Meet CambYoCar: the first car to be designed and built in Costa Rica

Looking at the upward-opening electric doors and sleek design of CambYoCar’s miniature prototype, you might think the purple-haired Barbie seated behind the wheel drove it straight out of the movie “Back to the Future.”

Although the car looks like a compact version of the DeLorean, the technology needed to build it is far from futuristic.

Costa Rican isn’t known for producing automobiles, because traditional car factories are impractical and expensive here.

According to data from the Chamber of Used Car Importers, in the past five years Costa Rica has imported an annual average of 35,000 used cars and 40,000 new ones. But the electric CambYoCar is about to change that: With sales expected to begin in 2015, it will become the first car designed and manufactured in Costa Rica.

“Costa Rica doesn’t have the machinery to make a traditional car frame,” Jesse Blenn, the car’s inventor, told The Tico Times. “We want something you can make in a rural area.”

A former airplane mechanic and blimp-design consultant from Kansas, Blenn began designing CambYoCar on his fruit farm near the southern Pacific coast. Using engineering techniques developed for aircraft, Blenn designed a simplified frame that can be assembled in most auto shops.

Instead of using heavy machinery and imported steel, CambYoCar is made from balsa wood and aluminum. Normally an expensive construction material, balsa grows easily in Costa Rica, making it an affordable alternative to heavy metals.

The more elaborate parts of the car will be produced in the CambYoCar factory, an abandoned guava jelly plant between San Isidro de General and Dominical on the country’s Pacific side. Eventually the company will produce basic kits to enable the cars to be built anywhere.

At about $18,000 a unit, CambYoCar will not be the cheapest vehicle on the market, but it will be the cheapest of the electric and hybrid models.

With Costa Rica’s 2021 carbon-neutrality deadline looming, policy makers are trudging forward with reforms to reduce emissions. But as Environment Minister René Castro told The Tico Times in October, vehicle emissions are the great “Achilles heel” of the nation’s carbon-neutrality goals.

A study from the University of Costa Rica this year found that traffic in San José increases car emissions by 30 percent, and numbers from Costa Rica’s vehicle inspections company reveal that more than a third of Costa Rica’s cars are less efficient models up to 20 years old.

“Something has to change,” Blenn said. “Costa Rica needs electric cars. The market is ready for a Costa Rican-made electric car.”

According to Costa Rican Customs officials, fewer than 200 hybrid cars were imported in the last five years. Despite sales- and import-tax incentives, Ticos still seem hesitant to invest in a green vehicle.

“The volume of sales hasn’t really changed for us,” said Sergio Gutiérrez, general manager for Reva, a low-cost electric car dealership in Costa Rica. “The biggest challenge is not being able to offer the lowest price on the car market.”

For those willing to spend money to reduce their carbon footprint, however, an electric car is attractive in Costa Rica, which generates more than 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources.

A huge electric car demand is not necessary for Blenn’s modest first phase. He estimates the factory will initially produce a car a week, later expanding to up to 1,000 cars a year.

Though he has struggled to find private investors, Blenn is not the only one excited about his project. CambYoCar won first place in the industrial projects and most environmentally responsible categories at the National Business Plan competition. Blenn will also take home ₡65 million ($120,000) in cash won from the Bank System for Development’s seed money competition, just enough to get the project rolling.

“Our goal here is to change the world,” Blenn said. “To change the world we have to change the car.”