- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Gas crisis? What gas crisis?

With a roar suggesting lion rather than pipsqueak, the diminutive CLEVER car has pulled up to the world marketplace on three wheels — with room for driver and passenger, a top speed of 60 miles per hour and not much of an appetite.

The “compact low-emission vehicle for urban transport,” fueled by natural gas, gets the equivalent of 108 miles per gallon of gas.

The CLEVER has a complex pedigree, indeed. The three-year, $3 million-project car was funded by the European Union, developed by researchers at four universities and fabricated by BMW and a host of airbag, alloy, tire and fuel tank manufacturers in Britain, Germany, Austria and France.

“It’s just fun,” said engineer Matt Barker after piloting a prototype through its inaugural paces at Britain’s University of Bath on Monday.

This drive is skinny and spare — about 3 feet wide and a little less than 10 feet long, touted as the dream car of any frustrated city driver who ever tried to squeeze into a marginal parking spot. And even though it dawdles from zero to 40 mph in seven seconds, about three seconds shy of an eager four-cylinder car, it is on the move.

“It’s a tremendous leap forward,” noted project director Jos Darling.

Somewhere between motorcycle and escape capsule, the CLEVER literally leans into corners thanks to an electronically controlled hydraulic system, which tilts the chassis. The design team hopes the CLEVER, with its reinforced frame, airbags and futuristic lines, will escape the dreary commercial history of microcars, “bubble-mobiles” and three-wheeled concept vehicles, which have come and gone in the past century.

CLEVER fans emphasize its practicality.

“The fact it has a stylish design, can carry a passenger, is not open to the weather and is as high as a conventional car will mean it will be more popular with motorists than previous novel city vehicles,” Mr. Darling noted.

“This is a nice option for consumers, and we applaud the EU for giving people a choice,” said Charlie Garlow, a spokesman for the Washington chapter of the Electric Auto Association.

“Naturally, we question using natural gas for fuel. It may be cleaner and cheaper, but it’s subject, nevertheless, to the vagaries of the oil market and overseas sources. Natural gas is still fossil-based,” said Mr. Garlow, who drives a pickup truck converted to run by electricity.

“We’ve got some mean electric machines out there,” he added.

The group holds its annual races in June at the Mason-Dixon Dragway in Hagerstown, Md.

But will ride-loving Americans take to CLEVER cars or their equivalents? After all, the Forbes magazine “Sexiest Cars 2006” list released yesterday included the Cadillac Escalade, the Dodge Ram Power Wagon and the Chevrolet Corvette Convertible.

“Efficient fuels, new designs — so what? We’ll still figure out a way to add our chrome and mudflaps,” said Pete Ries, a Virginia law-enforcement officer whose personal transportation includes a tricked-out Jeep and an “ape-handled” Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

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