Electric Zoe steals the show

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Renault's latest electric car, the Zoe, stole the show at this weekend's RAC Future Car Challenge, in which eco-friendly cars drive from Brighton to London.

The winner is the one that uses the smallest amount of energy.

The Zoe won in three categories, while Vauxhall's Ampera won in two.

But the car that caught the imagination of the public was a machine that wouldn't have looked out of place in the old cartoon, The Wacky Races.

This was the Windreich AG ME 2012, otherwise known as the Messerschmitt.

Entirely open to the elements, its German pilots wore aviator goggles, with more than a hint of the Red Baron about them.

"What will you do if it rains?" the pilot was asked.

"You can address that question to my wife, who is sitting behind me," came the answer.

In the event the Messerschmitt won four awards, including the public's choice of the Best Future Car.

Too expensive

But even before this year's race (sorry, event) began, there was controversy, with the organisers declaring that pure electric vehicles are not yet a practical solution for the future of motoring.

"Above all, it's a matter of cost," declared the director of the RAC Foundation, Stephen Glaister.

"Electric cars with a good range are very expensive, and people are unsure about the technology," he said.

Indeed, when Nissan launched its Leaf electric car last year, it went on sale for £26,000, even after the £5,000 government grant was taken into account.

Until the technology, and the price, of electric cars improves, the RAC is advocating more use of hybrid cars, which are part electric and part conventional.

"With a hybrid car, there is no problem about range," said Stephen Glaister, "it's the same as any other conventional vehicle."

So far, the public seems to agree with the RAC. To date this year, more than 20,000 hybrid cars have been sold in the UK, compared with just 750 pure electrics.

Prices coming down

But Renault has an answer to the critics who say that electric cars are too expensive.

For the first time this weekend, its new Zoe model took to the roads of the UK.

When this car goes on sale next year, the basic model will cost £13,650, which is almost half the price of the Leaf, and not far off the cost of a petrol equivalent.

"At that sort of price it does bring it into the budget of most mass-market small cars," said Andy Heiron of Renault UK.

It is supposed to have a range of 130 miles on a single charge, which would be a significant improvement on existing electric vehicles.

The catch here is that Renault will charge you a monthly fee to rent the battery, on top of the cost of the car.

While that removes a good deal of so-called battery anxiety, it's likely to cost motorists around £80 a month extra.

Quieter than a big cat

Following the RAC's advice to buy a hybrid car is also not a cheap option.

Vauxhall's acclaimed Ampera will set you back £30,000.

That didn't stop it winning most energy efficient regular car in this weekend's event, as well as best extended range vehicle. (The car's conventional engine is used to top up the battery, after it has run out of its plug-in charge).

The Ampera could soon have some upmarket competition too.

This weekend Jaguar was showing off a new prototype hybrid, the XJ E, which won the prize for the most energy efficient luxury car.

"How do I start it up?" I asked, getting behind the wheel.

In the background I heard a polite chuckle, as Dave the engineer explained that the engine was already running.

This one really does purr more quietly than a big cat.

The Jaguar works like the Toyota Prius, in that it uses its electric motor at slow speeds, and switches to its petrol engine as it speeds up.

It's a well-tested system, which has met with widespread public acceptance.

Andy Heiron of Renault described it as electric motoring "on stabilisers", because it's relatively easy for people to adapt to.

Yet the head of electric vehicles at Jaguar, Pete Richings, believes this technology is the best answer for the time being.

"In time, the ability to develop an electric vehicle will appear," he said.

"But I would tend to agree with the RAC, that at the moment, the electric vehicle is not really in place."

Renault and Nissan, who together are investing no less than four billion euros in electric cars, strongly disagree with that.

They hope the Zoe will help motorists change their minds when it launches early next year.

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