- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 27, 2001

The Sparrow has the agility and efficiency of its feathered counterpart. But it doesn't fly. It rolls, at 70 miles an hour. As you might have guessed, the Sparrow is an electric, one-person vehicle that weighs about 1,350 pounds and is shaped like an oversized high-top sports shoe.
It has started selling in the area and may soon zip by you as you sit in your four-seat sedan or sport utility vehicle in downtown traffic jams in the District or Baltimore.
The vehicle, manufactured by Corbin Motors in Hollister, Calif., was designed specifically for crammed downtowns. If you squeeze in tightly, you can park four Sparrows in a regular parking spot. It was also designed with the lone commuter which most of us are in mind and, therefore, has only one seat.
"This vehicle makes sense for city use," says Devin Battley, owner of Battley Cycles in Gaithersburg. "They're actually fun to drive, and I think that it has a great potential for catching on."
Mr. Battley's is the only dealership in the Virginia-District-Baltimore area that sells the vehicle. About a dozen people have placed orders and are awaiting delivery on the $14,900 vehicles.
Nationwide, about 40 dealerships sell the 8-foot-long, 4-foot-wide Sparrow, of which Corbin Motors has produced 350. About 225 of them are on the road, most of them in California.
Mr. Battley's own Sparrow, which is lime green with purple polka dots, sits on the dealership property and hogs attention away from such macho motorcycles as the Harley-Davidson, which make up the bulk of Mr. Battley's business.
"If you take the car to a store, you're going to meet a lot of people," Mr. Battley says. "You'll get more attention than you would from a $100,000 car I know one person who had to get rid of his because he was so self-conscious about it."
While the Sparrow is different from any other vehicle, it bears a slight resemblance to the VW Beetle with its curves and rounded windshield.
But that's where the similarities end. The Beetle may get good gas mileage, but the Sparrow needs no gas at all the miles-per-gallon question doesn't need to be asked. And unlike hybrid cars, such as Toyota's Prius, which is powered by both an electric motor and a gas-using engine, the Sparrow uses electricity alone to turn its wheels.
Under its bulbous hood sit 13 12-volt batteries that can be charged using a 110-volt or 220-volt outlet, depending on what type of charger the owner buys. Replacing all the batteries costs $1,500, acccording to Mr. Battley.
The 13 batteries create a 156-volt system that powers an electric motor. The motor spins the rear wheel, while the front wheels are in charge of the steering. The chassis is made of a couple of layers of neon-colored Fiberglas, the same material of which motorcycle helmets are made.
While sporting plenty of good qualities, such as fitting in small spaces and not requiring gas, the Sparrow has its limitations. It can go as fast as 70 mph. But it can sustain that speed for only 40 miles, at which time the batteries need recharging.
Also, because the vehicle is still in its infancy it's been in production for two years the manufacturer is constantly improving parts and mechanics, says Tom Corbin, president and CEO of Corbin Motors.
"We're still refining it," Mr. Corbin says. "We've just had to spend time perfecting it."
Mr. Battley's polka-dot Sparrow, for example, has very squeaky brakes, but Mr. Corbin says that problem has been corrected in the vehicles most recently made. All cars are handmade, but Mr. Corbin says he hopes to automate part of the production next year.

While he says large car companies, such as GM and Ford, have struggled in their manufacturing of all-electric cars, Mr. Corbin says he feels confident that the Sparrow and its successor Sparrow II, which is planned for next year, will succeed because the concept is so different from any of the approaches other companies use, he says.
The Sparrow is not trying to be an SUV or even an economy car. When larger companies have attempted to build an electric car, they have modeled it after existing cars, asking that the electric car be as good, big and fast as its gas-driven counterpart. But that isn't possible, Mr. Corbin says.
When he and his engineers started planning the Sparrow about six years ago, the goals were different, he says.
"In cities, you face traffic congestion and parking issues," Mr. Corbin says. "So it doesn't make sense to take a six- or eight-person vehicle to move around a 200-pound person, right? And most people commute alone."
Once the goals were defined, the engineers knew they were working on a commuter car that didn't have to be able to go too far, since many people travel no more than 10-20 miles to get to work. And it only had to be able to seat one person, since most people commute alone. Accommodating only one person would also allow the car to be small enough to fit into tiny parking spaces.
"You can back into the curb It's not like a regular car, where you always find a place that's not quite large enough," Mr. Corbin says.
He places the car in the "auxiliary" vehicle quota. He doesn't expect people to buy a Sparrow and not have another, larger car. But just as consumers bought 200,000 Jet Skis, 700,000 all-terrain vehicles and 500,000 dirt bikes last year, he believes he can make a dent in that market in which vehicles have a very specialized use.
Not only does a prospective Sparrow buyer have to be patient with possible glitches, such as squeaky brake pads, but he or she may also have to be a pioneer at the local Department of Motor Vehicles. The Sparrow federally is classified as a motorcycle, but in some states the classification may be different, Mr. Corbin says.
Regina Williams, spokeswoman at the District's DMV, says the local office will follow whatever the federal guideline is for the car.
"But we have not had anyone attempt to register one of those vehicles. Once we find out from the American Motor Vehicle Association what the national model is, we'll follow that."
Some may also question the safety aspects of driving a 1,300-pound vehicle made out of Fiberglas alongside tractor trailers on the expressway.
But Mr. Battley, who has sold motorcycles for more than two decades, says that just like a Harley-Davidson, the Sparrow is quick and easy to maneuver.
"You avoid accidents instead of being protected," Mr. Battley says. "You wouldn't want to be clobbered by a truck in a motorcycle, either."
The one standard item on the car is its tires. It uses the 13-inch economy-car tires.

Corbin Motors will continue to work to improve the vehicle's mechanics. But the look is such a success that it won't change much with Sparrow II, Mr. Corbin says.
"We buy vehicles to make ourselves feel good. When you buy one of our vehicles you're a celebrity," Mr. Corbin says.
Marshall Bonnie, a dentist in Norfolk, agrees.
"It really attracts a crowd," Mr. Bonnie says. "I can't even go to the grocery store for a banana without people wanting to look at it. And when I have to take my kid to school and have to drive my 'real car,' people [at the practice] get mad."
Mr. Bonnie bought his bright red Sparrow in May and had no problem registering it with the Department of Motor Vehicles in Norfolk, which gave it motorcycle tags and registration.
While he has some complaints, such as the radio reception being poor, Mr. Bonnie is very happy with his purchase. One of his reasons for buying the car was his concern over rising gas prices.
"No one seems to remember 1973," Mr. Bonnie says. "But who knows what's going to happen next [on the world scene]?" Mr. Bonnie says.
"I drive past the gas station, which is great," Mr. Bonnie says. "The only time I went to a gas station was to clean my windshield."

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