MARCO ISLAND — Mike Harris wants to help "spark" a revolution in driving. As the owner of GEM of Marco Island, Harris is working to introduce the electric car to local motorists. His company sells the Gem Electric Motorcar, and is the only dealer in Southwest Florida.
The GEM is well-suited for local driving, and with gas prices climbing ever higher, can represent a saving on transportation expense, while also helping to curb air pollution, he said.
"You're going to use the GEM car in situations where your gas-powered car gets its worst gas mileage," he said, "hopping over to Publix or the club." The GEM has a 25 to 30 mile range on one "tank-full," or charge of the electric batteries, so any destination on Marco is well within reach.
That is as far as you can legally take your GEM, though. As a low-power vehicle, top speed is capped at 25 miles per hour, and the car is legal for roads with a speed limit up to 35 mph.In truth, said Harris, no one uses the GEM as his or her primary vehicle.
"My customer profile is over 60, with some disposable income, and most likely a winter resident," as opposed to a year-round Marco Islander, he said. "But some old guys – and I'm one now, at 65 – want to go faster, not slower."
The GEM lets the driver and passengers tool along out in the open air, almost like riding a motorcycle, or maybe a golf cart, with no side body between them and the world. A variety of options for doors and removable side panels is available. An actual golf cart only goes half as fast, and is not street-legal. And with no engine noise, you cruise in silence, like the difference between a sailboat and a powerboat, and can converse with no interference.While the GEM's 25-mph top end may occasionally make it necessary to pull over onto a side street to let traffic building up behind get past, even on a 35 mph Marco road, the GEM does offer a surprise when you get behind the wheel.The car pops off the line like a go-kart, with surprisingly peppy pickup. Harris, who retired from a career as an electrical engineer, explained that electric motors don't have the issue that combustion engines do, having to build up horsepower before attaining speed. "This motor has torque from the moment you step on" what would otherwise be called the gas pedal.
The four-seater e4 model he offered for a test drive sells for a list price of $13,500, although when asked if he would accept $12,900, Harris was quick to acknowledge he will deal. This e4 comes with what he called "GEM air conditioning," twin fans mounted on the corners of the dashboard, custom wheels and the standard transparent sunroof panel.
Sales on Marco have been slower than he hoped, said Harris, who estimated there are 10 GEMs on the island. He sold 22 vehicles in 2009, his biggest year so far. Naples and Sanibel, he said, are also good markets for the GEM, and Key West, which has about 400 of the vehicles, mostly for rentals, is a good source of service and parts business.
Harris recently delivered a truck-body version of the GEM to the TSA, the Federal Transportation Security Agency, for use at Miami International Airport hauling what they deem hazardous materials.
"The GEM is ideal for use inside buildings or warehouses, because it has zero emissions," he said. "Disney World has a couple they use as ambulances."
One GEM owner on Marco, Ron Smith, is on his second GEM electric car, and, spotted zipping around the hills of the estate area, said it's a lot of fun to drive around the island. The GEM is a great conversation starter, and turns heads when people see it glide by, said Harris.
"People wave, and girls come up and ask about it when I park," he said.
Altogether, 45,000 GEM vehicles are on the streets of this country, said the manufacturer, a division of off-road vehicle maker Polaris. For years, GEM was owned by Chrysler, which sold the business a year ago.
Harris moved from a location on Front Street to a hole-in-the-wall at 994 North Barfield Drive, helping to cut his costs. He "currently" has a two-seater e2, the four-seater e4, and a six-seater e6 model in stock. You can reach GEM of Marco Island at www.marcogem.com, or by calling (239) 595-0193.