ST. PETERSBURG — Bruce Taylor thought he would end up buying a Chevrolet Volt until he drove by the new Suncoast Electric Vehicles store at 2401 Fourth St. N.
"I didn't even know these were available," he said as he checked out a red Wheego Whip LSV. "I'm very pleased to see this in St. Petersburg. This is an option that wasn't available about a week ago."
While the Chevy Volt and Nissan LEAF aren't readily available in Florida yet, St. Petersburg has one of the 30 Wheego dealerships in the nation actively selling electric cars.
Taylor, who bought his first electric car in 1990, is a serious customer. He's not the first to walk into the newly opened 2,000-square-foot store that houses three cars and two trucks. Since the car appeared at the Tampa Bay International Auto show in Tampa last month, a dozen people have placed orders for the Wheego LiFe, a highway car that can travel 100 miles at a speed of 65 mph on one eight-hour charge. It costs $32,995 and qualifies for a $7,500 tax credit.
The LiFe, has a lithium iron battery. (Think back to that periodic table from ninth grade: Li for lithium and Fe for iron.)
The Wheego Whip LSV (low speed vehicle) travels 40 miles at up to 35 mph on an eight-hour charge. It costs $22,785 and qualifies for a 10 percent tax credit.
"We have about 12 to 15 people a day who walk in," said Richard Nimphie, owner and manager of the electric car dealership. "Fifty percent who come in are very, very interested."
There are no complicated charging stations or solar panels that need explaining. A simple yellow cord runs from a 120-volt, three-prong plug in the garage to plug into another outlet, which replaces the gas tank access of the Wheego.
"With us, it's just a question of do you have a plug in your garage?" Nimphie said.
Taylor hasn't placed an order, but he definitely wants to check out the highway car when it hits the store during its grand opening, Jan. 21-24.
The activity and interest has been better than Nimphie expected. After 39 years in retail automotive sales, including a stint as the operating partner for Lexus of Tampa Bay in Tampa and Lexus of Clearwater, Nimphie decided to, uh, shift gears.
"I wanted to get in a business that was cutting edge and making a difference," he said. He considered various eco-friendly car companies but decided to buy the rights to a Wheego franchise after three visits to its Ontario, Calif., plant and one to its Atlanta headquarters. Wheego is led by CEO Mike McQuary, a MindSpring co-founder. Of the 30 dealerships nationwide, just one other is in Florida, in Palm Beach.
"St. Petersburg has a very green attitude," Nimphie said, pointing to the number of residents living downtown who can walk most places they need to go. He sees the Wheego Whip as the perfect car for such urban dwellers.
"It's 18 inches longer than the Smart Car. It has more headroom," Nimphie said. "We had a customer who is 6 feet, 9 inches who sat in (the Wheego) the other day and he had a little head room to spare."
The two trucks at Suncoast Electric Vehicle's showroom have also turned some ecologically minded heads. They are made by California-based Vantage, a company that has been in business 11 years, a dinosaur in the electric car world.
The trucks travel 40 miles on a charge and go up to 35 mph. With a payload of 1,500 pounds they are in line with many major manufacturers' pickups.
"This would be great for a local delivery vehicle, it could be for a college campus, it could be for a municipality," he said.
"I think more and more people are seeing the price of gas going up and they know that something different has to be done," said Taylor, the electric vehicle veteran. "I think change is coming in the perception of these cars."
The attitude is changing, the technology is changing, the prices are changing, but electric cars are actually not new. Clara Ford, wife of Henry, drove one around Dearborn, Mich., from 1916 into the 1930s.
Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or email@example.com.