Two months ago we went for a ride in the Dodge Circuit EV. We can now say with confidence that it is worth waiting 70+ days to make the shift to the left side of the car, following a brief spin around Cobo Hall in a prototype vehicle during the SAE World Congress here in Detroit.
We got to spend about 15 minutes in the car with John Myers, who works for Chrysler's ENVI and was project lead on the Dodge Circuit EV. Not to take anything away from what Chrysler has done here, but every time we get behind the wheel of an EV, we get the same giddy smile. It will be a long, long time before the thrill of driving an all-electric vehicle wears off. Chrysler isn't the first to realize that building an EV off of a Lotus platform makes for an incredibly fast and fun experience (see also: Tesla Roadster)
We escaped from the dark confines of Cobo Hall onto a decently sunny day and cruised along the river and past the Ren Cen, gunning the Circuit whenever possible. A car like the Circuit does not like to be stuck on roads with 25 mph speed limits, but those roads made up most of the prescribed route. Still, the instant torque of the electric motor is a rush you get to experience all the time in city driving; each time you pull away from a red light and stop sign you're wondering why gasoline engines ever became popular. The trouble is you then have to stop right away, which brings about some pretty strong regenerative braking action, something that Chrysler needs to work on before making the Circuit available for sale. Keep reading about the EV's good and bad qualities after the jump.
Related GallerySAE 2009: Dodge Circuit quick drive
Myers told us that the brakes are just one of the things that will be refined before the Circuit ever makes it to showrooms (and, by the looks of it, this might be the first ENVI out the door). The tight grip that the Circuit's brakes have on the wheels as soon as you take your foot off of the gas acceleration pedal might be changeable by the driver through a knob on the dashboard, Myers said. For now, if you want to keep moving, you need to keep pressing go. No coasting available. Thankfully, since parts of the powertrain in the Circuit are also used in other Chrysler ENVI vehicles - like the all-electric USPS minivan that was unveiled earlier today - work that is done on one model can be applied to others.
The car is noisy, with the hum of the electric motor omnipresent when you're not at a standstill. Luckily, the sound is kind of cool. Part movie spaceship, part oil independence klaxon, the sound fills the cabin and certainly won't appeal to everyone. Of course, NVH (noise, vibration, and harshness) work is also on Chrysler's To Do list, but Myers pointed out that at least the motor is quieter than if the Lotus Circuit has a gasoline engine, so that's something.
Other parts that need work are the incredibly thick sills between the occupants and the doors (you can see what I'm talking about in this picture). The already-tiny cabin is made even smaller and is a challenge to get in and out of, but this isn't Chrysler's fault - blame Lotus and the way they make their cars. Myers said that when the car goes through crash testing, they hope to reduce the width of the sills, but for now they wanted to go with something that was tried and tested.
One last major area that simply must be changed is that the Circuit has basically zero rear visibility. Side mirrors and a tiny tunnel of light for the rearview mirror to see through simply are not enough, and did nothing to make driving this expensive prototype easy with Detroit drivers all around.
Small size. New technology. An (expected) high price tag. A troubled company. Can these things add up to make a car that people want to buy? One anecdote from the drive is worth relaying. While taking a few quick pictures of the car out of doors, a passerby stopped to check it out. He was immediately impressed and said it got two thumbs up from him. Then, he halted. "You can only fit two midgets in there," he said, "And I'm talking midget midgets." Not subtle, but it shows that it didn't take the average man on the street much time to identify one of the major drawbacks to the Circuit. We'll see how the masses respond when they are presented with the full reality of Chrysler's first (?) fully electric car.
Still, for all the faults, this is a very promising vehicle. We'll need to spend some more time with the car to find out how it holds up over longer drives, but the powertrain tech obviously works. This one fact is arguably more important than how the car acts on the road. For now, the Circuit has all sorts of EV appeal, but it'll be up to groups that Chrysler can't control - the Presidential auto task force, the higher-end customer market, etc. - to decide if we ever get to see these promises fulfilled.