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One for the road - slowly


With gas prices at more than $3 a gallon, a no-gas-required, all-electric car would seem to sell itself.

The catches are that the Miles ZX40 reaches only about 25 mph, has a range of about 40 miles and takes five to eight hours to fully charge. Despite those limitations, its importer and electric-car advocates see it as a demonstration of developing technology that may one day lead to consumer-quality electric vehicles.

"I believe we will see the cars become more sophisticated and fully highway capable," said David Goldstein, president of the Electric Vehicle Association of Greater Washington, based in Gaithersburg.

The ZX40, a street-legal electric vehicle manufactured in China, is being imported by the U.S.-based Miles Automotive Group and is to go on sale at Foreign Motors on Belair Road within the next week. Scott Donahoo, owner of Foreign Motors, said he will get a 10-car shipment to start and possibly more later.

Donahoo has one ZX40 on his lot now. The car plugs into a wall socket to be charged, according to Miles Automotive. It comes equipped with the amenities of a commercial passenger vehicle, including a CD player, air conditioning, cup holders and fog lamps.

Donahoo will be the only dealer in Maryland to sell the ZX40, Miles Automotive chief executive David Hirsch said. The ZX40 will cost about $15,600, including freight, Donahoo said. He is hoping to market the car as a commercial vehicle, primarily to security services and for use in compact areas such as college campuses.

The ZX40 is not the first low-speed electric vehicle to be sold in the United States. But in Maryland, it would have been illegal to drive until January, when a state law outlining standards for low-speed vehicles and allowing them to be registered took effect.

As of April, only seven low-speed vehicles had been registered in the state, said Buel Young, a spokesman for the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration. The number does not make a distinction between low-speed and low-speed electric vehicles.

Low-speed vehicles are four-wheeled vehicles, other than trucks, with maximum speeds of 20 to 25 mph, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Commonly referred to as "neighborhood electric vehicles," or NEVs, they must have head, stop and turn signal lamps, reflectors, parking brakes, rearview mirrors, windshields, safety belts and vehicle identification numbers. In Maryland, they are legal to drive only on roadways where the posted speed limit is 30 mph or less.

NEV manufacturers say the recently passed law will lead to a swift increase in the emission-free, battery-powered NEVs.

"We were very instrumental in helping get legal in the state of Maryland," said Russ Kiefer, director of sales and marketing for Global Electric Motors LLC, a DaimlerChrysler AG company that has been manufacturing NEVs since 1998.

"The law will make a difference," Kiefer said. "The paperwork is easier. It's a registerable car."

Miles Automotive plans to begin distributing a highway-capable electric car that can go up to 80 mph by the end of 2007, CEO Hirsch said. The car is being crash-tested in China under U.S. safety specifications, he said.

Goldstein said advancing battery technology, including lithium ion, may one day make batteries capable of powering cars for many miles and at highway speeds. He said lithium ion batteries are about four times as powerful as lead acid batteries, which are typically used now.

"It's the early stages of what we see as an emerging trend," Goldstein said. "It's no doubt we're going to see more Chinese-built cars in the future of the U.S."

Sun reporter Andrea K. Walker contributed to this article.

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