The Anti-SUV

by Suzanne Schreiner & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t's tiny. It's red. It's cute as a bug, but it looks more like a cockpit than a car. If you stuck a steel arm to its side and attached it to a hydraulic pole, it could be the Rocket to Mars ride at the carnival. Rick Woodbury is at the wheel, and we're zipping along the streets of downtown Spokane, as people rubberneck to get a look at the snappy, pocket-sized roadster he calls a Tango. At stoplights, people lean out of their windows and ask if it's imported. They're flummoxed when they hear it was built right here in Sprague. One woman leans out the window of her mini-van and yells across two lanes of traffic, "I want one of those!"

And no one can believe that the Tango doesn't use a drop of oil to run -- it's all electric. But electric doesn't mean anemic. Taking off from stoplights, you'd think booster rockets were attached. Your stomach drops just the way it does on Silverwood's Panic Plunge. "Zero to 60 in 4 seconds," beams Woodbury. Some other vital stats: At 39 inches wide, it's narrower than many motorcycles. The Tango's eight-and-a-half-foot length would look inconspicuous next to the sofa in your living room. But your couch won't travel 80 miles on a three-hour charge.

Toy-like appearance aside, the Tango is actually a tiny tank. "We decided to be the strongest car on the road." Woodbury says. "It's as heavy as a mid-size car and has four times as much steel as any other car I know of." Most of the weight is at the bottom of the car, where the platoon of lead-acid batteries that power it provide ballast, offsetting the narrowness of the Tango and the potential otherwise for tipping over when going around a corner. "Over 2,000 pounds under the floor," says Woodbury, adding that the Tango weighs in at one and a half tons. Then there's the full NASCAR roll cage, just in case.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he gleam-in-the-eye moment came to Woodbury while he was sitting in traffic in Southern California, annoyed at the tangle of cars and the waste of so many people's time. Quick as you could say "parking lot," the Tango idea was born. To Woodbury, these are problems the Tango can solve. That it runs on electricity is just gravy. He actually doesn't think being green-friendly is a big selling point.

"Oil and all that just doesn't matter to people in general. People make a big stink every time gas prices go up, and then they get used to it," he says. "Prices will pass $6 or $7 a gallon and they'll still be used to it."

Public transportation, he adds, only works in dense places like New York and London, which "are so overcrowded that cars don't work at all. There's no place to park and you can't afford them." Public transit can't work in L.A. or other sprawling places because it's just too expensive to build, Woodbury adds. Besides, he says, nearly 90 percent of people get to work by car, and of those, 90 percent drive alone. Public transportation hovers around 5 percent, he says.

California has been a target market from the beginning because of three things: rampant traffic congestion, wealthy people pressed for time and lane splitting. Unlike most other states, including Washington, lane splitting -- which allows motorcycles and Tangos to ride two abreast -- is legal in the Golden State. Woodbury says the Tango would be allowed as well in diamond lanes (for vehicles with two or more passengers). Europe and Asia -- also friendly to lane splitters -- loom on the horizon.

For the moment, Woodbury is competing with luxury cars. "I'm going for anybody who can afford a car for $108,000," he says. Though it will never be a replacement for the family car and is hardly the wagon of the volk just yet, the goal is world domination: 150 million Tangos on the roads in 15 to 30 years. "That would be half the commuters worldwide," he says mildly. "Why wouldn't people drive it?" he asks.

At least that's what George Clooney thought: He bought the first Tango ever sold. But how on Earth did the Hollywood mover-and-shaker hear about a little car company run by a father and son in Spokane? Citizen Clooney read an article in the Robb Report, that's how. Then, says Woodbury, "We just received a check in the mail one day."

But then, silence for several months, until Clooney thought to ask how his car was coming along. The star of last year's Oscar-winning Syriana (about Big Oil corruption) declared that he had to walk the walk, not just talk the talk -- and at $108K, the Tango was so very affordable. The only extra George asked for: dark-tinted windows to thwart the gawkers. (If you pick up the recent Green Edition of Vanity Fair, you can gawk all you like.)

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & ather and son have traveled far, but improvements (and lots more drivers) are wanted. Fast and peppy -- you betcha! But a cushy ride it ain't. The Tango offers an intimate acquaintance with Spokane's potholes. And at only four inches off the ground, it doesn't look like it could clear so much as a speed bump. But it does, even though your spine feels every jolt and bounce. The Woodburys know it, and they're cruising for a kinder, smoother ride down the road.

When they get it down to a cushy, Everyman version for $20,000, I want my Tango -- in candy-apple red.