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Electric cars get real

Tom Ford loves petrol. So we sent him away with the, er, all-electric versions of the Mini, Smart and Mitsubishi i. He came back charged

  1. Electric cars are boring, right? Wrong. Electric cars are guarding the petrolhead dream. Confused? Read on…

    Words: Tom Ford
    Photos: Lee Brimble

  2. The idea of electric motivation for cars has been around for a long time. In fact, according to new rumours, the first time someone had the bright idea of lobbing an electric motor into an automobile was way back in 1884 with a big-wheeled contraption put together by a British Victorian inventor Thomas Parker, the same bloke who electrified the London Underground and did sterling work with trams in Birmingham and Liverpool. And the theory is undoubtedly sound: no localised emissions, instant torque, a distinct lack of noise and a motor and transmission set-up that deletes lots of the moving bits that usually go bang. Electric is a good thing. So where are we now?

  3. Well, despite there being huge interest in electrification over the years, there’s always been one major stumbling block that has limited electric cars: batteries. It’s no good just lobbing a couple of six-packs of double As into a 1,000kg car and expecting it to manage more than a slurring warble in the kind of electric motor you need to propel a car at reasonable modern speeds. But while there’s been huge hoo-ha about future fuels in the shape of hydrogen power and hybrid petroleum motors, a few manufacturers have been working on cars that really do change the game in their own - quite literally - quiet way.

  4. Soon, Nissan’s Sunderland manufacturing plant will start producing a mass production version of the all-electric Leaf, a pure EV (electric vehicle) that poses some interesting questions about why we aren’t all looking at proper electric cars for urban use. Until then, there’s a triumvirate of electric cars that you might see on the streets in the form of the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, the Mini E and the Smart ED. All, it must be made clear, that are based on ‘real’ cars. Cars that pass crash-test regulations and have the same features as the vehicles you drive every day. These are not quadricycles like the G-Wiz, and they don’t sidestep the stuff that makes them something you’d put your kids in.

  5. First up, it’s fair to say that if you remove all the slightly iffy stickers and eco-showing-off plastered on the majority of our three, it’s plain to see that they look exactly like their traditionally powered counterparts. No extra-long extension leads running out the back, no solar panels to keep the charge up. The i-MiEV is the most unusual-looking simply because the i-Car on which the little Mitsu is based isn’t exactly a Ford Focus when it comes to seeing it on UK streets. The Mini looks like a Mini - you might just recognise that one - and the Smart is just a Smart, albeit with the added bonus of being a convertible, a body choice that allows you to actively not hear all the noise that you’re not actually making.

  6. All three cars take advantage of the newest Lithium-ion battery tech, much the same as the ones you find in your laptop. The i-MiEV (Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle) sticks its electric motor on top of the rear axle and produces 47KW - an equivalent power ratio of 57bhp - to get you to 62mph in about 13 seconds, and on to a limited top speed of 87mph. Sounds slow, but like all electric cars, the 133lb ft of torque is available from exactly zero rpm, so in town it’s actually pretty nippy. Add to that the i’s natural slimline figure and four seats, and you’re looking at a car that carves through normal townie usage like a natural.

  7. The Smart, on the other hand, shoves a Zytek electric motor in the usual place for Smart, just under the boot floor, produces 30Kw of juice (40bhp), about 88lb ft of torque and runs to a limited top speed of just 62mph. Most definitely an urban commuter. But given that the Smart is best suited to urban journeys in the first place, a small, lightweight, but above all safe urban electric car definitely has its place. And Smart knows it: it has started provision for citywide schemes of pick-up/drop-off Smart EDs that work with iPhone apps to check charge and availability - a bit like a private cab system without the mouthy know-it-all up front.

  8. It’s the Mini E though, that seems to make the most immediate sense to the normal driver. Granted, the back seats are full of battery in these early prototypes, but from behind the wheel, you can barely tell the difference between this and a normal Mini Cooper. Except it feels very heavy, scrabbles for grip in the wet and is appreciably quicker. Really. The Mini E manages a spectacular output of 150Kw - nearly 200bhp - which means it’s relatively very quick indeed. It’ll hit 62mph in 8.5 seconds thanks to 162lb ft of torque, and do so with almost alarming grunt. Adding 260kg of battery (5,088 Lith-ion cells to be precise), blunts it somewhat, but Mini reckons that if it ever did a proper production model, a fair bit of proper packaging and general fettling could retrieve the back seats and even make the car handle more like the Mini proper.

  9. And it’s fair to say that driving a purely electric car is a bit of a hoot in town. You’ll be up there with the mopeds for speedy traffic-light drags, and nobody casts poisonous glances because the only noise from all three cars is a muted hum of tyre roar and self-righteousness. It’s brilliant. After a couple of hours of driving any one of these three, you seriously doubt the need for a combustion engine in town at all. Until, of course, the range starts to dip, and you realise that you can’t just pop into a petrol station for an easy top-up.

  10. Some facts, then. The Smart will do about 80 miles between charges if you drive it carefully, at which point it needs to be charged for eight hours. Not terribly convenient unless you can charge at work, or regularly get into a big town early enough to take advantage of metropolitan charging points not populated by the aforementioned G-Wiz infection. The i-MiEV takes six hours charge for its 100-ish mile range, or can be stacked to 80 per cent power in just 20 minutes from Mitsubishi’s hi-po charging system. Allegedly. The Mini will run to roughly 100 miles on an overnight charge, but as with all of our three, drive it like a loon, or have the stereo and aircon pumping and a hilly drive to work, and you’ll severely diminish your effective range.

  11. The costs involved break down pretty effectively though. Charging these cars on an off-peak domestic supply (though you would upgrade your garage charging  point to 32Amp - exactly the same as a domestic cooker outlet) will cost about a quid and a half. They are all tax-exempt, C-Charge exempt, get free parking in certain metropolitan boroughs and sometimes even free charging. Transport for London has even outlined a plan to provide the largest electric vehicle charging point infrastructure to date, whacking in 1,600 ‘leccy charging points across the city in the next 12 months, 7,500 by 2013 and 25k by 2015. So you’ll be able to charge up pretty much anywhere in London at least.

  12. So electric cars-a-go-go in the cities then? Well yes, in theory. These three cars demonstrate unequivocally that as a medium-term urban pollution solution (conveniently ignoring the remote production of electricity for the moment), the electric car really has got it all going on. They’re quiet, refined, usable, remarkably fun and give you a real sense that you’re driving a slice of the future. There’s only one problem: you can’t buy any of them. Yet.

    All three cars are currently classed as kinds of ‘prototypes’ undergoing reality-check trials with private individuals selected by the manufacturers involved, alongside some releases to company fleets. The UK Government currently subsidises the private ‘leases’, so that the early adopters involved pay about £350 a month to run the cars, with Mitsubishi, Mini and Smart gaining real- world data on how their batteries and motors last during real-world conditions.

  13. It won’t be long though. Smart is already talking about series production in 2012, with Mitsubishi hoping that proposed government subsidies of £5k for electric cars would put a dent in the i-MiEV’s cost of £33,699 in 2011. Mini is keen to call its leaseholders ‘pioneers’ - who have to fill in travel logs and the like - but is also keen to point out that the Mini can quite easily be better packaged to claw back those rear seats and add a welcome dose of practicality.

    When all of the pieces of the puzzle start falling into place with the actual mechanics of manufacture, there’s one thing to remember; electric cars are absolutely not the enemy of the petrolhead. Think of them as a way to keep the miles off, and therefore justify the classic 911 or politically incorrect V8 in the garage. They aren’t a replacement for petrol-powered thrills, they’re a protection.

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