Sparks of success set to roar
Car-makers that stuck with the electric vehicle concept can finally see rewards on the horizon, but pricing remains a major concern, writes Campbell Spray
The pace of developments in the electric and hybrid car market is picking up considerably. This Wednesday the Nissan Leaf, the company's totally electric family hatchback, will have its consumer launch in Dublin's IFSC (see the story on the right).
Last week, Renault was showing off its all-electric Fluence saloon and Kangoo small van to the press and corporate customers alike.
It was a good event as it was the first time that I was able to drive Renault's offerings on the open road. And even though they were still definite prototype vehicles, costing around €1m each, their ability in handling, effortless and immediate acceleration and eerily quiet running was very evident.
Meanwhile, my test-drive diary is booked for the plug-in Toyota Prius hybrid in the middle of September.
Renault was in exceptional form last Monday and why wouldn't it be? It has had a marvellous year, coming out massively on top of distributors who have sold cars though the Government's scrappage scheme as well as powering up the overall car sales to hold nearly 10 per cent of the market.
The Fluence, the family saloon that Renault thinks is very "Irish" in its concept, has proved to be a major success, although it was only launched in April.
Already 1,000 models of the very well-priced car have been sold and it has been a great success, with Vodafone and Dairygold buying in bulk.
This success should be translated into sales for the electric Fluence when it goes on sale at the end of next year -- if the price is right.
And it is pricing that underlies the whole electric vehicle (EV) concept.
There may be issues over range and charge points, but if pricing isn't right the whole idea will fall at the first fence.
And Eric Basset, the Renault Ireland chief, knows this only too well. Although he said that the excitement of waiting for the reality of electric vehicles is on a par with children's anticipation for Christmas, he knows that it is a basic "no affordability, no future" philosophy underlying the Renault plan.
Electric cars have to come in at the same price as diesels. The affordability concept can be stretched to perhaps take in the whole life of the vehicle rather than just the initial purchase cost. But that is a big risk. It is always the upfront price that grabs people's attention.
The first EV to be sold by Renault will be the Kangoo, the Fluence will follow and then in 2012 the Twizy, a tiny city car, will come followed by the Zoe, a hatchback equivalent in size and price to the Clio. This really could be the big EV winner as the concept shots make it look exciting and practical -- no mean feat.
Yet it could be vans like the Kangoo that make the running. They keep operating costs very low, there should be good purchasing incentives and most of them come back to a central point at the end of the working day. In a way it is just a development of the electric milk-floats that were part of everyday life at one point. The electric concept and all its associated "green awareness" will be a massive draw for certain companies.
The plug-in Prius hedges its bets by still having a 1.8-litre petrol engine on board for longer trips and more powerful motoring. Yet for short trips around town it can run on electric power alone and recharge in an hour or so.
Used together the two power supplies can give more than 108 miles to the gallon, which is 50 per cent more than the conventional Prius. Emissions come down to 59g/km from an already massively low 89g/km.
Of course, emissions from a totally electric vehicle are absolutely zero.
The lack of engine noise from electric-powered vehicles is a cause of much debate. Should customers be able to download their own tunes like they do for their mobile phones so pedestrians especially are warned of their approach? Or should manufacturers introduce a realistic-sounding engine noise?
I rather like the idea of keeping everything silent; the only sound being that of gravel crunching, wind blowing and leaves rustling. Perhaps it is getting a bit too poetic. But remember, there is a world to save.