Local final assembly plant could receive 5,000 cars in late ’12
SANTA ROSA — A Chinese vehicle manufacturer recently purchased the Aptera electric roadster project, which underwent a highly visible shutdown in December amid a cash crunch, and has moved it to Santa Rosa with plans to start assembling thousands of the futuristic-looking vehicles locally by year-end.
Zhejiang Jonway Group, a major investor in 17-year-old Santa Rosa-based electric vehicle maker Zap Jonway, purchased the intellectual property of Carlsbad-based Aptera from creditors in April and plans to start mass production of the Aptera 2e three-wheeled sports car in Jonway’s 2.6 million-square-foot plant south of Shanghai in weeks, according to a representative for the group involved with setting up the new venture, Aptera USA, Inc. The purchase price wasn’t disclosed.
Aptera USA plans to bring the first 5,000 to 10,000 chassis to Santa Rosa late this year for final assembly of interior enhancements such as seats and high-tech electronics and quality-control inspection. Intially, the drivetrain would be installed by Indiana-based electric motor maker Remy in Southern California, though plans call for eventually shipping the drivetrains to Santa Rosa for assembly.
The 30,000-square-foot Santa Rosa assembly plant at 8 W. Ninth St. will employ 15 to 25 initially.
The first Chinese-built Aptera vehicles are set to be on sale in early 2013 for $20,000 to $25,000, according to Zhejiang Jonway Group representative Rick Deringer, who at one time advised Zap Jonway on real estate matters and whose Odyssey Development company leases the assembly space to Zap Jonway.
Also part of the acquisition was a list of nearly 60,000 people interested in buying an Aptera, including 2,000 who had given a $500 deposit for first dibs on a vehicle.
That pre-order reservation figure was about 5,000 at one point, before the Aptera Motors started offering refunds as the production schedule stretched longer, according to former Aptera Chief Marketing Officer Marques McCammon. His San Diego-based marketing and public relations firm, Nstig8, is in discussions with Aptera USA about managing marketing of the vehicle.
“I’m happy Aptera was able to be sold to a new group of investors who are able to take the business forward,” Mr. McCammon said.
Several Aptera prototypes recently rolled off trucks at a 30,000-square-foot central Santa Rosa industrial building. A set of the 28 molds that make up the Aptera 2 frame is en route to China and another set could be ordered soon from the Detroit design firm, according to Mr. Deringer.
The first set is capable of making 5,000 composite frames. One of the Zhejiang Jonway Group companies makes manufacturing molds and is expected to produce metal molds capable of production of up to 50,000 vehicles a year, but production likely will be limited to 25,000, according to Mr. Deringer. Key markets for the futuristic-looking vehicle are thought to be Asia and Europe, and some urban clusters of high-tech workers in the U.S.
Meanwhile, the appearance of an Aptera 2e prototype late last week near the end of the Beijing Motor Show has been causing quite a stir among Aptera and electric-car enthusiasts.
“China will now be doing what Aptera and Americans failed to do — build this composite car in an affordable, time efficient manner,” wrote self-described biotechnology and automotive industry expatriate Matthew Ungar on his PRC and Me blog on Saturday.
AOL’s Autoblog Green news website picked up that post.”This is where the story gets weird,” wrote Domenick Yoney. “Apparently, the future builder of the Aptera 2e — likely to be renamed something else – Zhejiang Jonway. Yes, the same Zap Jonway who competed against Aptera in the Progressive Automotive X-Prize with its own three-wheeler, the Alias.”
Zap Jonway recently borrowed $3 million from Zhejiang Jonway Group to produce 75 Alias vehicles for sale late this year, according to the company’s annual report.
The apparent connection to Zap Jonway created a storm of controversy on automotive blogs and enthusiast-run ApteraForum.com. The original name for the reborn Aptera venture was Zaptera USA. And it didn’t help that the prototype was on display at the car show next to a Zap Jonway electric SUV.
Commenters wondered about the viability of Aptera under new ownership because of Zap Jonway’s struggling finances — a $40.8 million reported 2011 loss, expanded from a $19 million loss in 2010 — and legal disputes with a Santa Rosa property owner.
Additionally, the Aptera assembly plant in Santa Rosa occupies part of 70,000 square feet of former Zap Jonway assembly space at the corner of West Ninth and West Donohue streets at the north end of the Railroad Square district. Zap Jonway continues to maintain headquarters offices in downtown Santa Rosa, but the showroom closed last year.
Zhejiang Jonway Group has been moving quickly this week to calm concerns by distancing Aptera USA from Zap Jonway. In addition to pursuing the company name change to Aptera USA, Mr. Deringer has been contacting blog writers who originally noted the Zap Jonway ownership and posting comments on those stories and forums about the different ownership.
Aptera Motors launched in 2006 and eventually raised tens of millions of dollars to develop its design for a highly aerodynamic electric vehicle with an incredibly strong yet light-weight and relatively inexpensive composite-material frame. At a starting weight of 1,700 pounds and 2,200 pounds at XPrize, the Aptera 2 model was tested to have the equivalent range of more than 200 miles per gallon.
But then the company hit the cash wall when it failed to get a five-year, $184 million U.S. Department of Energy loan guarantee in 2008 because the three-wheel vehicle didn’t qualify as an automobile.
The company rapidly went into redesign mode to produce a four-wheel sedan, which originally was to be the company’s second product. That change pushed back the production schedule and break-even timetable a few years, according to Mr. McCammon. The Obama administration changed the rules for such loan guarantees to allow three- and even two-wheel vehicles, so the company switched back to focus on the three-wheeler. But by 2011 it was too late for Aptera Motors to come up with the 50 percent match under the rules for the guarantee.
The three-wheeler was 12 months away from entering production when Aptera Motors opted for an assignment for the benefit of creditors over bankruptcy, and the sedan was two years away, according to Mr. McCammon.
Aptera USA is planning a fuel-powered turbo upgrade to the three-wheel Aptera 2 model, allowing owners to get to a charging station if the battery is depleted. Production of a four-wheel Aptera composite is being planned.
As the 6,000-square-foot cyber-showroom and Aptera USA offices are being built at the Santa Rosa assembly plant, the company is directing inquiries to Mr. Deringer at 707-310-2291 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mr. Deringer set up a small office in Beijing last fall to attract Chinese manufacturing companies interested in setting up U.S. assembly operations. He said he is in talks with a few other large manufacturers there.
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