Big on Little Rides

Luxury golf cars reveal status and desire along country club streets and manicured greens.

Tod Goldberg Shopping

If Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger should come to Electric Car Distributors in Rancho Mirage looking for the perfect all-terrain golf car, they’ll be ready. Parked on its display floor with thick black wheels and deep-dish rims fairly glowing sits the X-4, a four-passenger electric car that bears a striking resemblance to the action hero cum politico’s favorite mode of transport: the Hummer. For less than $16,000, you can have an X-4, too, replete with a 48-volt, four-horsepower motor — perfect for the country club or, in Schwarzenegger’s case, a slow ride to Sacramento.

The X-4 is one of a fleet of opulent golf cars (that’s right, cars — you pull a cart, the adage goes; a car pulls you) that have become all the rage from one end of the valley to the other. These are not your grandfather’s electric cars — puttering mobiles with a limited range and even more limited visceral appeal. Rather, they represent a new wave of luxury neighborhood electric vehicles, or NEVs. Pioneered by Western Golf Car Manufacturing in Desert Hot Springs, NEVs roam the greens, outside the clubhouse, and increasingly, the streets around some of the desert’s largest resorts. This popularity tracks back to a few key elements, Mike Soucy thinks. Soucy, Western’s chief operating officer, points first to a change in how people use the vehicles. “People are using their golf cars not just to play, but to get from one place to another on the grounds. When you look at a place like Mission Hills Country Club, you can live on one side of the club and to get to the clubhouse, or to a friend’s for instance, it can be two or three miles away.”

Status also comes into play, Soucy says. Western’s top-line golf car, the Elegante, retails in its different models for between $11,000 and $16,000 and comes standard with a 42-volt, four-horsepower system (achieving speeds between 20 and 25 mph), custom seats, full stereo, flow-through ventilation, and a bevy of options that make more common golf cars seem, well, common. “Once a person sees what’s available, you’ll see them put TVs and DVD players into their cars because they have the ability to do so.”

With ability comes desire and modification — attributes that make Western’s electric cars popular with professional golfers, celebrities, and high-profile businesspeople like Daniel Snyder, the communications magnate and owner of the NFL’s Washington Redskins. Snyder recently commissioned a car emblazoned with his team’s logo and filled with accoutrements befitting one of the wealthiest men in the United States.

Locally, The Reserve in Indian Wells has acquired several Western cars for its private fleet, while PGA tournaments across the nation, including the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and Pebble Beach, will feature Western cars prominently.

At Western’s plant in Desert Hot Springs, the company also manufactures the Lido, a joint venture with former Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, which has become the standard bearer for NEVs. While the Elegante is primarily made for the golfer in the family, the Lido is a street-legal dynamo that resembles the PT Cruiser and can be modified into different shapes and lengths, including a limousine-style eight-seater that the city of Palm Desert will soon use as an alternative to its current Shopper Hopper. Sold locally exclusively at Electric Car Distributors, the Lido is gaining ground as an all-purpose vehicle — from hauling clubs to ferrying children to moving gardening supplies — and retails for around $14,000. All of it, Soucy says, indicates a change in how people view transportation.

“People have opened their eyes to the idea of using NEVs around their neighborhoods,” Soucy says. “They’re saying, ‘You know what, this might limit some of the congestion in the city; this might help the environment.’ For some folks, especially in resort communities like the desert, they can get a Lido, or they can get an Elegante, and they can use it as their second car.”

For some, that second car resembles their first one: Larsen Golf in La Quinta, a local dealer and manufacturer, specializes in refashioning cars into scaled-down replicas of popular sedans, all of which makes one think that the industry of luxury golf cars may well be limitless, especially when you consider the insatiable need many have for the next big thing, even if it’s been shrunk down to size.