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Quick Spin: 2010 Tazzari Zero

It’s rare that I pass up the opportunity to drive a two-seat Italian car, especially one with a name ending in an "i." This is even truer when the vehicle on offer is electric…not that there are many of those.

In fact, this is the only one.

The Tazzari Zero looks like it was ripped from the pages of a Chicco toy catalog. Shorter and barely longer than a Smart Fortwo, it’s hardly a surprise that the funky import is powered by batteries. You just expect them to be Duracells rather than a 300-pound lithium-ion pack.

That may sound like a lot of weight to carry around for the 80 or 90 miles the company says that it will propel the car on a full charge, but since the rest of the Zero weighs only about 900 pounds, it’s not much at all. For comparison, the relatively behemoth Fortwo tips the scales at 1800 pounds, an electric Tesla Roadster, one and a half tons.

Since nearly the entire vehicle is dedicated to passengers, there is plenty of room for a couple of six-footers, with six cubic feet of so-called luggage space available in compartments under the hood and trunk. Interior appointments are Spartan, with lots of plastic, exposed aluminum, a naked steering column and a design as cheeky as the exterior’s. That said, the Zero does come with air conditioning, electric windows, electric mirrors, and what looks like a version of the electronic game Simon on the dashboard.

The big, illuminated blue, green, yellow, and red buttons control the various power modes available, which are Rain, Economy, Standard and Race. Sadly, when I got my hands on the Zero, the battery charge was low and it wouldn’t let me unleash the full fury of the Race mode’s 110 lb-feet of torque, so I had to settle for yellow…not what I would call an auspicious start to a sports car experience.

Still, with such a small burden to move, the car proved to be quite energetic. My drive was confined to the island of Manhattan, so 50 mph was about as fast as I could go, but getting there wasn’t much of a problem. In midtown traffic, the tight suspension, stiff aluminum chassis and direct, unassisted steering of the yellow Zero made mincemeat of the gaps between the similarly colored taxis jockeying for position while their drivers craned their necks to get a look at the automotive insect buzzing among them.

Well, not quite buzzing. The Zero makes more of a woo, woo, woo sound as the mid-mounted electric motor goes about the business of propelling the car and charging the battery when you let up on the accelerator, the regenerative force slowing it so abruptly that brake application is hardly necessary. The driving experience is eerily similar to the Tesla’s, right down to the composite body panels that shake and rattle a bit when you drive over bumps, not to mention the overnight charging times on a 220-volt outlet.

Imported by Fort Worth, Texas-based EVCARCO, the Zero will cost $31,000 when it goes on sale in a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, the first ones will be able to be operated only as low-speed neighborhood electric vehicles – limited to a maximum of 35 mph, depending on the state – until Department of Transportation crash testing is complete and the car is certified for highway use.

Even then, EVCARCO’s CEO, Doug Long, says he expects to sell fewer than 1,000 Zeros a year, clearly seeing it as more of a weekend runabout for well-to-dos looking for a new toy to run around in when the Porsche or SUV is parked, rather than a game-changing next-generation vehicle.

However, such a thing will be hitting the road shortly after the Zero, in the form of an all-electric station wagon with a claimed range of 200 miles. Based on a Romanian-built Dacia - a subsidiary of Renault - the seven passenger EnVision is set to go on sale in June for $37,000 at EVCARCO.

Considering that a Tesla costs $101G and can go a maximum of 236 miles per charge, while automotive giant Nissan’s upcoming $32,820 LEAF will cover only 100 miles between plug-ins, the business plan sounds a little optimistic. Then again, Long, a former Hummer driver, now uses a Zero to commute to his office in the middle of Texas, so anything seems possible these days.