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GEM is a tourist attraction

SAN FRANCISCO — It's not the hippest thing on four wheels, but a tiny electric car that is smaller than most golf carts offers a fresh way to see familiar San Francisco landmarks. It also will make you a tourist attraction.

"Oh, way to ride!" a camera-toting out-of-of-towner called out as a friend and I inched down Lombard Street, the San Francisco attraction known as the "crookedest street in the world."

His was one of many odd stares we got from young and old alike as we braved San Francisco's crowded streets in a doorless, fire-engine red Global Electric Motorcar — which maxes out at 29 mph.

If you can park your ego at the curb, the GEM offers a leisurely, unobstructed and more intimate view of San Francisco. It's a great alternative to tourist buses for visitors who crave independence and can manage a self-guided tour.

The staff at Electric Time Car Rentals handed us a map and helped us plan our two-hour, 16-mile itinerary. Leaving the Fisherman's Wharf area, we would head north past Ghirardelli Square to the Golden Gate Bridge, double back to hit Lombard and Coit Tower and finish up with a roll through Chinatown.

We drove along the waterfront and sighed appreciatively as we passed the Palace of Fine Arts. Alcatraz loomed in the distance. We paused to gaze out at the Golden Gate Bridge jutting above the Bay. We made sure to stay in the right lane, but cars still slowed down to ogle us, then sped past.

Low to the ground and as exposed as a motorcycle sidecar, the GEM made for an unnerving but exhilarating ride, with nothing between us and the spectacles awaiting at every turn. As we approached Russian Hill, one of the city's steepest, we had our doubts, but the GEM handled it with ease.

The car did, frighteningly, roll backward when we stopped at the top, and trying to parallel park was a challenge. But these electric cars seem a good option for people who might have trouble getting around on foot, and despite our fears about running out of juice, we made it back with plenty to spare.