DETROIT--I am in the driver's seat of one of the most heavily anticipated electric cars, the Think City. The car comes to us from Norway, though it has a long and colorful American history. Think (or as it's sometimes written, Th!nk) was owned by Ford from 1999 to 2002. The company was then producing another, less-evolved version of the City and the Think Neighbor, a golf cart-type electric vehicle for local use.
Ford did little with the brand, but some 1,000 cars were produced (mostly sold in Europe). The Ford venture ended in ignominy when the remaining cars in the pipeline were crushed, just like the GM EV-1s in Who Killed the Electric Car?.
Think struggled for a while, and went through the Norwegian version of bankruptcy, but it is now on a roll. Indiana-based battery maker Ener1 is the lead investor in reviving the company's fortunes, and it is once more churning out small batches of EVs (now from Finland's Valmet, where the Porsche Boxster and the forthcoming Fisker Karma are built).
Think, having produced 500 of its second-generation cars, is coming to America again. With great fanfare, the company recently announced that it is building a manufacturing plant in hard-hit Elkhart, Indiana (once "The RV Capital of the World," now largely a showpiece for unemployment). Believe me, they were celebrating in Elkhart when the factory was announced. Keith Takasawa, a former Ford engineer (ironically enough) who now is director of product development for Think North America, said that he expects volume "in the low thousands" for the first couple of years.
"It's very helpful to have the relationship with Ener1," said Takasawa. "We're now joined at the hip." Ener1 supplied the lithium-ion batteries in the car I drove, but it is available with Zebra batteries in European editions.
The Think City will be sold as early as later this year, with the inventory initially consisting of cars made in Europe. But the U.S. factory, in a former RV window facility, will have the capacity of 20,000 a year. The initial price will be under $20,000, but that's minus the battery (which will be leased) and including a $7,500 federal tax credit and other incentives.
On the road (I know you were waiting for this part) in downtown Detroit, the Think City moved off the line with alacrity, albeit a bit noisier than some of its competition. Steering was heavy, but U.S. versions will have power assist. The two-seater, with a 100-mile range and a top speed around 70 mph, is no luxury car. It's comfortable, and it's utilitarian, and it's also a driver's seat waiting for volunteer posteriors of the nation's global warming-motivated early adopters.
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