Dodge Circuit EV First Drive

We get behind the wheel of an electric sports car that has serious production potential

Dodge Circuit EV First Drive
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To celebrate Earth Day 2009, Chrysler invited AutoGuide to test drive the Dodge Circuit EV in Detroit.

If you’re not familiar with the vehicle, it has a distinct Lotus shape to it (albeit with some aggressive Dodge bodywork) and is powered by an electric motor. What that means is that it uses no gas and makes zero emissions.

Energy comes from a set of rechargeable lithium-ion battery packs situated behind the passenger compartment – essentially the same place you would expect to find the engine in a vehicle like this.

In total, Chrysler currently has 5 different electric vehicle prototypes, which also include the Jeep Wrangler EV, Jeep Patriot EV, Chrysler Town & Country EV and the Chrysler 200C EV Concept. The Circuit EV, however, is certainly the sexiest of the bunch. And the most fun!

FAST FACTS

1. The Dodge Circuit EV is powered by lithium-ion battery packs and makes 268hp and 295 ft-lbs of torque.

2. Total range is from 150 to 200 miles on a single charge.

3. It is based on a Lotus chassis.

4. The Chrysler Town & Country EV uses the same basic technology and is scheduled to be used by the U.S. Post Office.

A GREEN CAR, BUT ALSO A PERFORMANCE CAR

While electric cars carry with them the stigma of being slow and not very functional, this is certainly not the case with the Circuit. The electric motor is capable of pumping out 268hp and 295 ft-lbs of torque. As a result the car can hit 60 mph in less than 5 seconds. Impressive indeed!

As the short circuit (sorry, couldn’t help myself) Chrysler directed us to consisted of a few miles of city driving, our opportunities to test the vehicle’s performance were limited, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t tromp on the go-pedal a few times.

Off-the-line acceleration is impressive due to the immediately available torque, but the lack of “shift shock” due to there only being one gear, makes for a less engaging driving experience.

Then again, never having to shift the car means that when driving athletically it’s possible to completely concentrate on the steering and the road ahead.

BUT IS IT FUNCTIONAL?

So that more than covers off the “fun” category, but what about functionality? Well, the Circuit is functional as far as the motor is concerned. What is less functional, however, is the car as a platform – which has everything to do with the Lotus donor chassis.

The Circuit has a range of 150 to 200 miles on a charge and can be recharged with a conventional household outlet. This means that for an average day’s use there’s more than enough juice in the tank for commuter duty and a little fun on the side.

It also doesn’t take an engineer to operate the car. The Circuit is as easy to use, if not more so, than a conventional gasoline vehicle. Just place the key in the ignition and turn to engage the batteries; release the parking brake and push the “D” (for drive) button located on the center console. Then just drive it like you would a regular car. There’s an “R” button for reverse and an “N” button to put the car in neutral when parked.

As for the rest of the car, well, it has a tiny Lotus-like cockpit, which is actually fine once you’re inside. Getting in, however, is a different matter. Those familiar with Lotus vehicles would have no problem, but for others it might take more than one try as you choose your approach angle.

WELL-BUILT BUT BASIC INTERIOR

Once you are inside, the interior is Spartan but still well put-together. The two-tone leather dash is wonderful, as are the sporty seats – which are comfortable despite being paper-thin.

John Myers, Chrysler’s ENVI boss, and the man who oversees all of the electric vehicle projects at the company, told us that were the vehicle to make it to market it would no-doubt receive a corporate makeover inside. We hope it wouldn’t get too Dodged-up, but there are certainly a few areas (like the Lotus gauges) that could use some more consumer-grade components.

In fact, calling the gauges Spartan is being generous, as they really have zero style. Dodge didn’t help matters either, opting to leave the fuel gauge alone, meaning it’s always lit up displaying an empty tank. (Although we’re pretty sure they did this on purpose).

The car could also use a decent audio system, rather than the aftermarket one currently in place (just like in a Lotus). After all, you’re going to want some nice tunes as you can’t very well listen to the sound of the engine.

Some wheel-mounted audio controls would be great too, especially on the reverse of the steering wheel as in other Chrysler models.

ADDED WEIGHT MAKES FOR POTENTIALLY TAIL-HEAVY DYNAMICS

Out on the road the lack of the typical internal combustion engine noise isn’t bothersome at all. In fact, the car does make some sound, with a whine not unlike that of a supercharger.

What is interesting (and potentially dangerous) is how quiet the car is when you’re the pedestrian. It’s eerie to watch it roll up in utter silence. You simply cannot hear the car coming.

As for how the car handled, it was certainly up to the task in our around-town drive – but that’s hardy a thorough test of a vehicle’s abilities. The Circuit EV does weigh 2,500 lbs, which is about 500 more than a bare-bones Lotus. Dodge isn’t releasing info on weight distribution but with the lithium-ion battery pack situated in the rear it would be difficult to achieve a 50/50 distribution without piling on weight over the front axle.

Dodge does say that the battery packs are located over the rear axle so that should help minimize any rear-bias. The added heft did make the car feel planted on the asphalt and the batteries should keep the center of gravity quite low. We would definitely recommend some larger and more powerful brakes though.

THE VERDICT

Overall the Dodge Circuit EV is impressively constructed for a prototype vehicle. One might even call it showroom ready. Fit, finish and build-quality are all top-notch and the driving experience is definitely rewarding. The electric motor works flawlessly and we can see no reason that this vehicle shouldn’t be in dealerships soon.

It would make an ideal commuter car for those who believe saving the environment doesn’t mean abandoning fun.

Chrysler still has no immediate plans to bring the Circuit EV to market, however, with the recent announcement that the U.S. Postal service will be getting a fleet of electric Chrysler Town & Country minivans, the company is apparently confident in the durability of this product and committed to having electric vehicles in its lineup.

An electric minivan doesn’t quite have the same appeal, however, and the Circuit helps push he message Dodge wants to send; namely, that a green car can also be a performance car. It’s also a great flagship vehicle, from both a performance and marketing perspective, for a new lineup of EVs.

Myers did say the Circuit is more than just a flash in the pan. It does seem as though the automaker has a genuine plan for future electric vehicles and that allowing media to get behind the wheel of this electric sports car prototype is more than just an Earth Day publicity stunt.

In fact, since the car was first unveiled it has received several updates and continues to be a work-in-progress, with the designers currently redesigning the front end for improved ground-clearance.

Myers said they want to be read if and when a car like the Circuit EV gets the go-ahead.

PLUS

Zero-emissions
Lots of power
Fun to drive Lotus-like dynamics

MINUS

Heavy battery packs
Needs better brakes
Single gear and no-noise operation makes for less engaging driving experience

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