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GM CAR SPORTS POWER AND EASY HANDLING

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Dozens of drivers gawked unabashedly at the electric-powered General Motors Impact I tested for two days recently. I drove freeways and byways, up steep hills and down winding roads, trying to give a thorough road test to the handmade car, which environmentalists believe is a prototype of the future. Its power and handling were impressive.

I invited an eclectic mix of acquaintances to drive it, too, including retirees, a sports car buff and a long-distance commuter.The unanimous opinion was that this car has great potential but still has significant problems.

"Wow! This has power!" exclaimed Tom Moran, pulling away from a stoplight. The vice president for business affairs at USC, Moran has driven a string of high-performance BMWs for the past dozen or so years on his 80-mile daily round-trip commute to work.

Chances are the Impact and competing electric cars to be marketed by other automakers starting in 1998 in California will be economical, at least for consumers. State rules mandate that 2 percent of cars sold in California in the 1998 model year will have to be totally non-polluting - read: electric - with the percentage rising to 10 percent five years later.

That means carmakers will have to put reasonably low pricetags on EVs, as they call them, or they won't be allowed to sell their other models in the world's largest automobile market.

The series of test drives indicated buyers will likely be impressed with electric cars' power and handling, if not with their driving range.

"That's incredible!" shouted John Amato as he rammed down the accelerator and the Impact rocketed away from a stop sign on steep and twisty Coldwater Canyon Boulevard. "I've always heard electric cars would have no pickup. But this is as hot as the Porsche that I used to drive. And it takes curves beautifully. It has a solid feel."

The problem with jackrabbit starts like the one tried by Amato, assistant headmaster at a prestigious prep school, is that you can't make many of them without running out of power.

The harder you drive the Impact, the fewer miles it will go on a charge.

"This is a car that will teach you fast about how to drive," said psychiatrist Bernard Kirzner, who has satisfied his own heavy foot with a series of sporty cars. "But I think they did a very nice job with it. The power is there when you need it."

Like most folks who drive it, Kirzner was taken aback by the amount of noise and vibration the Impact produces: None.

"At a stop sign, there's no vibration or noise, so you feel like the car has stalled," he laughed.

It can't, of course. There's no engine to stall, no gasoline to pump, not even an ignition switch - because the car has no spark plugs and nothing to ignite. You start it with an electronic code, a bit like using a burglar alarm.

"It's beautiful how quiet it is and how powerful," said retired graphic artist Ben Bernert, 77. "I feel like I'm driving the future. You know what's nice about it? The total silence, the complete quietness when you shut the windows.

The electric car drew a similar response from younger folks, too. "What a neat car!" exclaimed my 19-year-old son.

Today's battery is the biggest hassle on the Impact. The prototype went just 47 miles on the initial charge it came with, far less than the 70 miles it's supposed to cover.

But battery development is the current emphasis both at GM and several independent firms in California, Texas and Japan, with the aim to create a quickly re-chargeable power source that will go 150 miles or more on a single charge.