Batteries included: Are eco-friendly cars any good?

Politicians want British drivers to switch over to eco-friendly cars. They're silent and stylish – but are they any good? John Walsh puts pedal to the metal
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The first shot of the electrical car revolution was fired on 10 January 1985.

Rather than change the world, it hit a wall of media criticism, ricocheted against several bricks of public abuse and pinged back to strike its originator between the eyes. It was the winter morning when Sir Clive Sinclair, the eccentric, beady-eyed, ginge-bearded inventor of pocket calculators and microcomputers, introduced the Sinclair C5, the world's first electric car.

It was an odd-looking thing, like a pointlessly streamlined invalid carriage, 6ft long, 2ft 6in high, 2ft 6in wide and weighing just 99lb. Instead of petrol, it ran on a 33lb lead acid battery which drove a 250-watt electric motor – identical, journalists noted, to the one that powers your mum's washing machine. Its top speed was a snaily 15mph, and it could travel a whole 20 miles between recharges. Imagine.

How they scoffed, the C5's first spectators, as they watched the shoe-shaped machine slither in the snow. Nobody believed the 20-mile claim. Sceptics noted it used more electricity in cold weather and struggled so much uphill, the driver was obliged to use pedals. Its height made it dangerous for the occupant, who, A: couldn't been seen by lorry- or jeep-drivers, and B: would be choked by car fumes just at the level of his or her nose.

It was a disaster. Nobody wanted the C5, the invention that conferred instant wally status on anyone foolish enough to climb into it. Sir Clive became a figure of ridicule. The price was slashed from £399 to £199 to offload the surplus stock. By October, Sinclair vehicles were in the hands of the receivers, and production of the C5 ceased. Electric cars? Pah, everyone said. They're battery-powered toys, one step up from milk floats. They are slow, anaemic, whining, pathetic and need charging up with flex and socket every few miles. How am I supposed to drive one to the Cairngorms? Don't talk to me about electric cars.

Scoot forward to 2009 and you could be forgiven for thinking our relationship with the things had scarcely improved. The only electric car driven by anyone I know is the GoinGreen G-Wiz and, much as I like the owner, you'd never catch me in one. I recall the nitric scorn heaped on it by Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear. He abused its cramped conditions, its lethal cornering, its arse-juddering suspension, its sluggish performance: you can't, he pointed out, access the radio or the fan, or have electric windows, or go fast or even stop, "because it'll wear the battery down". He mocked the fact that the EU didn't classify the G-Wiz as a car at all, but a "quadricycle". He raced one against a standard Renault (it lost) and a kitchen table carried by six men (it lost when it ran out of juice). Plus, EU data also revealed that, whatever its manufacturers claimed about a 45mph top speed, the average speed at which it's usually driven is 10mph. Twenty-odd years after the C5, the electric car is still becalmed near the intersection of Toytown and Rubbishville.

Not for much longer. Last week, the Government rolled out a scheme to persuade the population to love, or consider loving, electric cars – sorry, "environmentally-friendly vehicles", because they're not all electric; at least one runs on wind turbine energy. The scheme, fronted by Paul Drayson, the science minister, is costing £25m and will make 340 cars from various manufacturers available, at the end of the year, to members of the public to test, on short-term leases, in eight areas, including London, Glasgow, Birmingham and Oxford.

Universities and regional areas will be encouraged to help by experimenting with finding ways to supply the nervous electric motorist with charging points. The aim is to cut road transport emissions in the UK by half, from 22 per cent to 11 per cent.

The Government's scheme will start with four models: they'll be given the Star Wars-ish title of the Ultra Low-Carbon Vehicle Fleet. They are the Smart Electric Drive, owned by Mercedes; the MiniE from BMW; the Expert Eurobus (formerly the Teepee) from Peugeot, and the Lightning from the combined forces of Westfield and Delta Motorsport. But hardly had the scheme been announced than other makers pitched in. Ford Motors announced its own "global commitment" to developing "Battery Electric Vehicles" or BEVs. They're not saying which makes or models will take part in the scheme, but we shall find out by the end of the year.

Will we like them? I thought I'd go for an early sighting. I am no petrol-head, but I love cars. I practically live in my Alfa Romeo 159. Could I find an electric one that didn't make me feel (and look) a fool or a geek when driving it? Could I turn myself into an amp-head, a watt-brain, an ohm-body?

The cool-looking Lightning, sad to report, isn't currently available, since it's still being built. Ditto the Mini E, which BMW hope will be available to the public by November. So I high-tailed it to west London to try out the Smart ED.

People are in two minds about Smart cars. They look slightly ludicrous, but are becoming less so. They nip in and out of traffic like annoying hornets, but have a certain miniature charm.

At first sighting of the ED, your heart sinks. Climbing into one is like getting into one of those electrically-operated toy vans you see outside supermarkets. It's all front seat, driver's door, then nothing. I was reminded of the moment in the wartime movie Kings Row, when the unfortunate Ronald Reagan, having fallen foul of a vindictive surgeon, wakes up in hospital to find both his legs amputated, and cries: "Where's the rest of me?" Inside, though, it's not half bad. There's plenty of headroom. Even if, like me, you're six-feet-one, there's plenty of legroom. The dashboard is charming. On the left of the speedometer, two little dials poke up like antennae on a robot: one's a clock, the other tells you how much percentage of electricity remains.

I switched it on, nervously. I put it in gear. (There are three gears: neutral, drive and reverse. Electric cars don't need clutches, transmission, spark plugs, engine oil, filters, exhaust, any of that stuff.) I gingerly placed my foot on the accelerator. A strange, mosquito whine filled the air: "Eeeeeeeee." Slowly, painfully, the Smart ED inched forward, as though expressing a whingey reluctance to go anywhere (or anywhere with me). Once I left the car park, the noise resolved into a cute, kittenish mewing, then disappeared. It was damned odd to be driving something so discreetly, mutedly, virginally, monkishly, mortifiedly silent.

As I became used to its teeny size, things became easier. It was still sluggish getting away from traffic lights, but I could feel it trying. It handled very lightly – sometimes I felt I was sitting on a metal tray with windows – but was a little ponderous when taking corners, hardly surprising when you think of the heavy battery pack under the floor. Though my reflection in shop windows looked a little ridiculous (especially with the words "emission zero!" emblazoned just under my nose), it was easy to feel rather cool and zippy.

The makers claim a top speed of 60 mph and I can confirm that, in a burst of enthusiasm, I got it up to 56mph on the M4 before being forced to subside. The main drawback of the Smart ED, though, is that you spend a lot of time watching the dial that tells you how much juice is left. At the start of my drive, the dial said 83 per cent remained. After an hour, the figure had reduced to 60. At times, I thought I could see the needle moving before my eyes while I hummed along. They say you can drive 70 miles before needing to recharge the battery. I'm afraid I'd have one eye on the dial all the way.

It's a simple drive, in a car that feels properly constructed, rather than fashioned from plastic. It doesn't emit carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, unburned hydrocarbons – it doesn't emit anything except a high-pitched whine. And charging it means sticking a blue plug into a six-pin socket and sticking the three-pin plug at the end of a long yellow flex into a household socket, for up to eight hours. Call me a dreamer, but the Smart ED seems to represent the normalisation of the electric car. If only someone could apply the transformation to a family-sized saloon ...

Should you have an unusually large family – very large – you might talk to Peugeot, who are taking part in the Government's trial. For a year from this autumn, they'll supply 40 of their "zero emission vehicles" (ZEVs) for drivers in Glasgow, in partnership with the local battery company, Axeon. During the trial period, Scottish Power will set up 40 electric-charging points around Glasgow. All the data about car journeys will be recorded by satellite and analysed by boffins at Strathclyde University. The only drawback to the plan is that ZEVs aren't your usual family runaround. They are big commercial vans and "multiple passenger vehicles" (or as we say in English, "buses").

I headed for the Peugeot showroom in Chiswick and took out a Peugeot Expert Eurobus. It's a big, roomy, metal box with windows; it will never appeal to the boy racer but, in its electrical incarnation, it's fun to drive. You feel like you're sitting six feet above other motorists, humming along in near-silence. The suspension is so bouncy that driving over speed bumps is like hitting a trampoline – and then there's the gear lever.

Just the sight of it made me laugh out loud. Plonked in the middle of the wide dashboard, sitting on a metallic pad the size of a beer mat, the lever is the size of a toothpick, tapering outwards at the top. It resembles one of those miniscule screwdrivers you get in a Christmas cracker. You flick it forward an inch, and the 3,000kg bus moves forward. Flick it back an inch, and the metal Behemoth obediently reverses. I flicked it back and forth a dozen times, entranced by the power and heft that could be accessed by prodding something the size of a Twiglet.

The Eurobus has a top speed of 70, and a range of 100 miles between rechargings; the makers suggest you treat it like a pet, settling it down after a hard day's driving, for "a good night's charge", so you can assume eight hours is standard.

I was beginning to warm to electric cars – their silent efficiency, their clean energy, their lack of bits that can go wrong. Hard-core petrol-heads will never love them – without all the complex engine parts, no exhaust system, fuel system, gearbox or clutch, they rather resemble a human body with no internal organs, only a robot brain and an On/Off switch – but you can see them catching on, as soon as the problem of recharging availability is solved. Should sockets be available on the forecourt of every petrol service station? Or would the petrol companies consider that helping the enemy?

What I missed about the cars I'd tried was a sense of style. Then I learned that the Tesla company was opening a London outpost. Tesla is a name that raises goose-bumps on some motorists' skin. Rumours have flown for months about the Californian company owned by Elon Munsk, whose electric Roadster is a sports car that can reportedly out-race a Porsche and a Ferrari from a standing start.

The showroom was in Knightsbridge. The four cars on display were jaw-droppingly beautiful - sleek and glistening in red or silver. The makers have adapted the chassis from a Lotus Elise, made it 6in longer and 2in wider, its carbon-fibre skin as smooth as butter. The gear stick is a perfect silver ball like a Ferrari's. The seats are low-lying and buttock-clenching. The leather upholstery is black and red, finished with exposed stitching like a Savile Row suit.

Don Cochrane, who runs the UK office, is a handsome, Wapping-born Londoner with coal-black hair and a boundless optimism about electric cars. He dismissed the idea that Tesla was in competition with the environmentally-friendly cars coming out from BMW, Peugeot, Mercedes and Ford. "We're not making cars in their price bracket. But I'm happy to see more electric cars in the market place. The more people see them, the more they'll say, 'Maybe it's realistic for me to have an electric car for the 20 miles a day that I drive, instead of a combustion-engined vehicle.' " A car lover rather than an environmental zealot, he is nonetheless keen to change people's perspectives: "It makes sense that if things are going to change, you should be part of that change and not have it forced upon you." He used to work for Formula One under Bernie Ecclestone. Could he imagine an electric model ever having the performance level of Formula One cars?

"Certainly. Give it five years. There's so much investment now in battery technology. One positive side-effect of this recession is that governments are bailing out companies but, as part of the bailout, are forcing them to work on more environmental cars. Ford just announced they're going to build two; that's because they're just got $1.5bn of DOE money from the States."

Mr Cochrane can talk at torrential length about battery technology and the 6,831 lithium-ion cells that make up the battery in every Tesla Roadster. He can explain with admirable fluency the "torque curve" of ordinary cars, as they increase their power ratio through the gears, and how electric cars provide 100 per cent torque all the time (but controllably). He explained how the Roadster's top speed is 125 mph and that it can go 200 miles without recharging. I listened politely, but itched to try it. We rolled the doors aside, Cochrane started the engine (silently) and rolled the silver Roadster out into the narrow roadway. He glided into a side-road, then – in a burst of pure showing-off – whizzed in reverse round the corner, fast as a whipcrack. I climbed in (the seats make you virtually horizontal), plied the key, engaged "Drive" and glided away, with no whining, no wheel-grind, no noise at all except the envious cooing of passers-by.

It was a completely new driving experience: touch the accelerator and you rocket forward, the G-force pushing you back in your leather seat as if you're on a fairground ride, although you never feel out of control. The handling is (as with the Smart ED) a touch heavy when cornering, but deliciously smooth on the straight. Though the car lies very close to the road, it bounces over bumps and sleeping policemen as if pillowed in goosedown. And you can't help but feel a boyish glee about the vast coiled spring of power and speed that's detectable under your hands. On Hammersmith flyover, doing 50 with no traffic ahead, I experimentally floored the accelerator to see what would happen. The car leapt forward, in a split-second, to 70mph. Talk about torque. It was scary (and possibly illegal) but tremendously exhilarating.

By the time I returned it, with the greatest reluctance, to Mr Cochrane's tender care, I was determined to buy one. There are 500 lucky Californians driving Roadsters and amazing their friends with their environmental responsibility and their love of speed. It's time I joined them. It'll only take 20 years or so of patient savings to find the £94,000 I'll need.

With their curious little fleet of tiny Smart cars and Minis, and huge utility vehicles from Peugeot, the Government may have an uphill struggle making British people love electrical cars. The shadow of the Sinclair C5 hasn't completely dispersed. I suspect if the sceptics were given five minutes in a Tesla, they'd change their minds. It's becoming obvious that the electrics are where the future of cars must lie. Whoever comes up with the first mid-range, sensible-sized, four-door family model for under £20,000, with a charging-range of at least 100 miles, will be a very lucky winner indeed, in this fascinating off-shoot of the race to environmental purity.

On the circuit: The electric alternatives

Smart Electric Drive 4-2

Top speed: 60mph

Charge time: 4 hours

Distance between charges: 70 miles

Price: Not yet released

***

Peugeot Expert Eurobus

Top speed: 70mph

Charge time: 7 hours

Distance between charges: 100 miles

Price: £55,000

***

Tesla Roadster

Top speed: 130mph

Charge time: 3.5 hours

Distance between charges: 220 miles

Price: £94,000

***

Lightning

Top speed: 130mph

Charge time: 10 minutes with a special converter (two hours without it)

Distance between charges: 188 miles

Price: £120,000

With good looks and racing car technology, the Lightning is at the forefront of electric car revolution. It can do 0 to 60mph faster than many petrol sports cars but without the maintenance hassle. However, a guilt-free sports car experience doesn't come cheap.

***

NICE / Fiat Micro-Vett e500 electric

Top speed: 60mph

Charge time: 6-8 hours

Distance between charges: 75miles

Price: £25,000

This Italian-made motor won Europe's Car of the Year and has an advanced electric drive system. Like the Aixam Mega City it also comes with lithium-ion batteries which means higher speeds and a longer range than some other electric cars on the market.

***

Aixam Mega City

Top speed: 40mph

Charge time: 5-8 hours

Distance between charges: 60 miles.

Price: £14,175

For a two-seater, surprisingly roomy and has a large boot. Like all electric cars it's exempt from road taxand is one of the most popular electric vehicles in Britain with 180 already on the road.

***

G-Wiz L-ion

Top speed: 51mph

Charge time: 6 hours

Distance between charges: 75 miles

Price: £15,795

A nippier upgrade to the two-seater G-Wiz seen on the streets of London over the last few years. A bit boxy, but it's the world's first mainstream lithium-ion powered electric vehicle.

***

Mitsubishi i-MiEV

Top speed: 87mph

Charge time: 20 minutes

Distance between charges: 100 miles

Price: £29,300

One of the fastest electric cars but what really sets this Japanese-designed car apart is its remarkable charge time of only 20 minutes, making it super-convenient. The batteries are hidden beneath the floor, leaving room for a surprising amount of space for four people.

***

Mini E BMW

Top speed: 95mph

Charge time: 2.5 hours with a special converter, 8 hours without)

Distance between charges: 156 miles

Price: Still being trialed

The Mini's electric makeover is truly stylish. Trials will be held across the UK in autumn but apply well in advance through Mini for a test drive. It boasts safe handling for dynamic stability control and the power-assisted steering reacts to driving conditions.

Additional reporting by Kate Proctor

... and the biker's option

Xero's eScooter Classic

Top speed: 30mph

Charge time: 6-8 hours

Distance between charges: 50 miles

Price: £1,499

Dan Barber, who rides a conventional petrol-powered scooter, tested Xero's eScooter Classic. He says: "The main thing you notice is how quiet this is. You don't get any sense it's started until it moves. That makes it very difficult to tell how fast you're going – but the brakes are nicely responsive and the acceleration okay.

"I own a Vespa GT and this doesn't have the same growl to it, or oomph when you're picking up speed. In fact, it felt a bit like driving a milk float. One of the major plus points is that, despite being a similar size to a petrol bike, it's much easier to manoeuvre (backing it up, for instance) because it's lighter. On the downside, because it's so light I would be really worried about being carried off by a side wind. Looks-wise, it's striking, a bit faux-retro, and a bit flashy. The biggest downside is that it is legally restricted to go no faster than 30mph. This could prove tricky if you needed to accelerate out of difficulty.

I prefer my classic Vespa for all its sins, but the price is excellent for a new scooter, there's little maintenance involved – and it's good for the environment."

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