Amp Equinox – Click above for high-res image gallery

"We think it's going to be a Leaf-beater."

The "it" here is the converted Chevrolet Equinox that Amp Electric Vehicles is turning into an electric vehicle (EV) and will begin selling later this year. The speaker is Amp president Steve Burns, who is obviously confident in the product his team is working on in Ohio. Of course, Burns was quick to clarify that he didn't mean the Amp'd Equinox would beat the Nissan Leaf in number of units sold, but in performance. Burns said the Equinox will be able to go further – it has an estimated range of 150 miles – and that it's quicker off the line. It's bigger, too. There's one more way the Equinox "beats" the Leaf: price. The Leaf costs $25,280 after tax incentives, but the Equinox will run you about $50,000 (after taxes). Read on after the jump to see if you agree with the ambitious start-up team that they've got what it takes to compete in today's EV world.


Related GalleryAmp Equinox

Live photos by Sebastian Blanco / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.


The drive

We got to drive the Equinox during the Knockout Stage of the Automotive X-Prize at the Michigan International Speedway (MIS) in Brooklyn, MI while most of the Amp team was busy near the track getting the Amp'd Sky (a converted Saturn Sky) ready for its trials (it passed). The Equinox uses the same powertrain as the Sky, which we got to drive back in January (we also got a miniride in the Equinox at the New York Auto Show). Some of the same problems we experienced in that car are present in the Equinox, namely the excessive noise and a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time feel to the driving experience. We drove the current version of the Amp Equinox, the one that is as close as possible to the one that will be commercially available – the air conditioner, for example, was missing – but it's still not totally right. We were told the car is about 90 percent of the way to finished, and that the Amp team is making constant improvements. Turns out, this is more than just a good way to build an EV. It's vitally important in the Amp Equinox.

Our drive was delayed because Amp was having trouble with the car that morning. We don't know what the problem was, because they didn't know what the problem was. The engineers didn't have a lift or the computers and diagnostic equipment required to figure out the problem, but they believed it was an issue with the electrical system (specifically, the motor controllers), maybe caused by the new helical planetary gear set. There is a lot of software in the Equinox, and it's been giving the engineers some grief. After some time, the team was confident enough to hand over the keys with the instructions to really push the CUV and find out what it can do.



Our first real acceleration caused a slight wiggle in the steering wheel. The gears and the motor were quite audible, due to the fact that the vehicle we drove did not have any sound insulation in place as it was just put together a week earlier. We understand that electric cars don't have a combustion engine along for the ride to drown out the noises a moving vehicle makes, but the Amp Equinox still makes too much rattle for our tastes. Then, after just a few minutes, we lost the speedometer and tachometer. This convinced us to get off the public roads and back onto the secured area on the MIS grounds. Once the dashboard stopped working, the shaking went away, but whether that was coincidence or causation we can't tell.

The Equinox reminds us that different EVs different levels of regenerative braking. In this case, the brakes grab softly, so one-foot driving isn't as responsive as it is in a car like the Tesla Roadster or Mini E. It's kind of possible to drive one-footed if you look far enough ahead, but you'll appreciate the left pedal often. Amp is thinking about adding a driver-selectable regenerative setting to the Equinox, but that's not implemented yet.

Once we got back on the MIS, we had another problem, this one probably caused by our driving. We were roaring through the parking lots and were quite impressed by the zip (read: very good acceleration) this big, zero-emission CUV offered. The Equinox uses two motors, each independently driven by separate controllers. This gives the Equinox a lot of oomph, but it also gave us a little too much confidence. We were told the Amp'd Equinox doesn't ride much lower than the standard version, so we must have been going too fast through the minor inclines and declines of the lot when we accidentally bottomed out on a dip we didn't expect to be as deep as it was. Hey, they told us to push the car hard, but we still feel bad for scraping whatever we did against the asphalt. Still, the car survived and everything seemed in good order when we gave the keys back, which was a good sign.




Amp vehicles on the market

Amp is ready to sell cars now. As a new company, it is doing things a little bit differently. Amp won't have any model year designations the way a typical automaker does. Instead, they will keep making improvements to the small batches they will produce. So, the idea is to build 10, sell them, get feedback and then see if the next batch of ten needs to be changed in any way. The same thing is happening to the prototypes. The current powertrain uses Amp's fifth-generation battery pack, and the company is constantly improving the performance. Most likely, every Amp powertrain built in the near future will use the Remy electric motors, but the gearing could change, depending on performance. For example, if Amp's engineers can't shield the noise to what's acceptable with insulation or sound dampening devices, then they might consider something different.

Amp knows – like most of us – that the first generation of plug-in vehicle drivers are, most likely, willing to accept vehicles that might not be as slick or as refined as any other vehicle. Does Amp think buyers expect EVs to be perform just like ICE vehicles for the next few years? No. But this early adopter pool won't last forever, and Amp will need to refine its products before it dries up. With a lot of EVs coming to market this year and next, people are about to get real options. Having the only all-electric CUV is something that will make Amp stand out ... in 2010 and maybe 2011. Who know what the score will be after that.

Let's finish by comparing the numbers once again (data taken from Amp and Nissan):

Amp Equinox

Nissan Leaf

Top Speed

90 miles per hour

Over 90 mph

0-60 time

Under 8 seconds

Unknown, but maybe 7.5 seconds

Range

"Up to 150 miles per charge (based on usage)"

100 miles (US LA4 mode)

Charge time

220V charging rate of 4 hours (fully discharged), 110V charging rate of 14 Hours (fully discharged)

"quick charger DC 50kW (0 to 80%): less than 30 min; home-use AC200V charger: less than 8 hrs"

Seats

5

5

Cost

$50,000 (after government incentives)

$25,280 (after government incentives)


So, on the face of it, these two vehicles have a lot in common, but that price difference cannot be ignored (to say nothing of the brand recognition differences). Amp is currently selling the all-electric Sky; it has delivered one and is building a second. The Equinox goes on sale at the end of July, and Amp plans to build 10 for customers by the end of the year. A lot of the lessons learned from the Sky project have been put into the Equinox (the Equinox has power steering, for example), but more needs to be done to make it worth it to hand over $50,000 for this CUV. Customers need to know that the sort of problems we experienced during out quick drive at MIS won't happen to them, and that's not guaranteed just yet. We're glad we've got an electric CUV coming to the market, but if the Amp Equinox is a "Leaf beater," we'll be truly surprised.

Speaking of surprises, Burns told us that Amp will race a Sky against a Tesla Roadster soon. Keep an eye out for that video in the near future.


Related GalleryNew York 2010: AMP Electric Equinox

Live photos by Sebastian Blanco / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.