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Plug in and drive with electric car

Teresa Hertz is getting the gas monkey off her back, and she’s doing it with something that looks like a garden pest.

Behind the wheel of her lime green ZAP Xebra, Hertz is doing her small piece to save the world by driving an electric car. And it really is small; the three-wheel vehicle looks more like a remote-controlled car than a commuter vehicle. It’s actually registered as a motorcycle.

“My father, who loves me very much, said, ‘You know, if you get hit in that thing, you’re dead. Please get the most obnoxious color,’” Hertz says, revealing the inspiration behind her choice of bright green over mellow blue. “It looks like a little aphid.”

ZAP, based in Santa Rosa, Calif., stands for zero air pollution. The company, which also sells electric bikes and scooters, started selling its three-wheel, four-door Xebra car about a year ago. The cars three-pronged plug goes into a standard outlet, and though charging the car does add to power bills, the increase in Hertz’s bill would only buy her about three gallons of gas.

“I’ve only noticed a $10 or $12 difference in my power bill — practically nothing,” she says.

GOING THE DISTANCE

Hertz is a co-owner of Blossom Childcare and Learning Center on Douglas Avenue and lives north of Arroyo Park. The proximity of work and home makes her a perfect candidate for the Xebra, which goes about 25 miles on a charge, tops out at about 40 miles per hour and can’t go on the freeway. She keeps an extension cord in the car just in case she needs to recharge during the day.

For longer trips or freeway driving, Hertz drives her Saab, so she still isn’t completely free from the grip of gasoline.

“I drive it wherever I can,” she says of the Xebra. “I work and shop and live all in a very small area. It sounded pretty good.”

Though the car fits four, it is small and light. Snowy and windy weather can be particularly treacherous, and potholes can feel like craters.

“A big problem around town is you really feel where the streets are bad,” she says. “You feel every little crack in the road. If anyone wants me to put in money for street improvements, I guess I have to now.”

SUMMER SALES

Hertz and her husband bought her little aphid about a year ago for $10,500 from a dealer in Salem, Ore., but now the car is available in-state at The Green Car Company in Kirkland. The company has been selling the Xebra for the past eight months, says Don Fahnestock, one of The Green Car Company’s founders.

Fahnestock says he wasn’t too impressed with the original version, but improvements to the interior, exterior, range and speed have made the car more desirable.

Hertz says she has noticed the gradual evolution in quality with a tinge of envy that matches her car’s paint job. But she doesn’t for a minute regret her purchase because it has drawn attention to electric vehicles and has even inspired another Bellingham resident, Phil Heaven, 37, to purchase a Xebra of his own.

“If everyone who lived within a 20-mile round trip of their work were to switch to an electric car to commute in, just think how much cleaner our air would be, how much quieter downtown would be and how much less dependent we would be on foreign oil,” Heaven says in an e-mail. “It would have such a positive impact in so many ways.”

Green Car has sold 50 Xebras in the past eight months, and Fahnestock expects sales to increase as in the summer months as good weather makes drivers forget about their bad-weather driving fears.

“The sales start to pick up as the weather gets warmer,” he says. “I’ve noticed a pickup in the last few months of people calling us about them and asking about them.”

It’s a sales trend that is reflected in national Xebra sales as well. Alex Campbell, director of marketing for ZAP says he has seen a dramatic jump in sales, and in the past month interest has increased as well.

“I think the market’s going to grow overall, and I think the price of gas has a lot to do with it,” Campbell says. “The writing is on the wall. More and more this is going to become an economic issue. If you see someone driving their SUV to the gas station, you’re going to assume they’re rich. Who else can afford to spend $100 filling up?”

ELECTRIC MOTIVES

Though Campbell says broader issues such as global warming and events in the Middle East can galvanize interest in gas alternatives, nothing has quite the motivating power of the pocketbook.

“With everything going on in the world, there are more and more reasons to buy electric cars,” he says. “But when it hits people in their wallets, that’s when it starts forcing them to find alternatives.”

For Hertz, gas prices and environmental concerns colluded to influence her family’s purchase. As a consummate recycler since the 1980s, she saw the Xebra as a way to lessen her environmental impact — and cut back on pain at the gas pump.

“It’s supporting the technology,” she says. “And the more people who get them, the more people who say, ‘I’m not going to drive a gas-powered car when I don’t have to,’ the more things will change. I thought, I’m going to do my part. It’s time to do something.”

Even if that something looks a little silly. Hertz admits it took some time to adjust to driving in her little car and the attention it draws, both quizzical and comical.

“If anyone wants to laugh at my car, I’ll be laughing at them when I drive straight through the ampm to get to the I Wana Moka,” Hertz jokes.

Hertz’s 19-year-old son likes to drive the car around the neighborhood and thinks it could be a chick magnet; her 15-year-old son, however, ducks down in the seats to hide. One thing that is for sure is that the kids at the childcare center love the car, which she often parks in front of the window for them to see.

“I hear children laughing and talking about ‘the funny green car’ — and it is funny; it’s a funny green car.”

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