The Peugeot-Citroen group has been investigating electric vehicles since 1968, and publicly exhibited an electric version of its stylish 205 in 1984. Now it has 14 of its smallest current model, the 106, at work in Coventry, some run by the company itself, some by a variety of services including the Royal Mail, East Midlands Electricity and the local authority. In general, the fact that the car doesn't perform like a hot hatch doesn't seem to be inconveniencing the guinea- pig operators much, their priorities being reliability, ease of use, and eco-friendliness coupled with the all-round handling, refinement and safety characteristics of what Peugeot calls "a proper car". You can't, as yet, buy one of these machines from a Peugeot forecourt, because the agencies nationally don't have the servicing back up and parts availability to look after them. But the model appears in the Peugeot brochure in France, where the government gives you a grant to reward your public spiritedness. The outcome of the Coventry Electric Vehicle Project (and the political effectiveness of the Europe-wide electric- car lobby organisation, Zeus), will help companies like Peugeot decide whether or not to extend availability.
What's it like to drive? Nothing like a milk-float, if that's your worry. A couple of minutes into my outing with the 106 Electric, I waited endlessly at a T-junction on to a busy road because I couldn't believe real-car oomph would be there. Peugeot's alternative-fuel guru Graham Deeming urged me to go for it. Silently, the car surged out into the traffic stream, and though the take-off certainly doesn't put the tyres at any risk (the car takes around eight seconds to reach 30mph), it's a perfectly acceptable performance for built-up areas. The 106 happily keeps up with the traffic flow - though on dual carriageways and faster roads, it's wiser to cruise at 45mph than 50mph or above, because the battery drain rises sharply.
There are no gears and no clutch, you start it with a perfectly conventional twist of an ignition key, and then hear almost nothing but the hum of a fan cooling the 20 nickel-cadmium batteries distributed around the chassis. Reverse is a push-button on the fascia. The batteries make the car around a third heavier than a regular 106, which contributes to the rather weary feeling the car exudes when ascending a steep hill, and such restrictions as there are make you plan your driving manoeuvres a little further ahead - no bad habit to engender anyway. Otherwise driving it couldn't be easier, though you have to keep an eye on the energy meter that replaces the rev counter, which announces the percentage of charge you have left. The range can be 45 miles or so with unreconstructed petrol-car right-foot habits, 65 miles plus with gentler use. Then you just plug the car's charger into any mains supply.
I figured out that most of my dom- estic driving (school, shops, sociability) involves short enough journeys for the 106 Electric to handle with ease, and the uncanny quietness is a big plus in the driving-stress department, coupled with the generally uncompetitive mode that you have to get into when driving this car, or its leisurely momentum would drive you nuts. The current major electric-car snag is cost, because low production runs mean the electronics are virtually hand-made, and nickel-cadmium battery prices are so high that it only makes sense to lease them for their eight-year lifespan, not buy them outright. But driving the Peugeot 106 Electric was an agreeable surprise. Only wider use, stimulated by financial support for pioneering punters, will bring prices down. Maybe they should lend a fleet to the Cabinet.
Almost silent, modest acceleration and top speed (0-30mph in eight seconds, maximum speed 56mph), severe power drop on steep hills, but simple to drive, like an automatic without a shift.
STAYING ALIVE/HANGING OUT
Standard Peugeot 106 chassis, but with uprated springs to cope with extra weight. Nip and eagerness of the regular 106 a little dampened by the heavy battery load, but power steering is standard; road feel a bit knobbly, stability generally good; driver/passenger airbags potentially optional, not anti-lock brakes.
Cramped even by supermini standards, though headroom okay; 106's reasonable boot-room reduced by rear batteries; power steering, central locking, no electric windows; heater unit petrol- powered from small auxiliary tank.
Slow on hills, limited range, length of recharge time (currently up to six hours, but fast-chargers on the way).
Silence, simplicity, no emissions (unless, of course, you count what the electric power-stations put out).