The Strange Zap Electric Three-Wheeler Is a Mid-Aughts Relic That’s Somehow Still Kicking
As it turns out, these enigmatic electric eggs still exist scattered across the United States.
Last week, we spotted a curio that popped up on Facebook Marketplace—a 2006 Zap Xebra, the plucky little three-wheeled electric vehicle shaped like an egg. At the time, we believed it could have been a lonely survivor of a strict recall campaign that destroyed the majority of the population out in the wild. Since then, emails from our readership flooded in with sightings made across the USA. The headline? They're still out there! Today, we'll dive deeper into the history of the Xebra, and talk about the examples our readers have seen out in the wild.
The Zap Xebra was classified as a motorcycle and used technology ancient even for the 2000s. Its lead-acid battery and brushed DC motor were able to propel the Xebra up to 40 miles per hour on the flat, with a range of 40 miles if you drove slowly enough. Capable of carrying up to four people in the sedan form, Zap also released a tiny pickup version and a convertible canvas-topped version called the Xebra Safari. Charging was via a standard 110 V outlet and took about eight hours. Retail price was around $12,000, which at the time would have been enough for a brand-new Nissan Versa.
The cars were built in partnership with manufacturer Qingqi, who built similar vehicles for the Chinese market where small EVs for neighborhood use have long been popular. Performance was weak, with only around 6.7 horsepower on tap. Loading a Xebra up with four passengers or trying to climb a hill would put significant strain on the battery and slow the vehicle to a glacial pace.
Production ran from roughly 2006 to 2009. In the end, the entire 2008 model run was subject to the recall and destruction notice from the NHTSA, over several braking-related issues. These Xebras were unable to stop within 54 feet from a speed of 30 mph, lacked a master cylinder with separate reservoirs for each brake circuit, and had no indicator lamp for brake pressure failures or low fluid. Reportedly, the problem was that a switch away from fiberglass to a steel body in 2008 added too much weight for the brakes to handle, according to reports from Motor Trend in the wake of the recall.
The eventual ruling was that the affected vehicles from that model year must be bought back from customers and destroyed, though complaints as recently as 2016 indicate that Zap didn't necessarily follow through with the order. 2009 became the last year the vehicle was on sale, before Zap slowly began winding up operations. Total production is estimated to be somewhere below 1500 units, with just under 700 recalled in 2008 and only a few hundred built in the years previous.
Thus, there are still a handful of Xebras out in the wild. Some are still getting about with their little electric power trains humming along, and some are more likely dead, having sat motionless for years on end.
Reader Jennifer Gervais tipped us off that the Harmony Park Safari in Huntsville, Alabama had a ZAP Xebra sedan at their facility. Further digging turned up a review of the attraction, which revealed that the park does indeed have such a vehicle, complete with the amazing stock zebra-print livery that riffs on the name of the car. It appears to be in good condition externally for its age. Interestingly, the two main headlights have yellowed significantly while the central light remains practically clear.
We were also contacted by a reader named The Queen, who tipped us off that there are 4-5 examples getting about the state of Oregon on a regular basis. We were honored to be contacted by royalty of the Northwest United States, and were also blessed with a picture of a great example of the Zap Xebra PK, which replaced the rear seats with a pickup bed instead.
This particular Zap sports a large solar array covering the tray, presumably to charge the batteries. According to a decrepit website, Zap delivered several "Xero" models which sported 150 watt solar panels to charge the batteries in just 47 short hours. The model pictured appears to have a larger custom setup, however, that might deliver a bit more juice. Note also the different front end design with unique headlights and indicators relative to the sedans shown previously.
David Riggs let us know that a teal Zap Xebra sedan lives in Cheney, Washington, too. Lurking behind a pile of old tires, David had spotted the oddity long ago, and returned to find it in the same place after reading our first story on the car. We appreciate David's legwork to photograph this survivor.
Meanwhile, all the way up in Minnesota, reader cmonman2020 captured a mint-looking example of the sedan on a slick, wet road, noting that this one has been spotted driving around, so it's still in working condition. The paint is in particularly good condition, and the headlights show none of the discoloration that seems typical on other models. The door handles on this model also appear to be of a different design to others we've seen.
Our next example is from California's Central Valley, with Nathan Holb noting that there's an apple green example in Corning to this day, visible in Google Street View images from 2018 onwards. Nathan also was able to track down another Street View image from 2008, showing a variety of Zap models on sale at a dealership by the name of Chico Electric Cars in the nearby city of Chico. The website for that company is long defunct, though the Wayback Machine archive indicates the company likely stopped selling Zap products at some point between 2009 and 2011.
Two more examples have recently shown up on Facebook Marketplace, if you're keen to own one for yourself. One listing is for a "2007 Tesla zap" with just under 7,000 miles on the clock in Los Angeles, CA. Originally looking for $8,000, the seller has since dropped the asking price to $6,000 or will accept a trade for a sailboat or Subaru.
Excitingly, a 2009 model is also on sale, for the much more affordable price of $2,600, in Oakdale, CA. Despite the reported switch to steel bodies in 2008, the design of the vehicle looks virtually identical to earlier models. This one does feature a matte finish, however, unlike the more typical glossy fiberglass of other models we've seen. It's not obvious whether the construction of this one actually is different, or if the paint is stock, but nevertheless, it's the only confirmed post-2008 model we've seen.
Confusingly, the ad refers to a "ZAP Alias Roadster" despite the fact the vehicle shown is clearly a sedan model. The Alias Roadster was actually a seperate project the company undertook with Lotus Engineering in 2007, and sported a 0-60 time of 5.7 seconds, faster than a contemporary Porsche Boxster.
Finally, a YouTube video from the distant past of 2011 shows a typical Zap Xebra driving about on suburban roads. It's perhaps the best look we've had inside the vehicle and out. The owner notes that that door handles are flimsy, and the road noise in the cabin is what we would call cacophonous. Like many Xebras we've seen, this one mounts solar panels to help add to the limited range of the vehicle.
The Zap Xebra had a tough run, and was torn apart in contemporary reviews for atrocious build quality and its "golf-cart" mechanicals. It's a fair assertion, given the drivetrain is basically the same as what you'd use to get around the green. However, it's clear that the vehicle found its fans over the years, or at the very least, a handful of people willing to keep them on their properties till the present day.
The Xebra was even hooned from time to time, if you dare to believe it. One Reddit account boasts of hitting 50 mph in a Xebra going downhill, modified with a motor controller capable of delivering greater current for more performance. The story ends with brake failure, a narrowly-avoided accident, and severe damage to the front forks from an emergency evasive maneuver at 35 mph. So, not the best showing.
Others attempted to improve the performance by upgrading to lithium batteries, with mixed results. However, one effort from a group of Danish engineers did net a huge boost in range to 152 miles, though it's unclear if the setup used was ever offered for sale to the public. Given the high price of lithium batteries back then, the price would likely have been prohibitively high for a vehicle already incredibly expensive compared to combustion-engined vehicles.
With such a brief run and mixed legacy, the Zap Xebra will never be celebrated as a grand step in the history of electric vehicles, doomed from the outset by its flimsy construction and performance far below what Americans expect from a roadgoing vehicle. However, it will remain as a reminder of how far we have come, and in that regard we have to salute all those who have endeavored to preserve that memory. Today's electric cars boast performance that in some cases exceeds that of their petrol-powered competitors, while delivering comfort and luxury on par with any other vehicle out there. Times have changed, but a handful of Zap Xebras are still out there, hanging on from an era long past.
Thanks to all the readers who submitted pictures for this story. Got a tip? Let the author know: firstname.lastname@example.org