Mountain View Voice

News - November 5, 2010

Company's kit will electrify a Miata

Kleenspeed offers easy conversion from gas engine to a poor man's Tesla

by Daniel DeBolt

Thanks to a local company there's now an alternative to shelling out $100,000 for a Tesla Roadster. It is a kit that will turn the popular Mazda Miata into an electric roadster for less than $20,000.

Kleenspeed, an electric car company based at NASA Ames, will soon be selling the $16,000 kit at kleenspeed.com. It comes with everything needed to convert the world's best-selling sports car, including a new wiring harness and a set of lithium phosphate batteries that give it a claimed 70-mile range.

The test bed for the kit is Kleenspeed's "Eiata," a red 1990 model said to have a bad engine. Kleenspeed bought it for $1,000.

Taking a break from more ambitious efforts to produce an all-new electric car that would sell for $20,000, the company developed the Eiata over one month during the summer with some help from four engineering students.

How does it perform?

The Kleenspeed team was more than happy to hand over the "Eiata" keys to this Voice reporter for a test drive around the empty parking lots of NASA Ames. The first thing you notice is the strange silence when the key is turned on. The Kleenspeed people tell you to just step on the gas pedal.

We had no way to compare it, but the electric motor seems to accelerates about as well as the Miata's original 1.6-liter gas engine, but with a smooth, quiet whine as it revs to its 6500 r.p.m. limit. Revving it that high is futile, however, as torque and horsepower begin to drop off at 3,000 r.p.m. The benefit is having 100 foot-pounds of torque just as soon as the motor begins to spin.

The kit retains the Miata's manual transmission and clutch, and the trademark click-click of the Miata's shift linkage is more audible. Driving the car can be as easy as driving a golf cart, since it can be left in one gear, no shifting required. Kleenspeed claims the car will do 120 miles per hour.

The $10,000 battery pack, split between the trunk and the engine compartment, adds 300 pounds to the car. The original suspension sags under the weight. But even with that ballast at each end it's hard to kill the little Miata's handling abilities. Combine it with the low-speed torque of an electric motor and it begs to be thrown into corners with the rear end sliding, at least at the low speeds we were driving. A well matched set of springs and shocks would do wonders.

Those who are less mechanically inclined may have Kleenspeed install the kit at additional cost. The company says components of the kit, including the motor, should require no maintenance, which means an electric Miata should need little more than new brake pads and tires for tens of thousands of miles.

While Kleenspeed says the Miata has a range of 75 miles, aggressive driving may reduce that to 35 miles, Zeviar said.

All things considered, the Eiata will put a smile on your face with its simple goodness. Perhaps it's the ideal California car for those without $100,000 to spend for a Tesla.

E-mail Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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