UK’s newest electric cars turning heads at last
- 6 April 2012
- From the section Business
Sitting outside the Barley Mow on Tilford village cricket ground, a group of early evening drinkers swing their gaze from left to right, as earnestly as fans of Andy Murray on Centre Court.
Indeed, what they're watching has just flashed past with the quiet fizz of a tennis ball.
But this isn't Wimbledon.
The object of their fascination is the Vauxhall Ampera, the latest electric car to arrive in the UK.
For unusually in the world of electric motoring, this is a car that actually looks rather cool: the first head-turner in its class, perhaps.
And it's a sign that electric cars are changing fast.
Ranges are extending, charge times are decreasing and prices are about to halve.
In the space of a year and a half, the economics of electric motoring will have changed significantly.
Britain's best-known electric car, the Nissan Leaf, currently sells for just under £26,000, once the government grant of £5,000 is deducted.
This month, the Renault Fluence will enter showrooms in the UK with prices starting from £17,500.
And by the autumn, the Renault Zoe will be with us for less than £14,000.
How has Renault achieved such price reductions so rapidly?
For starters, the company has gone for a new model of ownership.
Drivers will buy the car, but rent the battery quite separately. Depending on mileage, the rental costs will be roughly £1,000 a year.
But for that price, you get a battery that is guaranteed for life. That should mean no more worries about batteries deteriorating over time, or depressing the second-hand value of the car.
Driving the Fluence through the daffodil-fringed villages of the Chiltern Hills, it's hard not to get a good feeling.
Until the moment at which range anxiety begins to kick in.
In theory, the Fluence has a range of up to 125 miles (200km), but in practice, you can call that between 70 and 80 miles, especially in colder weather.
And it still needs up to eight hours to charge the battery.
"It's not the car for everybody," admits Andy Heiron, the head of Renault's electric car division in the UK.
"But the vast majority of people travel less than 40 miles a day," he says.
"And that's a significant enough proportion of people for whom a vehicle with a 100-mile range makes perfect sense."
Despite such arguments, electric motoring so far hasn't caught on.
Philip Hammond, then Transport Secretary, predicted that 2011 was going to be the year the industry took off.
In Britain last year, just 1,000 electric cars were sold, even though the government offered its considerable incentive to buyers.
Leading the charge?
But if Renault hasn't yet solved the range problem, General Motors claims it has.
Next month, the car born as the Chevrolet Volt in the US will go on sale in the UK as the Vauxhall Ampera.
The Volt has had disappointing sales in the US, partly because of a series of fires in its batteries after crash testing.
So can it do any better in the UK?
Vauxhall is targeting 2,000 sales this year and 5,000 in 2013. While it is aiming particularly at the corporate market, these are ambitious numbers.
But certainly anyone looking for a longer driving range may want to look at the Ampera seriously.
Even though it will only do between 20 and 50 miles on its battery alone, it has a range-extending generator which kicks in automatically after that, taking its possible mileage up to 350 miles.
That's certainly enough to get you from London to Carlisle, if not London to Edinburgh.
"Conventional battery vehicles are fine as a second car, maybe for local commuting," says Denis Chick of Vauxhall.
"But this can be the primary family car, so you don't have to consider getting a second."
Yet with the petrol-driven generator, it's hard to calculate running costs.
Vauxhall claims it will do between 50 and 100 miles to the gallon, which would compare favourably with many other small cars.
But the biggest stumbling block remains the cost: £29,950 for the basic version, after accounting for the government grant.
Even for a good-looker, that's a lot of money.
Electric technology is changing fast. Renault's idea of renting out the battery separately from the cost of the car has inspired an Israeli company, called Better Place, to start building battery swap stations.
The idea is that you drive in and automatically get your battery swapped, in about the same time it takes to fill up with a tank of petrol.
No need to recharge the battery on a long drive, so the range becomes nearly indefinite.
The company is building a network of such stations in Israel, Denmark and later this year in Australia, although there are no plans to build any yet in the UK.
"I think battery-swapping is a brilliant idea," says Renault's Andy Heiron.
"But don't hold off, waiting for the miracle solution, when the reality is that cable charging is what most people will be working with for several years."
When the Zoe is launched this autumn, Renault also claims that the charging time issue will also have been resolved.
The car will accept so-called fast charging, which allows it to receive 80% of a full charge in just half an hour.
With its price tag of £13,650, that could make it a real game-changer.
Philip Hammond's sentiments may even prove correct, if several years later than he originally predicted.