Zipping around town without gas |

Zipping around town without gas

Gregory Crofton, Tahoe Daily Tribune

Chris Wellhausen/Tahoe Daily TribuneYvonne Ponzo takes a neighborhood drive Tuesday morning in her new electric car.

This little red-and-white buggy never fails to turn heads.

Is it a golf cart or four-seat mini? It’s both. The key is that it can run for 35 miles on electricity, create zero emissions and top out at 25 mph.

They are called GEM cars. GEM stands for Global Electric Motor company. It’s based in North Dakota and has built more than 20,000 of the 72-volt, six-battery cars.

George and Yvonne Ponzo, a retired couple who live off Kingsbury Grade, have owned a GEM for a month. Soaring gas prices, air quality concerns and a tax break helped the Ponzos make the decision to invest in the technology.

They bought their GEM while vacationing in Palm Springs. The sticker price was about $9,000, but the dealer had dropped the price for a four-seater to $4,995. With taxes and license, it cost $5,600.

The Ponzos also expect a $500 rebate in their federal income tax return because of the purchase. The cars require the same insurance and registration as other vehicles. They are legal on all roads other than freeways, the Ponzos said.

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“With gas prices as high as what it’s getting, I think you’ll see more and more people with one,” Yvonne Ponzo said. “When we were in the valley my eyes were watering from the stuff in the air. This eliminates that. I feel proud that this is one of the few places that hosts real blue sky. I feel good about that.”

Despite the colder weather, and the fact their GEM has no doors at the moment (doors cost an extra $1,700), the couple has used their GEM for runs to the grocery store and casinos.

Ponzo says she takes her GEM out when traffic is slow and tries to stay on the side of the road.

“I figure I’ll stay on the shoulder, and with the help of my mirrors, I don’t plan to be a hazard to traffic,” she said.

A GEM has two driving modes: turf and road. A flick of the switch to turf limits the car’s power to about 15 mph. Replace its trunk compartment with golf bag holders and it’s ready for the golf course.

The road setting allows the GEM to reach its maximum speed of 25 mph and gives the driver an opportunity to use the headlights, turn signals, windshield wiper and horn.

A GEM may be an ideal vehicle for a family like the Ponzos. They spend four weeks a year working campground and security duty at auto races in Chico. Their GEM, they say, is perfect for zipping around the race area. Because of their work, the couple also owns four ATVs, four golf carts, a large diesel pickup, a Ford Ranger, a Ford Explorer and a trailer.

With the GEM, George Ponzo says he expects to be able to cut one ATV and two golf carts from his garage. His wife quickly chimed in: We only agreed to get it if he “eliminated some of his other toys.”

But what about money?

The verdict is still out for the Ponzos, but they assume the GEM will benefit their pocketbook.

“We’ve only had it here a month; it hasn’t been long enough to determine that,” Yvonne Ponzo said. “But it’s just like plugging in a television set or a computer — it’s just a regular plug that goes into an outlet.”

Steve Shark, who works marketing at GEM, said most of cars are sold to master plan communities “where people have retail and school destinations within a short radius of their home.” GEMs are also used on military bases, golf courses and by people who own a large amount of land.

The GEM dealers nearest to South Lake Tahoe are: Liberty Motors Dodge Chrysler at Grass Valley, Calif.; Folsom Lake Dodge at Folsom, Calif.,; and Lasher Dodge at Sacramento. There are no GEM dealers in Nevada.

— Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at