosler MT900 supercar.
The use of carbon fibre, according to Kroll, will bring the gross weight down to less than 800 lbs., meaning a longer range and even better performance. The plan is to produce and sell 120 EMV17s in 2016 and more than 1,200 in 2017. The first EMV17, says Kroll, will be road-ready by the end of this year.
Last month ElectraMeccanica received registration approval from the B.C. Ministry of Transportation (under category 97 for three-wheeled cars), “which means we can sell them now and people can drive them around.”
So, apart from Ironman wannabes, who exactly is the target market?
ElectraMeccanica president and CEO Jerry Kroll describes the Sparrow as feeling like “you are wearing Robert Downey Jr.s Ironman suit.”
“Eighty-three per cent of all commuters in North America drive by themselves 60 kilometres or less each day,” Kroll said. “In Canada, that’s 14 million people. If we sell these cars to just one-tenth of one per cent of those, it’s $280 million a year.”
He noted that’s not including another segment he sees as a natural for the car: courier fleets. In addition to the obvious operational savings, Kroll says the vehicle’s small footprint allows it to be parked in spots suited for a motorcycle or even a bicycle. Other possible buyers include municipalities and catering companies.
“The company is going public as ElectraMeccanica,” Kroll continued. “We’re currently doing round one of financing, so I’m spending all my time these days meeting with people interested in investing in the company.”
We’ll leave it to the Vancouver Sun‘s business desk to follow that side of the story. For now, let’s drive this thing.
Entering the Sparrow from the right hand-side door — the only door apart from the rear cargo hatch — and settling into the wide and comfortable seat, the driver’s view is not unlike that of a regular car. Steering wheel (a sporty Momo, no less). Two pedals. A turn signal stalk. A speedometer. Climate controls. A windshield wiper switch. Air vents. Smartphone holder.
The handbrake, located on your left and seemingly sourced from a Triumph TR7 parts bin, is the first tip-off that something’s amiss. Turn your head to the right and you realize you’re not in Kansas anymore. Things return to normalcy as a key gets this vehicle going, albeit one installed on the left side of the steering wheel. A full turn of it emits a beep that fills the tiny cabin, and when that stops, it’s time to turn the switch to put the Sparrow in drive.
Like any EV worth its battery pack, the only sound on acceleration is a whirr from the electric motor. Unlike any other EV, the sensation of accelerating is akin to taxiing a fighter jet down a runway. With no body mass to the right of you, it takes some getting used to, but once mastered it is truly liberating. Motorcyclists know the feeling of lots of room to roam in a single lane, and the Sparrow captures that essence but with none of the wind and engine noise of a gas-powered bike.
Despite no power steering or brakes, I never felt labouring over either duty, though Kroll did share some useful pre-drive advice: “Test out the brakes first thing to get a feeling for them.”
Like Beetles of old, the pressure you exert to slow down or stop is more than pampered 21st-century drivers are used to, but still not onerous enough to bring on thigh cramps. The only times I felt uneasy occurred when distracted pedestrians, cyclists and drivers in hulking subcompacts took slack-jawed interest and veered into my path, in attempts to either stop me outright or at least get a quick selfie. If I had a dollar for every thumbs-up I received, I could buy my very own Sparrow – without the rebate!
The one time I did stop, for an impromptu photo shoot in Stanley Park, I was besieged by the curious and peppered with questions. Even the horse-drawn carriage guy reined in his steeds to allow on-board tourists to gawk and capture the moment.
“What the heck is that thing?” drawled one. Back inside my safe cocoon I sped away, feeling like a futuristic traveller caught in the horse and buggy age. Marty McFly can keep his DeLorean.
Like a dream that ended before it began, my 30-minute test drive was over, and I found myself standing outside the Sparrow looking at it and feeling the same disconnect I felt when I first drove a Smart fortwo at 120 km/h. I was driving that thing that fast? It sure didn’t feel like it looks.
In other words, driving the Sparrow was very similar to driving a small car. It’s low centre of gravity and three-wheeled stance — Kroll pointed out three-wheels provide “the most stable platform known to humankind” — translate to a very confident handling feel, and the quick acceleration gives you the confidence to play in Vancouver’s infamous dodgy traffic.
“After driving it, when you get back into a normal vehicle, it feels like you are driving a motorhome,” Kroll told me before my test drive.
As I drove home in my compact, I had to admit he was right. As to if he’s right on ElectraMeccanica being Vancouver’s first high-volume car manufacturer, only time – and gas prices – will tell.