Wheego Aims to be the Little EV Company That Could

Last Updated Nov 24, 2010 12:59 PM EST

LOS ANGELES -- Wheego is one of the first automakers on the ground with an electric car, but for a startup company with low overhead and a stealth marketing plan, there may not be all that much of an advantage in being ahead of the pack.

I am sitting at a small table in Kentia Hall, which amounts to the basement of the Los Angeles Convention Center, and across from me is Mike McQuary, the still-boyish, infectiously enthusiastic CEO of Wheego Electric Cars. McQuary rules a small empire -- Wheego has just five and a half employees, but it has nonetheless taken its small, Smart-sized two-seat LiFe electric car (based on a Chinese gasoline vehicle) through crash testing and its arrival on the market is imminent.

According to Wheego President Jeff Boyd (who doubled as my test pilot when I took the car for a test ride), it will be delivered to dealers "in a few weeks." The Los Angeles show was its public debut.

Wheego obviously runs a tight ship, and its marketing campaign for the LiFe is relatively simple. The major manufacturers' cars, including the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, Smart electric drive and Ford Focus, will be sold only in selected markets, and Wheego will go into cities where there will be a dearth of EVs -- at least for a year or so, before the big guys go national. "The Volt will be in eight markets and the Volt in 10," McQuary said gleefully. "It looks like I'll have a lot of cities to myself."

McQuary said that Wheego used a similar strategy to sell 300 of its earlier low-speed cars, mostly in Oklahoma. The state is on few EV roadmaps, but McQuary said a lucrative tax incentive created a big but unlikely market. McQuary is the former president of scrappy Internet provider MindSpring (which later merged with EarthLink in 2000), and he points out that despite the challenges of competing against AOL and other big players he built the second-largest customer base in the online industry.

The LiFe has some challenges stacked up against the competition. Like the Smart and Think City, it's a two-seater. Priced at $32,995, it's about the same price as the sophisticated, four-seat Leaf, which also enjoys a vastly bigger ad budget and name recognition. Wheego's basement location at the LA show symbolizes its uphill climb to get recognized in an increasingly crowded EV field.

"We're not focusing on being big, we're focusing on being great," McQuary said. "We'll be happy selling in numbers that other company executives would get fired over." By that he means 2,000 cars a year, though he'd then be pushing to double the volume.

Wheego is based in Atlanta, but sources its car in China (where it's on the road as a gas vehicle), before shipment to California for final EV assembly. It's a long supply line, and presumably a lot to keep track of for such a small staff.

At Wheego, Boyd has the most auto industry experience. He is the former CEO of California-based Miles Electric Vehicles (from which sprang the Coda) and was chief operating officer of the O'Brien Automotive Team, which ran 32 franchises at 14 locations in four states. He also worked at United Auto Group, a large publicly traded auto retailer.

Boyd, who's still tinkering with the car's suspension as it goes down to the wire for dealership delivery, has his hands full. In his spare moments, I hope he's also working out the industry's smartest guerrilla marketing scheme.

The LiFe has 100-mile range from a 30-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, and a top speed of around 70 mph. It's no Tesla, but it acquitted itself well enough in a test drive around downtown Los Angeles. Handling is much improved from my drive in Atlanta, when I was the first journalist to get behind the wheel. I got a lot of wheelspin from a light front end back then, but Wheego has moved the battery pack forward, putting more weight on the front wheels. The car takes off well enough, but I'd like to see a bit more top-end power for comfortable cruising on the highway.

That could be addressed as part of a series of continuous improvements McQuary says he's committed to for the LiFe. And it won't be alone in Wheego's full-speed stable for long. Within 18 months, the company wants to have a five-seat electric sedan and a pickup truck on the market. "We're in negotiations to get the donor chassis now," McQuary said.

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Photo: Jim Motavalli