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Small Vehicle Buying Guide

Published: 6/1/2012 Author: John C. Triolo, President, Mountaintop Golf Cars & GolfCarCatalog.com Category: Buying Guides
SVR Buying Guide
Before deciding which vehicle to purchase one must evaluate the intended tasks to be accomplished using that vehicle? In other words: What are you planning to do with it?
With many years of experience selling small task-oriented vehicles (STOVs), when a prospective buyer asks; “What vehicle is best suited to my needs?” I start by asking similar questions to those below. By definition I am referring to smaller, lower-speed vehicles.
While some of these considerations may seem like overkill at first glance, purchasing the wrong vehicle for the intended task will prove far more inconvenient than taking the required time in advance to fully explore the purpose of the vehicle. If all the tasks and options are not thought out beforehand the result could be spending extra, unbudgeted, money buying, shipping and installing the accessories needed or perhaps total disaster in that the vehicle may be wholly unsuited for the intended purpose. I will walk through these questions one by one to provide the benefit of my experience. While some of these questions are slanted towards work or commercial applications, most of the questions are applicable to work, transportation or recreational applications.
I. Vehicle Application:
Will the vehicle be operated indoors? Vehicles intended for indoor operation require the fuel source to be a battery pack or, if an internal combustion engine is considered necessary, liquid petroleum (LP) or natural gas (CNG). The LP/CNG refilling station is normally located outdoors away from the main building.
FYI: Hydrogen fuel cells are yet another option but for normal applications this will not be a practical solution at this time. Other nascent power sources such as flywheel or ultra cap (super capacitor) technology are not to be considered here either. These technologies are still very much in the research & development stage and very expensive to implement.
How many passengers will the vehicle transport? While obvious at first blush it is important to be able to carry the intended personnel and any cargo that might be required to perform the anticipated tasks. Two, four and six passenger vehicles, with or without cargo beds, are available from a variety of manufacturers. A hotel or resort might be carrying guests and luggage whereas a construction site might be transporting workers and equipment to a remote part of the work site.
FYI: As a matter of reference, golf cars are typically designed to transport 800 lbs on relatively level ground. Golf car based utility vehicles are typically rated for 1000 to 1200 lbs payload.
What is the anticipated total payload (pounds/tons) including passengers? Total payload is important because pushing a vehicle beyond the limits of design may result in extra maintenance costs and downtime because of vehicle breakdown or simple inability to perform the intended tasks. Calculate the passengers and all cargo loads carefully. While it may seem you are overbuilding the vehicle, if it cannot perform the tasks desired it will be money wasted.
How much cargo carrying capacity (cubic feet/cubic yards) is needed? Does the operator, riders and/or cargo need to be protected from the weather and/or locked for security reasons? These two considerations go hand in hand. Most utility vehicles are used to carry one or two people and a few implements needed for their appointed rounds, irregardless of weather. Motels and resorts may need to carry linens for room service; the computer department needs to keep the electronic equipment safe and dry while transported around campus; the food and beverage manager needs to keep food hot and/or cold and protected from the elements (and conform to state and National Sanitation Board regulations; see food service remarks).
FYI: Complete cab and/or cargo area enclosures are available either as an add-on if/when it becomes necessary or incorporated as an integral part of the original vehicle design. Some vehicles offer air conditioning and heat for year round passenger comfort. These enclosures may be made of soft vinyl, cloth or metal (steel or aluminum). Cloth and vinyl designs are difficult to secure but steel or aluminum enclosures can be secured.
What is the expected terrain: paved or hardpan gravel surfaces; open field; mud and serious off-road; flat ground or hilly or mountainous?
What is the specific layout of anticipated travel: wide open spaces; inside a plant with tight corners and/or narrow aisles; on low speed public roads with auto traffic?
These various considerations all go hand in hand. The total payload, physical terrain and the traffic corridors to be traversed must play a part in the final decision making process.
Obviously, flat, hard pan surfaces in wide open, off-road areas are friendlier. Not every application falls into this ideal. Manufacturers design and build their vehicles for a fairly specific anticipated market segment. Overloading the OEM design with people, cargo or demanding terrain may prove unsatisfactory in the long run and perhaps even dangerous.
Several other considerations also apply here: Narrow manufacturing plant aisles require tight turning circles and reasonable plant layout to negotiate the corridors. Is the vehicle frame & suspension designed to handle the weight and terrain? Is the vehicle power plant adequate to handle the cargo and the terrain? Is the vehicle brake system adequate to handle the cargo, including passengers, on the anticipated terrain? Is the top speed of the vehicle able to achieve the speeds necessary to keep up with traffic on the road?
What is OK on level or moderately hilly ground may not be enough in steeper terrain. This applies to power plant and braking system considerations. Anything that needs to be upgraded after the purchase may prove exceedingly difficult and expensive
Braking system considerations:
  • What method of braking is standard for the model under consideration?
    • 2 wheel rear cable activated brakes only;
    • 4 wheel hydraulic drum or disk brakes, or cable activated;
    • disc or drum?
  • Is the braking system sufficient to control the vehicle when fully loaded and operating in the most extreme terrain anticipated, especially downhill?
  • If hydraulic, is the emergency brake easy & convenient to apply and release?
  • Can the brake system be enhanced, if later found to be necessary?
Not to be repetitive but these considerations go hand in hand with the points mentioned in the paragraphs above. Simply put: Can the vehicle be stopped quickly under emergency circumstances. This cannot be repeated too often; what works on flat, hard surfaces may not be adequate on steeper, less stable terrain. Overbuild within reason. Manufacturers are aware that variations of the original design may be necessary. Your sales representative may be knowledgeable enough to intelligently consult on these issues. On the other hand; maybe not. You, the buyer, are the final arbiter. The rule of thumb is if you can steer it and stop it everything comes out OK.
Golf car-type vehicles generally come equipped with cable actuated drum-style rear wheel brakes only. The hill brake, or emergency brake (e-brake) if you will, is a locking device that employs a notch & catch plate mechanism typically released by depressing the accelerator. This works pretty well for golf cars and golf utility vehicles but hydraulic brake systems require more. Hydraulic brake systems usually employ a hand activated pull lever that locks the rear wheels of the car somewhat similar to an automotive-style emergency brake.
In most automobiles these are relatively easy to engage and disengage due to the ergonomic placement of the e-brake lever between the driver and passenger side seats. In many Small Task-Oriented Vehicles (STOVs) this is not the case, and usually this is not a problem because the e-brake is not used very many times throughout the day. But if you are stopping and starting many times throughout the day such as golfing this type of e-brake mechanism it can become a real inconvenience, not to mention a true pain. Figure a good golfer stops and locks the e-brake 75 to 80 times per round just for himself and maybe another 40 to 50 times per round for his playing partners. That is a lot of pulling and releasing of the e-brake handle. Ergonomically misplaced, this handle can be an anatomic nightmare.
Finally, all possible scenarios can never be fully anticipated. What happens if miscalculations occur? Are there remedies that can be put in place? Can a more robust brake system be installed? Can the e-brake handle have an alternative location that works better for the operator? In many cases the answer is NO because of the specific market segment the manufacturer has designed to accommodate. Your needs may not fall within those parameters, at least not yet. Don’t stretch the safety net.
If the STOV specs cannot meet your requirements…keep looking. Chances are there is one out there that will. You may need to spend a little more dough but get it right the first time. Trying to cobble together an in-house fix will likely negate any factory warranty and possibly cause personal injury.
Will the cargo normally be dumped or need to be off-loaded by hand or machine? Manual dumping beds are typically available with electric assist as an add-on option for an additional charge.
FYI: It is almost always cheaper to have this type of accessory installed when the purchase is negotiated. If it is installed later extra costs should be expected. Typically the bed lifting cylinder employs an electric screw mechanism with a rated dumping capacity. Do not exceed the cylinder beyond its rated capacity. They cannot be parted out to fix a specific failure. Usually an entire new cylinder must be purchased and they are expensive. Be sure to anticipate the needed dumping load in advance with a margin of error calculated.
Is the vehicle being used to provide food service? Every state has its own standards that apply to serving freshly prepared hot & cold foods and/or beverages from a moving vehicle. These standards are often derived from the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) and then supplemented by other standards the state bureaus in question might deem pertinent. Many small, local manufacturers you might consult may not be up to speed concerning this complex and changing legislative environment. While small golf courses and local festival vendors may not face too many headwinds, large regionally/nationally owned golf facilities, hotel chains, hospitals and extended care organizations will be held to higher standards. It is highly recommend that you carefully research applicable state and federal laws before proceeding to purchase food service units on your own. These units can be quite expensive and the machine may end up parked in the storage yard if bad decisions are acted upon.
II. Vehicle Performance:
What is the distance to be traveled per day or per trip? How far do you intend to go per day or per trip? If the distance exceeds 15 to 20 miles per day perhaps you might consider a gas or diesel power train. Electric can certainly go this distance but considerations such as terrain, cargo and opportunity charging must be calculated. With battery systems the The Peuket Effect must be taken into account; when the battery discharge rate is constant and prolonged it reduces the total time to discharge thereby reducing total range, or distance traveled. If stop and go is the norm then the batteries have a few moments while the vehicle is stopped to recover. In other words fresh liquid electrolyte has a chance to disperse throughout the plates and sort of recharge the batteries. This is very typical of golf course use; stop for a while to hit the ball or putt out, and then go on to the next shot.
What is the expected terrain: paved or hardened gravel surfaces; open field; mud and serious off-road conditions; flat ground; hilly or even mountainous? Terrain and payload have a profound effect on the ability of batteries to deliver the expected performance. Level hard top is best, gravel is OK, grass reduces range as does loose dirt, sand, hilly or steep terrain, low tire pressure and heavy loads. Opportunity charging-plugging in the charger when the vehicle is not in use-can great extend the range per day.
What are the extremes of outdoor temperature in which the vehicle might be operated? As mentioned above certain surfaces, terrain and tire pressure affect the performance of electric (battery) powered vehicles. So does the ambient temperature where the vehicle is expected to perform. Gas and diesel powered vehicles may have a hard time getting started but once started they are largely unaffected by outdoor temperatures. Battery powered vehicles, on the other hand, are greatly effected. For instance, a good battery pack at 80* F, fully charged, will deliver maximum performance. Take that same battery pack and simply place it in a 32*F environment and about 50% of the capacity is lost just due to the change in temperature. Depending on use patterns and distance to be traveled this may not be a game changer but it must be taken into consideration if outdoor use in cold climates is a parameter.
What speed is required to keep up with the flow of auto traffic, if any? Would a faster on-road, licensed Low Speed Vehicle (LSV) be a better option? The need for speed! If moving along at a low rate of speed (15 to 20mph) is OK, fine. Some vehicles must operate in a faster lane of traffic. The fast lane may be 35mph, which is quite a bit faster than many utility and golf-type vehicles are designed to operate. Golf-type vehicles can create an impediment to traffic, which is not safe. There are several ways to achieve faster speeds but if you are buying new and wish to remain within the parameters of OEM design for warranty purposes then you may need to consider alternative vehicles.
Some companies ‘buy’ speed by changing rear end gear ratios while staying with the same power plant. This works in certain terrains but not all. Again, what works in the flat lands does not translate to hilly or mountainous terrain, especially under a load of cargo or people. Differential gear ratios are designed around the power plant, the anticipated torque and speed values desired by the anticipated end user. If your needs do not fall within these values you could end up with a vehicle that cannot perform as you need. We see this in our local market regularly. Folks bring cars in from Florida or from flat coastal areas that run quite well on near level terrain. These vehicles might feature high differential gear ratios, big tires, motors designed for speed rather then torque but when they are brought to the High Country the vehicles literally stall. They cannot pull the hills or the electrical systems are stressed to the point of failure.
The two paragraphs above presuppose the vehicles in question are for use on private roads only. In other words, roads NOT subject to municipal, state and/or Federal laws as dictated by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA, pronounced as ‘nit-sa’). All vehicles designed to be used on publicly owned road are subject to the myriad safety standards laid out by NHTSA; there are lots of rules and they are laid out in extreme detail.
Low Speed Vehicles (LSVs, also known as NEVs; Neighborhood Electric Vehicles) are usually battery powered street-legal motor vehicles allowed by NHTSA to operate at speeds up to 25mph on roads with a speed limit of 35mph or less. While this might seems a little pokey by highway standards research shows most commutes average 35 miles round trip at speeds of 35mph or less. The LSV is a natural. It can operate within these parameters very nicely
Regulatory considerations:
  • Is it legal to operate the vehicle as intended?
  • Is the operator required to conform to local law and/or OSHA standards?
  • Are there special governmental permits required to operate the vehicle as intended?
The answers to these questions may appear obvious but be sure the obvious is permitted by law. The LSVs mentioned above require the driver be licensed and seat belt use is mandatory for all riders while on public roads. If any kind of accident occurs the driver is subject to sobriety and drug tests and insuring that seat belt laws were enforced.
Some states and municipalities have adopted a very liberal legal attitude toward the use of slower golf cars on local streets, allowing them to travel several miles from home without any special equipment. They do not require that the vehicles meet NHTSA standards but employ their own set of standards to help insure occupant safety. These can vary greatly from state to state as well as town to town. This has muddied the waters, so to speak. It is possible one company can get by with a simple golf vehicle while another company may have to comply by purchasing an LSV.
Will the vehicle need to be transported to different locations via pickup truck or trailer? Golf cars are 4 feet wide by 8 feet long and neatly fit into the back of a full size, long or short bed, pick up truck. Golf cars and golf type utility vehicles weigh in around 1000lbs. This is on the lightweight end of the STOV market. Many larger machines are 5 feet wide and as much as 10 to 12 feet long and weigh considerably more.
If transportation to other locations is necessary then a trailer is always safer to load and unload than driving up into the bed of a truck. This may not seem important but when service or repair is needed will the repair company come to you and pick up the vehicle, or will you need to get it to them? Some companies may service/fix it on your premises or they may need to take to their location.
Is 4-wheel drive a requirement because of weather or terrain? In some cases a vehicle featuring 4-wheel drive is the only option. This adds considerably to the cost of the vehicle. Most golf-type vehicles have only one rear wheel that provides traction and that may not be enough to get where you need to go. Some utility vehicles have a locking, on-the-fly, rear differential that greatly enhances the traction available. In the last 10 years or so a number of battery powered 4-wheel drive machines have become available. These might fill the bill if distance traveled between charging opportunities is not too great. More recently small gas generators are added to the electric vehicle in order to increase the range per charge.
III. Vehicle Fuels:
What is the preferred fuel; gas, diesel, LP, CNG, battery or hybrid? Most Internal Combustion Engines (ICE) use gas or diesel and must be operated outdoors. If indoor/outdoor operation is a requirement then LP, CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) or battery are viable alternatives. ICE machines can be outfitted with LP or CNG delivery systems thus allowing both indoor and outdoor operation. This requires a refueling station outdoors. Local laws probably apply to the location of the station relative to the building. Be sure you have a thorough understanding of this option. If a hybrid is under consideration then allowance must be made to use LP or CNG for the generator is used indoors.
If battery power is what you want than you must select a well ventilated charging area and put someone in charge of maintenance. The typical battery pack must be watered (distilled water is recommended) and washed off periodically and charged after every use or at the end of the day. This maintenance is important and it MUST be performed for the optimum life of the battery pack.
There is a plethora of battery options of which the most common is the lead-acid battery. This variety includes flooded-cell (liquid electrolyte) and absorbed glass mat (AGM) and Gel cells (AGM & Gel are a sealed lead-acid battery with a gel like electrolyte and they do not require watering and do not normally gas). Each of these designs has its own advantages and disadvantages. For the most part flooded-cell is the least expensive and most likely to be offered with the base model. AGM & Gel batteries are about 1½ to 2 times the cost of the flooded cell type and currently do not store as much energy as the flooded-cell. Also they have special charging requirements so your old battery charger will not be suitable to recharge them.
The range per day of the battery powered vehicle will have everything to do with cargo weight, terrain and proper maintenance. The battery pack might last 2 to 3 years or perhaps 5 to 6 years, again depending on the use, terrain and care.
There are other more exotic battery types such as Nickel-Metal Hydride (NMHy), the Lithium based batteries of which there are 4 or 5 different chemistries, each with its own pluses and minuses. These battery types are VERY expensive and for the most part still relatively new in the marketplace. Hydrogen, ultracaps (high energy capacitors) and flywheel technology are even further out on the horizon. For a deeper understanding of battery technology we recommend you visit BatteryUniversity, MPowerUK or EVBatterymonitoring.
What are the refueling opportunities throughout the time of daily use? This pertains mostly to electric vehicles. The battery pack can charged throughout the day if the opportunity is planned and the vehicle is out of use for an hour or so, say lunch time. This will greatly extend the range. On-board chargers are available so they can travel with the machine and in some cases it just needs an extension cord plugged into 110AC. It is a good idea that these charging areas be well ventilated as flood-cell batteries emit hydrogen gas as a natural process. AGM & Gel batteries do not normally gas so they do not require special ventilation.
If there is very little down time available throughout the day some companies offer a slide-out battery tray option so switching the battery pack is fast. This requires purchasing an extra set of batteries to have on hand and the extra expense of the slide-out tray option.
FYI: Many battery chargers are designed for the US power grid, meaning the charger requires 110 volts AC at 60 Hz (cycles per second). Some chargers require 220 VAC. These chargers are not compatible with many international power grids that operate on different voltages or Hertz cycles. Be sure what you purchase is compatible with the power grid for the country where the chargers will be used. World chargers, as they are called, can be programmed or can automatically sense the power supply to which it is connected. These chargers usually come at extra cost as additional programming is required for them to interpret incoming current.
IV. Vehicle Budget:
What is the budget for this purchase? Small, task-oriented vehicles (STOVs) come in a wide range of configurations and a correspondingly wide range of prices. It is better to have a budget in mind when you start your researching and shopping process to help narrow down your choices. If “must have” features or capabilities require a more expensive vehicle then you can make adjustments to your budget accordingly or reconsider how much you need the vehicle. One of the reasons the STOV market has been growing is that a vehicle configured appropriately for a particular application brings increased efficiency to the work place or increased fun and performance for recreation. These gains should factor into your budgetary calculus.
What are the standard accessories on the vehicle: top, windshield, lights, horn? Manufacturers or dealers may offer special accessory packages for a vehicle or a model variation may include an accessory package specifically designed for a common vehicle application. In some cases both manufacturer and aftermarket accessories may be available. Make sure you understand any compatibility issues and, if appropriate, the warranty implications for aftermarket accessories.
What optional accessories might be needed: hard shell or vinyl weather protection, defrost system, air conditioning, warning strobe light? Weather protection in the form of roll-down vinyl curtains or hard shell enclosures can be purchased at extra cost. Thinking through how you will be using the vehicle can help you determine what accessories are “nice to haves” and what are “must haves”. Talking to dealers or other users, posting questions on online forums can help you determine what might be the most beneficial accessories for your vehicle application.
What are the anticipated annual costs of maintaining the vehicle(s)? Be careful about budgetary concerns. Do not buy an underpowered machine because you save a few bucks. Get what you need with the accessories required to do a thorough job. Don’t forget to figure in maintenance, transportation and any spare parts that you might want to stock.
Will a used vehicle fit my needs? Maybe! Golf cart type vehicles are plentiful because for the most part they are leased for several years and then become available in fairly large numbers to the used market. That said, some golf courses take excellent care of their fleet and others do not. Utility vehicles like Gators, Mules, Rhinos and similar side-by-sides do not come on the used market as much because there are not that many of them made in the first place, and they are typically not part of a lease program where 50 to 70 golf & utility carts roll off lease every 3 or 4 years.
With used machinery you are at the mercy of your own good judgment and the knowledge of the dealer, or honesty of the person, from whom you buy. Don’t be fooled by a nice paint job or that it has been refurbished. The term ‘refurb’ means only what that dealer means. Typically it does not mean a rebuilt gas engine or new batteries, motor and motor controller. Is the engine (gas) or motor, controller and batteries (electric) in good condition? An experienced dealer will know the answers to these questions.
Gas engines are not cheap to rebuild. Batteries, charger, motor speed controller and the motor itself must all be in good working order in electric cars. Good golf car shops will have a special device called a Discharge Machine that can reveal the condition of the battery pack. Motors and controllers are more difficult to test as they require pretty expensive diagnostic tools. The way to get around some of these concerns is to get a warranty from the dealer. Again, consider where the repairs will be accomplished when needed. If the choice comes down to purchasing a used electric vehicle be sure the battery charger is part of the package and that it actually works.
V. Vehicle Warranty & Maintenance
What is the warranty of the new or used vehicle? Make sure you know exactly what the warranty does and does not cover. For example, does the warranty include parts, labor and transportation, if necessary? How convenient/competent is the dealer, if warranty is required? What is the history of the company you intend to buy from? Do they have experience in the repair of the vehicle? Do they stock enough parts to repair the vehicle in a timely manner? How far away is the dealer from where you intend to use the machine? Will they still be in business when you need them down the road?
What is the past history of the vehicle in terms of warranty and longevity? You will probably need to do some internet research to find this out. You need objective insight; what other users of the machine have experienced. The dealer most likely will present the machine as trouble-free and expected to last forever. Be cautious about what others write on some of the chat rooms and forums. The writer may have an ax to grind.
Are there any product recalls currently in place for the model under consideration? Again, go the manufacturers’ website and outside forums & blogs. If a vehicle has been recalled the company website will say so and give the details of the recall. The dealer may not be up to speed on these issues especially if you are buying a used vehicle. You can also check the Consumer Product Safety Commission website for recalls.
Who in the company will maintain the vehicle? If nobody is assigned to perform the regular maintenance it simply will not get done. ICE machines require regular oil changes and grease not to mention replacing the filters and spark plugs. Regular watering and washing off the batteries are a critical part of optimizing the battery life. Charging them at the end of each day they are used is a must. Tire pressure is important to electric cars too.
Who in the company will be operating the vehicles? Is the primary operator a responsible individual that will be easy and take care of the machine? When I buy used utility equipment I like to see the operators name on the vehicle because it gives me a level of confidence that one person, for the most part, used the machine and he likely took care of it. On the other hand if everybody gets to use it then it becomes difficult to say which person caused what damage. Once it is banged up then nobody cares anymore.
John C. Triolo is President and owner of Mountaintop Golf Cars and GolfCarCatalog.com based in Banner Elk, NC. He has over 30 years experience in the industry selling vehicles and parts and providing vehicle repair and maintenance services.
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