Ford Motor Co.'s rotational molded electric car has made its way onto American streets, with the big marketing push to come later this year when it rolls out a second generation of the Think City.
About 400 of the cars have been leased for use in a pilot program in four states, with the most visible push in California and suburban New York. Ford introduced an updated Think City during the Los Angeles auto show in January, and is ramping up for production of up to 3,500 of the vehicles annually. The car is slated for U.S. sales in late 2002.
``The purpose is to test the Think City in the U.S. in all types of niche customer groups,'' said Jonathan Richards, projects manager for Think. ``We want to seed the market, in terms of getting vehicles out there and spreading the word.''
Pivco Industries AS of Aurskog, Norway, created the Think with a six-piece polyethylene body and an ABS roof, but ran out of cash to bring the concept fully to market. Ford bought a majority stake in 1999. The Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker officially uses the punctuation-specific title Th!nk.
Ford introduced the car, along with an assortment of other battery-powered vehicles, in January 2000. Two battery-powered bicycles that were part of the Think line already have come and gone, although the company has stuck with its Think Neighbor, an upscale golf cart engineered to meet federal safety standards for low-speed vehicles and geared toward sales within gated communities.
The Think City already is on sale in Europe, and the Aurskog factory has turned out about 1,000 so far, Richards said. Before bringing it to the United States, though, the company wanted to prepare both the American marketplace and the car for U.S. buyers.
The first Thinks arrived in limited numbers on corporate campuses - including Ford's in Dearborn - last year and through a rental system in San Francisco linking it to the use of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. The company also has made them available for commuters on the campus of Emory University in Atlanta, he said.
The second phase made 170 of the cars available through lease at five Ford dealers in California: in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and two sites in San Diego.
The final stage of the pilot program launched full force early this year, when New York rail commuters could sign up to lease a Think to travel from home to the station. The program came complete with a reserved spot at their suburban station connected to a 220-volt power hookup to recharge the car while it awaited their return.
``This makes these vehicles - at least the European vehicles for now - available at a consumer-driven price to let us test things out,'' Richards said.
The company already is getting feedback, which is going into the redesigned Think City. The second-generation car will meet all U.S. safety standards, including the addition of a passenger-side air bag and features that U.S. consumers expect.
``We're marketing a vehicle that's already pretty new,'' Richards said. ``It's electric, it's small, the exterior is made of an alternate material. This is already a pretty unique car to begin with.''
The new Think will have power windows, locks and mirrors, larger cup holders and a gear shift that is more typical of a U.S. model. The current system shifts using an oversize toggle switch on the dashboard.
The exterior also is undergoing a change, although Ford is not saying at this point what kind of resin will go into the new mix. The Think shown off at Los Angeles and other auto shows had a glossier finish than the rough, matte texture of the existing model, which one executive termed a little ``Coleman-coolerish.''
Ford admits the Think never will become a mainstream hit, despite the modifications. It has a top speed of 56 mph and a range of 53 miles. Its batteries are suited more toward cold or moderate climates, limiting sales in the Southwest. That is why the automaker has made it part of a wider ranging Think research group.
``They are a niche vehicle,'' Richards said. ``They serve the specific needs of some customers, but not others. Our view is that what you'll see in the future is a combination. There will be the low-emission vehicles, the hybrids [combining a gas-powered engine and batteries] and some electrics.
``In the longer term, you'll see fuel cells come to the fore. We all hope they will be a real replacement for the standard internal combustion engine.''