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[whitespace] Golf Cart

No Ifs, Ands or Putts

Following not-so-rapidly on the heels of in-line skates and razors is the latest rage in transportation--golf carts!

By Kelly Luker

BEING A LEADER in must-have toys and must-do trends is a damn tough job. For the past 20 years, the world has looked to Silicon Valley for breakthroughs like the digital revolution, the "dot" in dotcom and the right to show up to one's office in sandals and sleepwear.

However, we may best be known for our contribution to the nadir of transportation--the space-hogging, gas-guzzling, totally useless SUV.

Although Detroit might have invented it, the off-road vehicle trapped on six lanes of gridlocked traffic has become symbolic of all that is right and wrong with San Jose.

Perhaps the world is ready for that retro-feelgood philosophy of less is more, smaller is better when it comes to getting from one place to the next. The folks at Hartzheim Dodge on Capitol Expressway must think so. For there on the lot, sandwiched between the Caravans and Neons, are at least a dozen shiny golf carts waiting to find a home.

I am not sure where golf carts come from--maybe the stork brings them--but I don't recall ever seeing so many on display at a just-plain-folks dealership. Wandering into the showroom, I feel a bit like an unlucky insect that just landed on the surface of a koi pond. Within seconds, a half-dozen car salespeople have perked up and begun circling me with interest. But they quickly melt away in a cloud of cologne as I explain my purpose, leaving one unlucky employee to answer my questions.

"These aren't golf carts," explains salesperson Rocky Taleb, quickly correcting one foolish misconception. "They're Neighborhood Electric Vehicles."

Taleb looks doubtfully over his Lilliputian fleet. "They've been here two weeks and we still don't even have any literature on them."

Since I am not money on the hoof, and am probably taking valuable space from someone who is, I am passed from one hapless Hartzheim employee to another, each having even less information about the new, new thing. Finally I make it to the Cheese himself, General Manager Glenn Hartzheim.

"Don't call them golf carts," admonishes Hartzheim, when I slip up again. "People would get really mad at you."

The "people" Hartzheim refers to would be the people at Global Electric Motorcars, a subsidiary of DaimlerChrysler.

According to GEM's website, the golf cart thingie is actually a Low-Speed/Neighborhood Electric Vehicle, and by their reckoning is putt-putting through the doors of success at breakneck speed. While only 480 were manufactured in 1998, production leapt to 500 a month by June 2000.

And why not? They're street-legal (as long as that particular street's speed limit is 35mph or below), they get 35 miles to the charge, they barrel along at a respectable 25mph, they're no more expensive then a so last year Harley-Davidson (around 10 grand) and they have almost all the accoutrements a fashionable ride should sport: turn signals, wiper blades and, of course, seat belts.

Most importantly, the LS/NEV fills another, less altruistic, purpose: By 2003, "Zero Emission Vehicles"--electric cars--must make up at least 3 percent of auto dealership sales. Technology's still lagging in this area; hence, look for a lot more golf carts, er, LS/NEVs lining Auto Row.

The LS/NEV's success is all a matter of marketing and can-do attitude, which Hartzheim has in abundance.

"I've got one parked in my garage right now!" boasts the general manager. "I used it all around the Almaden Valley."

I want to feel what he feels. I, too, want the wind in my hair. Hartzheim relents and calls a salesperson to accompany me on a test drive.

Unfortunately, the Capitol Expressway is not a 35mph-and-under roadway, so we're forced to make tiny doughnuts around the auto lot. But, no matter, I still feel like Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, just imagining all the hungry, envious looks cast my way.

Spent and exhausted, I push the button to "Off" and climb out through the doorless opening.

By this time next year, the don't-call-'em-golf-carts will be bumper to minibumper along Palo Alto's trendy University Avenue and parked along Willow Glen's Lincoln Street. It's a fashion statement ready to explode.

Or not.

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From the July 19-25, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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