The People’s Electric Vehicle

The creatively modified electric VW Bug is exactly what’s needed to stand out in a sea of soulless Priuses.

By Jonathan Ward

PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID  BENARDO

Photographs by David Benardo

 

Few vehicles have won our hearts to the same extent as the Volkswagen Bug. Generations of people from all over the world smile when they see one, and most of us have fond memories of our various (and sometimes obscene) life experiences in one. It’s been manufactured in Germany, Ireland, Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, Australia, and Nigeria, meaning it truly has become the people’s vehicle, with almost 22 million made since its humble beginnings in 1938.

It’s popular with people of all ages, and still represents a certain sense of independence and style. Even the brilliant, often sarcastic genius of its early advertisements helped cement the VW Bug as a vehicle that will forever transcend social and cultural boundaries—and permanently changed the landscape of modern automotive marketing in the process. No small feat, considering the car was originally developed by an anti-Semitic, enemy-of-the-state German guy with an odd mustache.

But despite all its charm, a drive in a VW Bug leaves plenty of room for improvement. It’s offered globally in gas or diesel variants of meager performance, with these bastions of simplicity leaving you wondering if each shift might be your last.

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Enter husband and wife David Benardo and Bonnie Rodgers, who have been big fans of the Bug since the Flower Power generation. These Southern California–based self-described “V-dub-ites” have owned many over the years. And since they’re celebrated brand designers with a tendency to never leave well enough alone, it was just a matter of time before they turned their creative spirits to the beloved Bug. They began to study the options and challenge the legend. What could be done to evolve the people’s vehicle? Then, a crazy idea hit them like a thunderbolt. Why not make the go-to hippie ride a fun, environmentally conscious electric vehicle? It’s a natural fit!

All too often, electric conversions have a Frankenstein-esque hack-job vibe with a mess of mysterious, repurposed components from God knows what. But not the ZelectricBug. The shape and design of the car naturally lends itself to such modification, bearing almost ideal packing accommodations for the batteries and electric motor without sacrificing storage space: The electric motor and components fit perfectly in the engine bay, and the battery packs cleverly integrate where the fuel tank used to be. These locations also help maintain the nearly ideal weight distribution (60 rear/40 front), which brings welcomed gains in overall handling and performance.

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This well-engineered and thoughtfully packaged surprise, which was developed with industry legends Mike Bream and Matt Hauber at EV West, scoots right along and provides an impressively sporty and fun driving experience. Stay in second gear to hot-rod around, hit third for cruising, and fourth for freeway flying. But you rarely need to shift gears at all. Third gear will comfortably take you from zero to 80 miles an hour in a flash. The regenerative braking that further extends your range means you almost never need to apply the conventional brakes (although the innovators did upgrade the front ones to disc brakes, in case you need them).

Gone are the rattles and stench of the old air-cooled engine. The linear torque curve of the 65-kilowatt, three-phase, alternating-current motor delivers power at the moment you need it. The car’s range averages 90 to 100 miles with the quality 22-kilowatt battery pack composed of Lithium LiFePO4 batteries (the same one used in the Nissan Leaf). Because they used the industry-standard plug, charging can be done anywhere. Plug it in at night (just like you do with your phone), and it’s ready to go in the morning; a full charge takes seven to eight hours at 220 volts, 13 to 14 hours at 110 volts.

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Another cool detail of this design is that the modular nature of the car’s assembly allows for easy and quick evolution. As battery science and motor design evolve, the existing components can be replaced to upgrade performance and range. This all but guarantees that your ZelectricBug will be on the road longer than many of the other “environmentally conscious” EV cars.

The equation has been perfected, the tinkering has ceased, and this side project has become a full-time job. Finally, after teasing the automotive press and social media for what seemed like an excruciatingly long time, Zelectric Motors has begun selling its creation. The first unit sold in just a few hours, and now the company is working through the realities of ramping up operations to meet demand.

This type of creative and fun EV is exactly what’s needed to stand out and thrive in the sea of soulless Priuses dotting the American landscape. Prices start at about $50,000. Catch one if you can at ZelectricMotors.com.

 

From the March 2015 issue of Penthouse