2007 ZAP! Xebra PK electric truck review

Written December 16, 2006
By Ian Johnston


I've been interested in electric vehicles for a while now. Last Christmas, I test-rode an electric motorcycle called the Electric GPR, based on a Derbi 50cc bike. About a week ago, I heard a story on the radio about a car dealership in Kirkland (near Seattle) called the Green Car Company. The interviewer was mostly interested in the Smart Cars they sell. However, in looking at their website, I quickly became interested in the the ZAP! Xebra PK electric truck, which is the subject of this review.

I'm interested in a small electric truck like this because I'd like to have a little truck for utility purposes, and it would scratch both my "green freak" itch, and my "tech nerd" itch at the same time if it were electrically-powered. I was considering your basic used Toyota pickup, but this thing is way cooler.

Click here for a gallery of all the pictures I took for this review.

First Impressions

I stand about 6' 1" in this picture, to give you a sense of scale.
My first thought upon seeing the PK in person was, "This thing is tiny!" For indeed, it is. According to the spec sheet, the Xebra PK is only 4'5" wide. That's about 2/3 the width (or less) of a normal small car (the Mini Cooper is 6'4" wide, for instance). At 10'8" long, it's more than a foot shorter than a Mini! The spec sheet claims that the Xebra's height is 5'11", but that's clearly not the case, as you can see from the picture on the right.

After getting over how small it is, I was struck by the external appearance of good fit and finish, and the lack of it once you get below the surface. The Green Car Co. had one of the PKs sitting in their building with the truck bed tilted up (the bed tilts like a dumptruck, and all three walls fold down to make it a flatbed; see pictures below). Under the bed, I could see that the hooks which hold down the bed were clearly welded on after everything was painted, and they appeared to be unfinished -- that would be a problem to fix early on if you experience rain or salted roads.

Spartan interior; huge wheelwell
The cabin similarly had a thin and wobbly feel to it. It looks good in pictures, but when you actually get in there and touch anything, it feels weak compared to what the US car market has taught us to expect. It's not a problem, but the cab makes the truck feel cheap. Of course, it is cheap ("inexpensive," admonished my salesman, with a smile on his face). The $11,900 list price is amazingly inexpensive for any electric vehicle bigger than a scooter.

Sitting in the cab, it was obvious that I'm about the biggest person it will accomodate. My shoulder was brushing the pillar behind the seat, and my hair was brushing the headliner. I'm not a small person, but at 6'1" tall and 220 lbs, I'm far from the biggest person I know.

The pedals are strangely arranged, due to the centrally-located front wheel well. Because the wheel well has to be V-shaped to accomodate the turning of the wheel, the pedals are pushed drastically left of where you expect to find them. There are only two: accelerator and brake, but the accelerator is where your foot would naturally find the brake in a normal car, and the brake is where you'd expect to slam down on a clutch pedal.

Sidewalls folded down. Note the covered taillights.
The bed of the truck is fairly basic. The sidewalls are latched up to the arch over the front of the bed, and the back gate latches on each side to the sidewalls. All latch-points are secured with spring-loaded handles, which seemed secure enough. That includes the latches which hold down the bed at the front, to keep it from tilting back.

When the sidewalls are folded down, they don't quite fold flat, due to some tall rubber bumpers which prevent them from hitting the truck's body. If you wanted to carry big flat things with the sidewalls folded down, you might need to put in some kind of spacer. Travelling on the road with all the walls folded down will be both illegal and unwise, as the back gate covers the signal lights and license plate area. The bugs obviously haven't all been worked out on the flatbed functionality, for on-road use.

Driving Impressions

My salesman (who I came to think of as Smilin' Jim) drove me out for the first leg of the test-drive. He showed me how to turn it on:

  1. Master switch on
  2. Transmission switch in neutral
  3. Key in, and turn all the way to a momentary "start" position
  4. Parking brake completely released
  5. Transmission switch to Forward
  6. Gas it and go

That center headlight is always on. The normal headlights are switched.

He couldn't explain to me why it was necessary to "start" the engine, but I theorize that it's the action which energizes the main relay. It's also another step which is both familiar to gasoline engine drivers, and provides an interlock to make sure you really want to apply hot hot electrons to the motor.

Putting on our seatbelts had a Keystone Kops flavor, as we couldn't both do it at once -- the cab is too narrow. We took turns leaning away from the centrally-mounted seatbelt buckles (right where you expect them) to click the belts into place.

We pulled out into traffic, and I was impressed by the acceleration the little truck was capable of. We could hear the typical electric motor whine as we accelerated along the level road. Smilin' Jim called out speeds as we reached them, and it plateaued right at 40 MPH, as expected. The speedometer is labelled in KPH on the outer scale, and MPH on the inner scale. Obviously (and understandably) the Chinese parts which went into this convey the thinking that US drivers are crazy for still using Imperial units.

There's no shifting involved with the Xebra PK, as the motor is geared straight to the rear differential. There's a "transmission switch" on the dash, which controls whether you go forward or backward when you press on the accelerator. To go backward, you switch to R, and press the Reverse button, presumably as a safeguard against doing it accidentally. The switch is a simple rotary, with Neutral as the middle position. It wouldn't be hard to accidentally switch to Reverse, so the additional Reverse button makes sense.

We drove for 3 minutes, and Jim pulled a U turn in a cul-de-sac. We traded places, putting me in the driver's seat.

Note how far over the pedals are; the seats are very close together as well.

Almost the first thing that happened once I started driving is the accelerator pedal got stuck down, possibly because of my big stompy boots. It snapped back after a second. The brakes felt underpowered compared to a modern power-brake equipped car, but I quickly got used to them.

Jim said it has disc brakes on all three wheels, although they're not power-assisted. He had demonstrated on his driving leg that with sufficient motivation, the brakes would lock up, so they're up to stopping the truck. I was slightly concerned that with only one front wheel, braking power is practically reduced over a four-wheeled vehicle, since weight transfers sharply to the front under braking. Clearly, it would be safest to leave extra braking distance with a load, until performance was clearly established. The Xebra PK doesn't have ABS, nor can it be ordered as an option.

The instrumentation is basic: a large voltmeter on the left, measuring from 30 to 120 volts, and a speedometer on the right, measuring from 0 to 60 MPH. The speedometer includes a backlit LCD odometer and trip odometer. There's a no-name AM/FM cassette deck included in the purchase price, although I didn't turn it on.

Jim directed me to hang a left to head up a hill, and see how it did. He urged me to turn without stopping, but I (safety maniac that I am) decided to wait for some oncoming cars -- I didn't know how the truck would react to a sharp turn, and was afraid I'd get the nose plowing into the pavement (I needn't have worried, as it turns out). His reasoning was thus: any momentum lost would hurt us when it came time to climb the hill. He was right. The hill started a couple hundred feet beyond the turn, and the truck had only gotten up to about 20 MPH by the time we hit it.

The motor strained, but all it could really do was make a comical winding-down noise, and we averaged about 17 MPH up the hill, which was perhaps a 30% grade. It obviously would have done better with just one person in the cab. Smilin' Jim told me that the Xebra models are equipped with a 300 amp controller, but that his company was going to start supplying them with 450 amp controllers. This surprised me, as the Electric GPR motorcycle I'd ridden had a 450 amp controller, which was considered barely adequate -- I wonder if the considerable difference in motors makes comparisons impossible. In any case, a 450A controller would greatly assist with climing hills, although that is offset by decreasing the range on a charge.

We turned into a community college parking lot, and passed over a number of speed bumps. The PK handled these well enough, but one of the bumps was apparently steeper than the others, and some hard part of the front end touched down with a bonk. I winced internally, but Smilin' Jim didn't seem phased.

On the way back down the hill, we surpassed 40 MPH, but only just barely, and then it was time to start braking. The brakes were certainly adequate to the task. They smelled noticeably by the bottom of the hill, although they hadn't been strenuously applied. Then I noticed that the odometer read 10 miles, so a bit of brake smell is to be expected.

On one of the turns, I tried turning more aggressively, to see what would happen. The truck just turned without drama, although I did notice the front wheel "pushing" a little bit -- sliding rather than turning when pressed too hard. It's a common malady with sidecar rigs. To my mind, it's preferrable to gripping and overturning the vehicle, honestly.

Technical Impressions

Truck bed tilted back

This vehicle was very clearly made in China. As I mentioned above, the cab exuded cheapness, although not distractingly so. There were numerous other little places where things had been done with no attention to detail. They were acceptable, but the current state of the car market made them look crude and amateurish in comparison.

For instance, the hooks which help latch down the truck bed were welded on after it'd all been painted, and no further rustproofing had been done. It was just a bare, blackened weld. Part of a rear wheel well had clearly been trimmed away with tinsnips when it didn't fit.

There were numerous little design things which suggested the car had been rushed, or not thoroughly thought through. As an example, there was an emergency cutoff switch in case of an electrical fire, but it was tucked so far underneath the driver's seat that it was nearly impossible for me to touch it, much less apply any pressure to it. With a little more thought for the intended drivers (ie, Americans), the cab could have been made fractionally larger, but thereby afforded considerably greater comfort to a wider range of drivers. If this truck were destined for Asian shores, the size would be perfect.

Batteries on left; charger at top; controller at bottom; blue motor on right

I didn't get a close look at the batteries and motor, but the cursory glance I gave them suggested this was not an area they'd scrimped in. That's very good, as the motor needs to be a high-quality item if you expect to get any service life out of it. The batteries and controller likewise must be of reasonable quality or you're likely to suffer a failure.

There were definitely good design aspects, although I realize I've mostly called attention to the bad ones. The handling of the truck was quite pleasant, and there was no problem associated with driving that I could find (except as called out above, of course). The charger is located under the bed of the truck, along with the batteries, which seem very well situated. Carry a cord with you, and you could plug in and charge up nearly anywhere.

The motor controller, being a 300 amp unit, seems undersized to me. I would have assumed, after my motorcycle experience, that such a large vehicle would carry a 1000A controller, not a 300. No matter what, the upgrade to a 450A controller would be welcome, and would considerably assist hill climing and acceleration. The addition of regenerative braking would also be very welcome, although that might require a bit of engineering; it probably wouldn't just be a drop-in controller replacement.

Ignore the front wheel, and it looks like any little truck.

An electric car, by its very nature, is likely to be a low-maintenance device. There are no valves to adjust, no oil to change, and very few moving parts compared to an internal-combustion car. If the engineering and design is done properly, normal maintenance should consist of ensuring the batteries remain charged, and keeping the tires inflated. I would expect this car (again, assuming it was done correctly to start with) to go tens of thousands of miles before requiring much maintenance. And then, it's most likely to be new tires, or possibly battery replacement. Eventually, you might want to change the oil in the differential.

Legal Impressions

VIN placard showing "Type: Motorcycle" in the upper right corner

As far as I can tell, the ZAP! Xebra PK is not a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle, or NEV. NEVs are speed-limited to 25 MPH (or so), and suitable for strictly residential travel. Since NEVs are a federally defined vehicle type, I suspect the Xebra would have to say NEV on it somewhere if it were one.

The Xebra appears to be classified as a motorcycle, particularly according to its VIN placard. This has some interesting ramifications.

First, it means that anyone who wants to drive one will probably need to meet their state's requirements for a motorcycle license. In Washington state, there are two classificiations: 2-wheeled motorcycles, and 3-wheeled motorcycles. If you hold a motorcycle license, it's most likely to be a 2-wheel-only license unless you did something specifically to get or keep yourself licensed for both or for three-wheeled bikes.

The classifications in Washington changed a few years ago, and those lucky enough to hear about it in time could grandfather themselves for the combined license -- it used to be that there was no separate 3-wheeled classification. I am fortunate enough to have filed the grandfather paperwork, so I am licensed for both.

In Washington, certified training (such as that offered by the Evergreen Safety Council and other organizations) in either 2- or 3-wheeled motorcycles is enough to get you your license without further testing. Other states' requirements will be different.

Another interesting question is whether or not a Xebra owner would be legally compelled to wear a DOT certified helmet while operating the vehicle. Obviously, to look at it, a helmet shouldn't be required. It's fully enclosed, and offers crash protection similar to that of a VW Bug from long ago. However, in states where helmets are required, its classification as a motorcycle could mean that an angry officer of the law could set you up for a large fine if you're not wearing a helmet.

Being legally classified as a motorcycle also means that the Xebra PK has not undergone any crash testing, and is not required to conform to any crash-worthiness standards. From what I saw of the front structure, I wouldn't trust the truck to protect me in any collision over about 10 MPH.

For what it's worth, I Am Not A Laywer. My thoughts on legality are strictly man-on-the-street level, and if you have any questions, you should retain your own legal council.

Final Thoughts

With a claimed range of 40 miles, and a self-limited speed of 40 MPH, the ZAP! Xebra is still a very limited vehicle. However, for those tasks within its limitations, it is also very tempting. Twelve thousand dollars is a very low price-point for any electric car -- it's a low price point for a gasoline car! Electric technology may be all sorts of things, but it's never been cheap.

For my particular needs, the ZAP! Xebra PK actually appears to be a good fit. I need to run to Home Depot (or similar), to the dump, or to a storage unit. None of those trips involves the freeway, and with good route planning, they'll only enounter gradual hills. Both my house and my workplace afford charging (I feel very grateful to work for a company with multiple dedicated electric vehicle charging stations in its parking garage).

I can't say for certain that I'll own one soon, but it's looking good as of right now. I have more research to do, and I need to reconcile myself to keeping or selling the sidecar rig, which this would replace. Certainly the idea of owning an electric truck is very appealing, and the price isn't a terrible obstacle.

Update, 2 Days Later

After having the Xebra PK percolate in my brain for a few days, some problems started to take on greater importance to me, and I started looking around on the Internet. The most important thing was I found xebraworld.com, an enthusiast's site, recently established.

There, I discovered that my imagined misgivings were in fact not so imaginary. Notably, the "indicated 40 MPH" was actually 32 MPH (it didn't feel like 40 at the time, but I was willing to put that down to having never driven an electric vehicle before). Major pieces (like the charger) falling off. Rainwater getting into electronics and destroying them ("Just avoid driving it in the rain." In Seattle?). A complete lack of any service manual, and only a user-generated wiring diagram.

I started considering whether I was willing to get into a "perpetual fixer" for $12,000, and it didn't take long for the answer to become "no." I'm not interested in spending such a large amount of money on anything that needs perpetual tending.

For a car that costs that many dollars, I expect something that's going to work for a year or two, at least. The Xebra PK appears to be similar in quality to a Trabant or a Yugo. If it cost $5000, that might be an acceptable compromise.

So, despite the positive tone in the main body of the review, I no longer think the Xebra PK is worth what they're asking for it. I still want an electric truck, but I'll probably have to build my own to get what I actually want for a price I can afford.

Unfortunately, electric vehicles have not yet arrived.

Update, weeks later

After trading emails with the person who runs xebraworld.com, I have yet more thoughts. He raised some interesting points about the Xebra, people who drive them, and perceived quality.

Electric vehicles have not yet arrived. He disagrees with me on this point, arguing that they have in fact arrived. He said that despite my theory that only EV gearheads would want a Xebra, most of his owners are just regular folks for whom it's important to be driving an EV, and the Xebra is a cheap production EV which fills that need. I don't honestly see the difference, but I'll agree that the Xebra has arrived for that small portion of the population. For most people, it's not there yet. If you have a social conscience which compels you to want an EV, the Xebra is a good choice. If you want an EV which is also trouble-free and safe in traffic (ie, crash-worthiness, top speed, roll-over safety, etc.), I don't believe the Xebra is the right thing.

Top speed. He tells me that his Xebra tops out at 42 MPH. I can't argue with this, obviously I haven't driven his Xebra. I got the 30 MPH figure from one of his own users, based on a GPS reading. I didn't compare my test vehicle with any known-good standard, so I can't say for sure what its top speed was. It didn't feel like 40 MPH to me, but I can't tell you what the real top speed was.

Electronics burning out in the rain. This was apparently an early-production issue, which has been fixed in current-production models. Good on ZAP! for fixing the issue.

Any problems are covered by the warranty (ie, it's not a money-pit). I disagree that "problems are covered by the warranty" and "trouble-free" mean the same thing, which was what he seemed to be implying. If I were to buy a Xebra PK and it developed a problem covered by the warranty (assuming it still rolled safely down the road), I'd have to spend over an hour driving it back to the dealership in Kirkland. That's minimum three hours out of my life (one hour there, half hour home on a motorcycle, half hour back to pick it up later, and an hour back home, all assuming no traffic) which I would not have had to spend had the problem simply not arisen in the first place. If it was no longer safe to drive, I'd have to hire a flatbed tow truck to get it back to the dealership. Those are not acceptable options.

Of course, the other side of this is that any problems which arose with the vehicle would almost certainly be within my own power to fix, weird Chinese factory parts aside. So, I am not personally concerned about the issue of time wasted on warranty service trips, but it's one of the things which prevents me from recommending it to "normal" drivers.

Another correspondent also raised the possibility that, because it's a motorcycle, the Xebra PK may not be covered under lemon laws. I'm guessing this varies by state, and I haven't checked into it, but that would be an important consideration, particularly on a vehicle which is known to have issues from the factory. Do your research on this point.

So, after my correspondence, I agree I was wrong about the rain-damaged electronics, but that's the only thing I'd really change. It still sounds like these cars are good for a tiny sliver of US drivers (and I'm very nearly in that sliver), but they're unsuitable for most people.

If you've read through all this and still want one, you're in that sliver. Go for it! I hope I've shed some light on some of the issues you may face. If you've read through all this and a Xebra sounds unappealing, you should probably avoid them. There will be better and better electric cars coming down the pike in the next few years, and waiting a little while may net you considerable gains in safety, performance and quality.

Created by Ian Johnston. Questions? Please mail me at reaper at obairlann dot net.