Jon Bentley tests an electric car
I think I got the best deal out of the electric car test in this week's show. Whereas my team of tech testers were paralysed by a fear of running out of juice in their battery only vehicles (a phenomenon commonly known as ‘range anxiety’), my BMW i3 came with peace of mind in the form of an (optional) 650cc range extending petrol engine in the boot.
This meant I could enjoy all the fast-accelerating fun of electric power - up to 40mph or so the i3 really is one of the briskest things on the road - without fear that I'd flatten the batteries and have to wait for them to be charged. Indeed within the first few miles of i3 driving I had already beaten a BMW M3 off at the lights, and I was finding the handling round town on the thin tyres quite exhilarating, with plenty of feedback through the steering. I was also loving the quirky styling and the airy interior with individual features like the plant material used in the dashboard trim and the blue interior lights.
I didn't mind plugging the car in overnight – charging took around 10 hours on my standard 13A socket. Even pulling out the charging cable at Tesco’s while shopping was quite a novelty and added a few extra miles to the range, though my local charging stations didn’t offer the fast DC charging that can achieve an 80% charge in around 30 minutes. In fact after the first day or two I almost fooled myself into thinking this was the future of motoring – at least if you’re well-heeled enough to afford the 30-grand plus asking price, or the not insignificant monthly leasing charges.
But a two-hundred mile plus round trip to Somerset proved something of a reality check. I started off on battery power for the first twenty or so miles then switched to the petrol engine which generated enough electricity to maintain charge in the battery at 70-75%, while also spinning the electric motor, so long as I didn’t try to mix it with the fastest motorway traffic. After another 70 miles or so the petrol in the tiny 9-litre tank was exhausted and I used the battery power as my reserve to amble to the nearest fuel station (about another 10 miles). I then switched back to petrol, and as the day wore on, had to make a further fuel stop, switching back to electric power when I felt the range left in the battery was equal to my remaining distance from home.
While I didn’t have any range anxiety to worry about. the frequent stops made the journey much slower than usual and, when using the petrol engine, you only achieve around 35 to 40 mpg - much worse than my diesel powered car, which also doesn't have to stop at the pumps every hour or so.
The likeable i3 might be great if you already have a conventionally-fuelled car for longer journeys, and can afford an environmentally responsible additional car for a short-ish commute. But, for now, I think most drivers after economical, environmentally friendly transport would be better off with a small, modern petrol car.
Driving an electric car for a week has, however changed my view of the world in one surprising respect. I now get annoyed every time I see a petrol or diesel car parked in an electric car charging bay. I gather electric car drivers call this being “ICE’d”, short for Internal Combustion Engine’d. It really winds me up.