Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Never Say NEV-er

Well, we've finally done it...we've succumbed to the final requirement for being a true Celebrationite. My husband and I are now the proud owners of a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle, or NEV for short. If you've never seen one, here is an example (ours is white like the one pictured below, but it has green canvas doors).

NEVs are an irrevocable part of the public's perception of Celebration. Despite the reality that we are just as fossil-fuel dependent as any other community (and perhaps even more so, considering the high population of Hummers), people often picture us as zipping around on Segways or maneuvering our glorified golf carts down the street. Yes, there are quite a few NEV owners here in town (although Segways are on the endangered list), but they're not a replacement for cars. They're more of a convenient novelty.

Actually, comparing a NEV to a golf cart is not quite accurate. NEVs are eletrically powered, and are light "plastic" vehicles, but they are street legal on roads with a limit of 35 m.p.h. or below. and they require a license plate and registration just like a car. They can be driven almost anywhere within Celebration, with the exception of certain parts of Celebration Blvd. where the speed limit is 40 m.p.h. We had one suicidal resident who drove hers across 192 to the Publix, but I wouldn't recommend that for many reasons. First of all, it's not legal because the limit on 192 is 45 m.p.h. But even if you don't mind being a scofflaw, you're certifiably insane if you're willing to challenge the manic tourists in their rental vans on the 192 Speedway. NEVs are cute, but they have no airbags, no passenger cage...heck, no protection at all, other than token seatbelts.

While Duloc Manor was being built, my husband and I debated whether or not to purchase a NEV. Despite the old legend, new homes in Celebration do not come complete with a brand spanking new NEV in the garage. We visited NEVrland, the dealership downtown, and got some prices and further information. But after bantering it back and forth, we just couldn't justify the additional expense.

During the time span while we were bi-weekly "commuters," shuttling back and forth between Illinois and Florida, we rented a car via Priceline whenever we were in town. When we finally made the Big Move last year, we drove Canyonero, my Aztek, down to Florida and became a one-car family. Once again, we talked about buying a NEV. It made sense on one level...if one of us was somewhere in town, the other would still have access to the car. But that situation didn't come up too often, and when it did, we were able to work around it. We kept an eye out for a reasonable used NEV, but the ones that met our criteria (four seater rather than two, and equipped with a cover so we wouldn't get soaked in the frequent Florida thunderstorms) were a little out of our price range.

The possibility of becoming NEV owners had been on the back burner for a while. Then, one day I noticed a four-seater being advertised on the Front Porch (the Celebration intranet). It was six years old, but it had a new cover, and the price had been reduced from $5200 to $4500. We figured that it was worth a look-see. We called up the sellers, who lived in North Village, and stopped over to take a look at the vehicle.

It was a nice little white NEV with a recently installed green canvas cover. It had a storage container on the back, and even a radio/CD player. I had no idea what to look for to ensure that it was in good shape, but it seemed to run just fine. My husband and I took it for a test drive, and the only thing that threw us was the steering and brakes, both of which are manual. But once we got used to that, it was fun zipping around in the little NEV.

We decided that we would talk to some of our NEV-owning friends to get their opinions. The sellers had another interested party who was supposed to return the following day, so we planned to make some phone calls and decide that evening. The sellers had told us that the vehicle had been serviced at Wheelz (the local NEV shop, which took over NEVrland's location when they closed a coupld of tears ago). On the way home, we stopped in to see if they thought it was in good shape.

The vehicle got a clean bill of health from Wheelz, and everyone we know gave their NEVs a big thumbs-up. But we were still not quite sure whether we wanted to take the plunge, so we decided to leave it up to chance. We asked the sellers to contact us if the other party ended up not buying it.

A few days passed and we didn't hear anything, so we figured that the NEV was long gone. Then we got a call informing us that it was still available; the other person had never followed up. At this point, my husband had gone back to Chicago for the week, so I called him to discuss a final decision. He was somewhat ambivalent, but I liked the idea of having a new toy. After chatting back and forth, we decided to take the plunge.

I drove out to North Village to finalize the purchase and pick up the NEV. Since hubby was out of town, the sellers drove the NEV to Duloc Manor and then I gave them a ride back home. I was anxious to take my new vehicle for a spin, but my desire was tempered by the fact that it wasn't insured or licensed. My husband informed me that a new purchase would be automatically covered by our auto policy during a grace period while we finalized coverage. That just left the license plate, and the police presence in Celebration is spotty at best, so I knew that it wasn't in too much danger of being pulled over.

I decided to take the risk and run down to Water Tower Place (a strip mall at the entrance to town) for a cup of coffee at P.J.'s. In the worst case, I figured they might cut me some slack if I showed them the title and receipt. The DMV was already closed for the day, so my hands were tied.

My only concern was the fact that the charge was dropping rapidly as I tooled along. As the power drained, the NEV's top speed dwindled. Granted, most of them don't go much over 25 m.p.h. even in the best of circumstances, but soon I was down to about 20. I had visions of pulling a "Fred Flintsone" and giving it some power with my pumping feet.

Since I had no clue whether the rapid drainage was normal or what I could do to remedy it, I called Wheelz to set up a service appointment. They offer an 11 point service check that includes checking the battery water and other maintenance items, so I figured that would get us off to a good start.

The technician makes house calls, so on the appointed morning he rolled up to the curb and began his work on the little vehicle. He was familiar with it already, since he serviced it for the former owners. It turns out that the rapid drainage was caused by severely under-inflated tires, which was easily remedied. The battery power levels were also uneven, so he explained how to fix that during the charging process. Other than that, everything was in good shape for a six year old vehicle.

Now the NEV was ready to roll, but it still needed its license plate. We had run into a glitch with the insurance; all of our friends recommended State Farm, which is the only company that will insure NEVs as recreational vehicles, resulting in hefty discount. But it was a catch get the discount, we would need to change our auto policy to State Farm, and their regular coverage rate was much more than we are currently paying. We ended up staying with our current company and paying a high premium for the NEV, since it was still cheaper than making the switch.

Once that was straightened out, it was off to the DMV in Kissimmee for a license plate. It's such a pain to make the trip down 192, but there no avoiding it. In Illinois, you can get your plates at a currency exchange; even though there is a surcharge, it's well worth the convenience. But in Florida, there is apparently no such have to pay a visit to Selma and Patty Bouvier.

The office was more crowded that usual, so I had time to study the overwhelming array of options mounted on the wall. Florida has dozens upon dozens of plate designs; Canyonero, my Aztek, as a panther plate, but I had really wanted a spay/neuter design. Unfortunately, at the time I hadn't realized that I would have to ask for an Animal Friend plate so I was told that there was no such design. This time I was prepared, and I quickly located the appropriate license (ironically, hanging right above the panther).

Although long, the line moved pretty quickly, and soon I was ponying up a hefty tax and registration fee. Then the plate was in my hot little hands and I was off to Celebration to make my NEV legal.

That was a little over a week ago, and since that time, my husband and I have had a lot of fun tooling around town in our toy. I've driven it to P.J.'s many times when a granita urge strikes, and we take it to church and to visit friends. Canyonero has relinquished its spot on the driveway; now, it lives in front while the NEV sucks juice from the garage outlet.

Speaking of Canyonero, you may have guessed that I enjoy naming inanimate objects. The habit of naming cars started when I was a tot and my mother slapped a moniker onto all of her clunkers. Once I reached driving age, I continued the tradition by dubbing my first car Christine (yes, it was a Plymouth Fury). Canyonero, named after the SUV of Simpsons fame, is just the latest in a long line of named vehicles.

I wasn't sure what to call the NEV, although my husband was referring to it as the Green Monster in reference to its canvas cover. But that didn't seem quite right...then suddenly the name came to me: Crush! Why not name it after the turtle dude in "Finding Nemo"? After all, it has a lot in common with the character: it is old, has a green shell, and doesn't go very fast.

Of course, "fast" is a relative term. When it is all charged up, it typically hovers between 23 and 24 m.p.h., sometimes hitting 25 for brief periods. Since the speed limit is 25, that should be good enough for the streets of Celebration. Unfortunately, many drivers have a need for speed, and they take anything below 35-40 as a personal insult, regardless of the legal limit. I haven't had a car push me yet, but I've come very close. Worse yet, when I drive to Water Tower Place, there is a stretch where the speed limit goes up to 35. It's legal to drive a NEV there, but it also borders on suicidal. In just over a week, I've been on the receiving end of more road rage than I ever knew existed. The cars whip around poor little Crush as soon as the street breaks into two lanes. Often, they are going to WTP too, so they whip back in front of me again. I snicker at the poetic justice when I catch up with them at the gauntlet of red lights.

I've encountered the flipside of the coin, too; I'm usually the tailgatee, but I've come awfully close to tailgating others myself...others in cars. Several times, I've been caught behind looky loos putzing along at 10 or 15 m.p.h. I force myself to be patient and resist the urge to subject them to Crush's horn, which has a remarkable volume level for such a modest vehicle.

In addition to the fun (and danger) of buzzing around town in an electric vehicle, I learned that NEVs elicit interesting tourist comments. On Sunday morning, I was sitting in Crush, waiting for my husband to purchase our pre-church Barnie's coffees. Two tourists were crossing the road, and one pointed to my vehicle and asked the other, "What's that?" "Oh, that's a golf cart," the other responded knowingly. "You rent those to drive around here."

But amusing comments aside, NEVs are a great form of local transportation. It took us a while, but we have finally assimilated...the NEV is an integral part of the Celebration landscape, and our driveway now fits right into the picture.

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