Six years ago, while announcing a $5 billion investment in zero-emission cars, Carlos Ghosn, chief executive of Renault-Nissan, forecast that by 2020 about 20% of his company’s output would be electric cars. At the time, Volkswagen described the vaunting ambitions for electric cars as “sheer lunacy”.
Renault-Nissan still has some way to go – out of 8.5m cars it sold in 2015, fewer than 100,000 were electric – but Ghosn was more right than the sceptics. Just over two years ago, vw announced that it had some 40 electric and hybrid cars in the pipeline; and since then, the growth of the electric-car market has accelerated.
Tesla, an American start-up, has rocked the German automotive establishment. Its Model S outsold the Mercedes S-Class and BMW 7 Series in its native California. Last year, in western Europe, it beat the combined sales of the BMW and the Audi 8, while breathing down the neck of the S-Class. It has shown that a superb battery-electric vehicle (BEV) can overcome the innate conservatism of car buyers.
Pollution is giving BEVs a boost. vw appears to have been the worst offender in rigging its nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions – its cars were spewing 40 times more in normal driving conditions than showed up in the tests – but the results for other makers’ diesel vehicles were alarmingly misleading too, and should concern prospective buyers.
The main reason to look seriously at BEVs is that the technology is maturing. Batteries are still expensive and heavy – the 85kWh battery-pack in a Tesla Model S weighs about 1,200lb and costs $16,000 – but the race to produce lighter and cheaper batteries with more power and range is on. The new Chevrolet Bolt, out later this year, has a range of 200 miles and a sticker price (after tax rebates) of less than $30,000. GM says its research suggests that once range exceeds 150 miles, buyers get a lot more interested. In the meantime, networks of fast chargers are reducing the need for electric-car owners to have off-street parking. Tesla currently has 251 supercharger stations in America and 216 in Europe. The network is growing by about 33% a year.
Intense competition is also accelerating battery innovation. With their Korean partners, Samsung and LG, the premium German manufacturers – Mercedes, BMW and Audi – are opting for a different design of lithium-ion battery to the one Panasonic supplies to Tesla. Bosch, the world’s biggest supplier of automotive components, has just bought Seeo, a California-based firm that has developed a solid-state battery based on a nano-structured polymer electrolyte it calls DryLite. Bosch believes that by 2020 it will be producing batteries with twice the range and half the cost of today’s. The holy grail of an electric-car battery that can be charged up as quickly as it takes to pump a tank of fuel is not a fantasy: it may be here in as few as five years.
As BEV technology is improving, so the selection of cars on offer is growing apace. Ford, for example, is intending to build BEV versions of just about every car in its range. Nearly every major maker is also planning several purpose-built BEVs that exploit design opportunities offered by battery power (such as lightweight materials and aerodynamics that take advantage of low-slung electric motors). Mercedes has signed off on four “Tesla-fighters” that will start to appear in 2018, about the same time that Audi’s E-Tron Quattro and Porsche’s Mission E will hit the market. Tesla itself will launch its Model 3, similar in size to the BMW 3 Series and likely to cost about $35,000, in 2017. Many of the new BEVs will lose money for their makers until they are produced in large numbers. But the need to meet increasingly stringent NOx and CO2 emissions and mileage standards leaves manufacturers with little choice.
The outstanding thing about the four cars I tried is their almost magical refinement. Because electric motors deliver instant torque (pulling power) and don’t have lumpy transmissions, these cars step off very smartly from a standing start and do so in almost complete silence. It is hard to think of any conventional cars which come close to being so relaxing to drive in town. Stuck in a traffic jam, there is also something rather nice about knowing that you are not pumping harmful muck into the air.
The Tesla Model S is a superlative achievement for an entirely new car company. It is handsome, almost up to European premium standards in build quality, and very rapid: even the basic Model S 70D gets to 60mph in 5.2 seconds, while the all-wheel-drive P85D takes a scarcely credible 2.8 seconds. It has a huge battery-pack and a range of nearly 300 miles. With a touch-screen to control almost all its functions and its autopilot self-driving system, it bristles with technology.
Rather than try to reassure customers by looking as much like a normal car as possible, BMW’s i3 makes a statement of high-tech modernity, with tall, thin wheels, a tiny snout, zigzag windows and carbon-fibre-reinforced panels. Its cabin is a masterpiece of Scandi-style elegance. But despite typically sharp rear-wheel-drive BMW handling, which makes it feel fantastically agile in town, the i3’s skinny tyres and short wheelbase lend it a slightly skittish feel at motorway speeds. There is also a version with a “range extender”, a small scooter engine that acts as an on-board generator when the battery is about to give up.
With their real-world ranges of around 100 miles, Nissan’s bestselling Leaf, Renault’s Zoe and the i3 all make perfectly practical second cars as long as you have off-street parking and somewhere to put the wall-mounted charger, which replenishes their batteries in three to four hours.
Whether you can live with any of these cars depends on how you intend to use them. They are perfect for regular commutes, less so for longer, irregular journeys. But after driving them, even the best conventionally powered cars can seem slightly crude, old-fashioned and anti-social. If money is no object, go for a top-of-the-range i3. But the less eccentric-looking Zoe gets surprisingly close to the BMW. For the nervous but curious, it’s a great choice.