The most electrifying drive of my life. . .
This week it was announced that the first people to snap up electric vehicles will get a €5,000 grant. But how do these cars really measure up? Deirdre Reynolds takes one for a test drive
Published 16/04/2010 | 05:00
First, let's get one thing out of the way -- I am not your typical rev-head. My mode of transport is the ladies' favourite, a Toyota Yaris. It's 11 years old, radioactive yellow and has Padre Pio stickers all over the windscreen from its previous owner (ahem, my mother).
I drive in five-inch heels -- save the lecture please, Gay Byrne -- and there's a cuddly toy buckled up in the back seat.
To me, a Lamborghini is a cocktail, Diesel is a fashion label and Jordan is a glamour model.
And when something goes wrong, I use such mechanically moronic terms as 'squeak', 'squidgy' and 'whirring' to describe the problem to a disdainful grease monkey.
In short: my car is embarrassing and I am not exactly sure what goes on under the bonnet. But it gets me from A to B, so I don't really care.
The environment, on the other hand, is something I do give a damn about -- so when I was invited to test drive Nissan's new electric car, I scoured the latest copy of car blagger's bible Top Gear, hid the Glee CD on my passenger seat and vroomed off to the showroom.
Like lots of homes around the country, we recycle our rubbish, grow our own veg and take solar-powered showers. So eventually trading that gas-guzzler for a more planet-friendly set of wheels seems the next logical step to shift our environmental efforts up a gear.
In the past, electric cars have been viewed as something of a joke -- a bit like driving to work astride on a Philips Ladyshave.
And the humble milk float of 60s Ireland was about the closest we got to putting a fully electric vehicle -- as distinct from a hybrid -- on our roads.
Now, tree huggers can look forward to a more fashionable form of carbon footprint-free travel when the first electric car goes on sale here next year.
Earlier this week, a grant of €5,000 was announced for those who snap up the country's first fleet of BEVs (battery-powered electric vehicles). Motorists who go green will also be exempt from paying pesky vehicle registration tax.
But will it be enough to convince consumers jittery about driving something in the same plug-in category as a mobile phone or hair straighteners?
All week, the airwaves have been crammed with callers with 'range anxiety' -- the fear that their electric car will conk out between Ballygobackwards and the Arse-End-of-Nowhere with no juice point for miles.
In reality, the ESB has committed to providing 3,500 charging points -- 2,000 domestic and 1,500 kerbside -- by the end of 2011, the first of which have already gone live in Dublin.
Every town with a population of 1,500 has been promised at least one and all major routes will be dotted with rapid charges -- which boost the battery in 20 minutes -- at 60-kilometre intervals. The car is also fitted with a system that tells you when and where to charge up to avoid being left stranded.
Perhaps what we're all afraid to admit is that the idea of driving an electric car is, well, just a little bit naff.
But there's nothing uncool about the Nissan Leaf that I take for an exclusive spin.
The sleek five-passenger hatchback was unveiled alongside the Renault Fluence at this week's grant announcement.
And bearing no resemblance to Postman Pat's pedal van, it proves that EVs aren't just for the muesli-crunching masses -- superficially, at least.
"From the beginning, we did not want to make the car very strange, because one of the perceptions of the EV (is) people think that they are toys or cheap," says Nissan styling chief Shiro Nakamura. "But the car we have is a real car."
Car connoisseurs may look at the picture (right) and call my bluff. And OK, the car I test- drive has the engine of a Nissan Leaf installed into the body of a Versa Sedan -- what engineers call a test mule, because bosses are petrified some careless hack will knock lumps out of their precious prototype.
Once the door clicks shut, however, the difference is unmistakable.
As hyped, the first thing you notice is the thing you don't notice -- noise. Initially it's difficult to tell if it's on and even as you pick up speed it remains virtually inaudible, giving an almost eerie feeling of floating.
The drive itself is fast, fluid and feather-like -- the steering and pedals responded instantly to the deftest touch.
It's quick off the line and whether cruising along in drive, reversing or parking, there wasn't a single peep out of it.
In fact, you might want to double-check that it's switched off for fear those all-important electrons will trickle away!
In place of a fuel gauge, the car has a battery-life display on the dash which should help relieve range stress. But my 20 minutes behind the wheel barely budged the needle.
What it lacks in a tail-pipe, the car makes up for with plenty of other nifty features such as its EV-IT, a navigation system that allows the driver to remotely access, through their mobile phone, the air-conditioning system and to automatically set the car's battery to recharge.
The teeny gear-stick is more like a computer mouse than the lever I'm used to.
With a maximum speed of 90mph and 107 horsepower, you're unlikely to burn rubber -- but then, that's not very good for the environment anyway.
And while it's unlikely to set a boy racer's world on fire, it's no slouch either, going from 0 to 60 in about eight seconds.
Here's the science bit: the Leaf draws power from a 24 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack beneath its floor.
The battery takes eight hours to fully charge and Nissan claims it can do around 160 clicks without conking it. But as with regular cars, your driving can dictate energy consumption -- though in this case, braking regenerates the battery.
As the world's first mass-produced electric car though, it's not without its problems.
Safety officials fear it may actually be too quiet -- and Nissan is reportedly even considering some kind of 'vroom vroom' sound effect to stop cyclists and pedestrians from crossing its path (they'll have to take out their iPod earphones first).
Nonetheless, the revolutionary zero-emission motor heralds the dawn of the EV.
General Motors, Ford and Toyota are all working on their own and by 2020, it's guesstimated that 10pc of all cars on our roads will be electric.
Just like we laughed at the first mobile phones, it's possible that in more advanced times to come our children will look back on the Leaf as primitive.
For now, though, the experience is electrifying.