Monday 29 December 2014

With a few changes, electric cars could go the distance

Published 09/03/2014 | 02:30

Nissan Leaf

CAN electric cars cut it in Ireland or are they a flop? Despite regulatory backing, financial incentives and the whirlwind success of Tesla in the US, European adoption of electric cars is oddly muted.

Can it change? After a week with one of the models available in Ireland (Nissan's €21,000 Leaf hatchback), I'm left with the following conclusions.

* Electric cars drive better than petrol cars

Going from an electric car back to a similarly sized petrol or diesel car, you quickly realise how advanced the electric models are. Almost everything about them is a better experience.

From traffic lights, the mid-range Leaf I drove left BMWs and Audis for dead every time. In fact, I clocked the car at about seven seconds from zero to 100kph, which is sports car territory.

They're likely to be more reliable, too: with no traditional engine requiring umpteen bits and pieces checked and changed, there's a lot less to go wrong. All in all, having finished with the Leaf, almost any other similarly sized, similarly priced car is a comedown in terms of performance and specification.

* But the distance range of existing models is nowhere near good enough

Nissan's Leaf has a theoretical maximum range of 200km and a real maximum of around 120km (I found). That's about enough to get a Dubliner as far as Longford (but not back again) on a single charge.

This means that you either never leave your locality or that you're part of a two-car household, with the electric vehicle as the runaround and the other as the long-range model.

A third option – a trip punctuated by stops at one of around 150 publicly available ESB charging points – is also possible. However, there are only a small handful of 'fast-charge' outlets, with the rest being impractically slow. So if I am to drive from Dublin to Cork (say), I'd need to stop twice at designated fast-charge points for at least 30 minutes each time. And travelling to somewhere like Mayo would be much more difficult and much slower.

All of which begs the question: why don't electric cars have longer ranges? In the US, Tesla's Model S has a range of around 500km (because they include bigger batteries). That's enough to get to anywhere in Ireland.

* Few feel confident enough to buy an electric car right now

How many people do you know who own an electric car? It is almost certainly zero. Despite three years' marketing, there are no more than 700 electric vehicles currently driving around Irish roads.

Nissan, whose Leaf model is probably the anchor electric car in this market, sold no more than around 50 of the vehicles last year. (A price reduction and new model has resulted in the same number being sold in the first two months of 2014, however.)

* But electric cars will flourish nonetheless

In the long term (five years and afterwards), my bet is that electric cars will definitely be part of everyday Irish motoring. Why? Two reasons.

First, the EU's continuing crackdown on carbon dioxide emissions mean that manufacturers will probably need to sell zero-emission vehicles to balance out all of the two-litre cars they will continue to market. "We've looked at the figures and we've looked at the way the wind is blowing," said Dermot McArdle, manager for ESB's eCar programme. "And this is definitely happening."

Secondly, with the exception of range, electric cars are simply better. They're faster, more reliable and cheaper to run.

In the US, the high-end Tesla Model S has higher customer-satisfaction rates than any of its petrol-based rivals. So it is fair to say that moving from petrol to electric is like going from BlackBerry to iPhone.

Would I buy one right now? In a two-car family scenario – with the second car being a petrol or diesel model for driving outside the city – absolutely.

Would I rely on an electric car alone? Not until they double the distance range.

Sunday Indo Business

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