I was going to title this post, “How Not to Launch an Electric Car,” but I thought that might be too harsh. Still, the launch of the two-seater LiFe electric car by the startup Wheego (meant to convey the fun of Whee! and the action of Go!) at the L.A. Auto Show last week was, let’s just say, pretty unusual.
Wheego CEO Michael McQuary, former President of the ISP Earthlink, kicked off the official unveiling of the Wheego LiFe with a sort-of stand-up comedy routine, beginning with a joke about thanking auto startup CODA’s former CEO and VP of Global Sales for attending (the awkward joke is they left CODA earlier this month), and later asking the press audience if they wanted to celebrate the LiFe launch by drinking brown-bagged liquor behind the convention hall (in contrast to the big auto parties being held that week). Most of McQuary’s talk was focused on pointing out flaws in competing auto maker’s electric cars.
Hey, I’m all into off-color comedy and occasional brown-bag drinking, but a speech with that much bravado should be backed up with a killer product, right? Well, that’s where Wheego falls pretty far short.
The tiny two-seater LiFe, which Wheego says will go on-sale in December, is advertised as having a 100-mile range, and will cost $32,995 before incentives. Nissan’s all-electric LEAF just went on sale, seats five, has a 100-mile range, and costs $33,720 before incentives. During a test drive of the Wheego LiFe, I asked Wheego President Jeff Boyd what his pitch was for a consumer to buy a LiFe over a LEAF, and he said he gets asked that a lot, but he thinks consumer demand for EVs will be high enough that the LEAF and the LiFe won’t be in competition.
At the end of the day, there’s really no reason anyone would buy a LiFe over a LEAF, unless they just couldn’t get a LEAF in a time frame they wanted. I’ve test driven both the LEAF and, as of last week the LiFe, and there’s also no comparison in terms of how the cars handle on the road. The LiFe felt almost like the prototypes I’ve driven (the Fiat fuel-cell Panda, or an early version of the Think city car) with a variety of unusual noises, and at times, shaky feeling while driving. The LEAF felt exactly like a traditional car to drive, was smooth on the road, and had an almost luxury feel. The LiFe has only two seats and very little room to store anything; the LEAF has as much room as a standard 5-seater car.
I think the Wheego folks are thinking that because there will likely be more consumer demand than Nissan (or other EV auto makers) will be able to meet in the short term with their cars, consumers will turn to alternative players like Wheego. That may be true, but at the same time, it sounds like Wheego won’t actually be ready for much of a ramp-up in scale.
There are only three driveable LiFes in existence as of last week, said the executives (all were at the show), and another 100 LiFe chassis were in the process of being shipped from China to Wheego’s headquarters. Both McQuary and Boyd called a potential quick success of the LiFe a “double-edged sword,” because the company didn’t have enough capital to ramp-up very quickly.
There are several alternative auto players that have driven this route before, like Zap Automotive, and few have been successful. What Wheego does have is an electric car that’s driveable and in the same price range as the upcoming wave of next-gen electric cars. I fully support as many electric vehicle options as possible for consumers, but Wheego’s LiFe probably won’t end up being an attractive option for most.
For more research on electric cars check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):