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Oxygen E MB50 in front of Austin Firestation
Italian-built Oxygen-E MB50 electric motor scooter easily negotiated the hills of urban Austin, Texas. A limited number of these classic-looking scooters are available at this time.

The Next Best Thing to a Ferrrari

EV World motors the rustic streets of old Austin, Italian-style

By Bill Moore

I can't afford a Ferrari. Not that I'd actually want to own one given their less-than-stellar fuel economy. But there is such magic in that name. Just the thought of slipping into one starts the adrenaline pumping.

Someday, however, I might be able to afford the next best thing… from a styling and environmental perspective, at least.

It's called the Oxygen-e and it's made in Padua, Italy.

After following development of this Italian-built machine from the original Lepton, which wasn't a commercial success, to the Cargo, I finally got to drive not one, but two versions of the Oxygen-e, including the classic red personal commuter model called the MB50 -- a handful of which are currently available only through Texas eRider Oxygen's sole distributor, at present, in North America -- and the more imposing, 600 lbs. GVW Cargo, complete with optional cargo carrier.

As I reported in "E to the Max", Austin, Texas entrepreneur Larry Maltz invited Jerome Byrd and me down for the arrival of the eMax 2000 scooter, an event that caused him to loose ten pounds due to stress. Having arranged for eMax founder and owner Thomas Gruebel to fly in from Germany to be on hand to answer our questions, Maltz's plans almost came to naught when U.S. Customs impounded the eMax's as part of a general crackdown on scooters from the Orient, which more and more communities are restricting over child safety concerns.

The former police equipment distributor had fears that we'd arrive in Austin and he'd have nothing to show us, apart from the Oxygen scooters that crowded his West Sixth Street showroom. With a couple dozen Italian machines at our disposal, it wouldn't have been a total loss, but the trip really was about the eMax. Fortunately, Customs released the two pre-production prototypes just a couple days before we arrived, giving Maltz just enough time to uncrate them and prep them for us.

It wouldn't be until the second day of the trip that I finally got the chance to try out the Oxygen scooters, which are currently powered by Evercel nickel zinc batteries. I would ride the classic MB50 model to a luncheon appointment with Austin Energy's Roger Duncan, a distance of maybe two miles or so across the Colorado River. After that, I spent my time driving up and down the hills of some of Austin's historic, century-old residential streets on the big, white Cargo model, but not before photographing the Oxygen-e in front of the local fire station.

Both the MB50 and Cargo models are driven by 1,500 watt motors, which translates into a top speed of 25 mph on level ground. Sprint mode will get you up to 30 mph, but unlike the eMax, you can't change modes while moving. You have to stop the scooter and switch to sprint mode, which is activated by a button with a rabbit icon on it. Jerome Byrd discovered this when riding the red machine. It stopped on him and Larry Maltz had to come to his rescue.

The normal 25 mph limit will give you better range, but I suspect a lot of people will prefer the higher speed.

Because hills are the bete noire of most electric vehicles, I was pleased to see how well both machines performed. The Texas eRider web site indicates Oxygen scooters can handle up to an 18% grade. I don't know how that translates into the hills I climbed, but unless you live in San Francisco, you should be able to negotiate most hills without too much difficulty, provided they are not long grades.

In fact, it was the Oxygen's ability to tackle those hills that won Maltz his first institutional sale.

As he tells it, he approached the University of Texas Parking and Transportation Department about buying a Cargo model. Having tried a variety of transportation options from gasoline motor scooters to electric golf carts, they weren't all that impressed with the machine Maltz was trying to sell them. They said that if a particularly hefty officer on their staff could ride the machine to the top of a notoriously steep hill on campus, they might consider evaluating it.

Undaunted, Maltz handed the Cargo over to the officer who easily climbed the hill. Impressed, University officials asked him leave the scooter for a week so they could further evaluate it. According to effervescent businessman, the University worked up a comprehensive cost analysis of the machine, comparing it to other transportation options and came way so impressed that they immediately bought one.

That order led to multiple orders by the Texas agency responsible for security at the state's many water reservoirs. In fact, every single Oxygen Cargo I saw in the store had already been sold.

Getting up the hill is the big challenge, but coming down also demonstrates the value of regenerative braking, helping slow the machine and recapturing some of the energy spent climbing the hill. I think I felt more comfortable on Oxygen scooters going down hill because of this feature. On the eMax, I'd have to continually ride the brakes. I didn't on the Oxygens.

Of the three scooter types I rode, I liked the MB 50 seat the best. The Cargo model's seat seems too wide to me, but here is ample room under the lockable seat to stow your helmet.

One quirk with the MB50 model is its security fob. In order to start the machine you have to first insert what looks like a computer memory "stick". Once that's in, you can turn the key, switching on the power. This feature is not on the Cargo version and I question its value on the "e". But the first time it prevents someone from stealing your motor scooter, it will have demonstrated its value. Just don't loose the fob.

As with the eMax, we were able to drive pretty much anywhere we wanted in downtown Austin, and as far as we wanted on both days, allowing the scooters to recharge overnight.

So, which motor scooter would I buy? In terms of performance, both machines are fairly closely matched, with the eMax, again taking the nod by a nose. The real deal clincher is likely to be the price difference: it's just damned hard for anyone to compete with China's low production costs.

But there is just something about that classic "Roman Holiday" styling that I find so appealing. I really think the choice for most people will boil down to the dollars, but there will always be a market for fine Italian leather shoes, fire-red Ferraris and classic Italian motor scooters.

Times Article Viewed: 18731
Published: 02-Jul-2005

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