One of the biggest problems with electric vehicles (EVs), I feel, is cosmetic, leaving aside range anxiety or the hassle of finding a free charging spot. Tesla’s Model S might be a gorgeous looking car, but you couldn’t say the same of the more popular and more affordable Nissan Leaf, the Renault Zoe or the Kia Soul EV. Though beauty may indeed lie in the eyes of the beholder, perhaps good looks simply come at a premium in this segment – the Model S starts at €81,086, the BMW i8 at €142,360, far outside the budgets of many motorists who buy with their eyes as much as their head.
There’s no doubt that we live in an age of motoring evolution, watching history unfold before our eyes. Hybrid and electric vehicles were once the butt of many motoring columnists’ jokes, discarded as a waste of time or, at their worst, as something which threatened the joy of true motoring. In a way it’s an ironic viewpoint, considering that electric cars have been around almost as long as their counterparts which rely on miniature explosions for propulsion. But they’re steadily gaining a foothold in the modern era, thanks in part to government schemes, the interest of early adopters and increasingly efficient technology.31
Nissan’s Leaf is an affordable electric car which has got a lot going for it in terms of comfort and ease of use, even if it isn’t the best looking vehicle on the market. Ford have an electric Focus which doesn’t look altogether different from the outside. Mitsubishi’s i-Miev might look a like a bug which has crashed into your windscreen at speed, but it’s a useful city car and isn’t all that bad to drive. Even BMW have got in on the act, with their luxury i3 and the electric sportscar, the i8. And eventually we’ll see Tesla’s beautifully crafted Model S reach European shores, looking for all the world like the offspring of a Jaguar and an Aston Martin. For the electric car enthusiast there’s quite the range of options, a list which continues to grow.
These vehicles have one thing in common – they’re all road cars, designed for smooth tarmac, urban (and rural) roads. And if you want to delve deeper, off road, via battery power? The options are limited. There’s Toyota’s RAV 4 EV, but that’s only sold in California. Porsche, meanwhile, have launched a hybrid Cayenne, although that is likely to be out of reach for the ordinary EV driver. You could always try to manoeuvre a BMW i3 around a muddy track, but you’re not likely to get very far. The Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV (plug in hybrid electric vehicle) is another story, however.
Having had the good fortune to test drive several quite nice cars during my time as a motoring journalist – including Toyota’s GT86 and the frankly fantastic Audi A8 – I believe it’s fair to say that the BMW i3 is the one vehicle which has received the most attention. That’s not to say, however, that all of this attention has been completely positive. ‘Unique’ is possibly the best way of describing the exterior styling, which hovers in that ambiguous grey zone of subjectivity (as opposed to the Aston Martin DB9, which is simply and undeniably beautiful). From the outside, at least, it’s clearly a BMW – just look at the aggressive front kidney grille which is at home with the rest of the range (actually fully closed on the i3, whose electric motor doesn’t need cooling air), though the iconic propeller badge now features an electric blue rim encircling the blue and white disc. Several onlookers enjoyed its distinct looks. Many thought it was simply ugly. One preferred the styling of the Nissan Leaf, a viewpoint I still find quite puzzling. At worst, the i3’s looks will grow on you and, at best, it’s better than the Leaf.
With its tall stance on the road, you would be forgiven for thinking the i3 doesn’t handle very well at first but this notion is quickly dismissed once you get going, and the i3 handles curves and bends with confidence, helped to a great degree by the car’s low centre of gravity as the batteries are stored in the floor. The i3’s tyres are an interesting feature. Designed especially by Bridgestone they have a larger diameter and a narrower tread yet they still grip well in all conditions, and they’re more aerodynamic to boot, something which Bridgestone refers to as ‘ologic’ technology.
To drive, the i3 is surprisingly different from what I expected. I stepped into the cabin having never driven an electric car before, and perhaps brought several typical petrolhead prejudices on board – namely that electric cars are pointless, too slow (despite the fact that torque is available immediately) and you’d only make it several miles before having to scurry about in a panic, searching for a socket. It took an embarrassingly short time for those preconceptions to disappear (mostly). For starters, the i3 is anything but slow. Gently tap the accelerator and you’ll find yourself launching forward at a somewhat alarming rate before you find the brake. The i3 has a 0-100 time of just 7.9 seconds (for the range extender (REx) version) and it’s quite eerie to be thrust forward that fast accompanied by the sound of silence (and possibly only your startled squeaks). Bear in mind that the accelerator here works more like an on/off switch – once you remove your foot from the pedal, the i3 immediately begins to slow down quite noticeably.
BMW have also included regenerative braking on the i3 and for drivers suffering from the very real affliction that is range anxiety, it’s nice to see the range creep upwards by a few km now and then instead of the opposite. Once you take your foot off the accelerator the electric motor switches from drive mode to power generation and begins feeding electricity to the lithium-ion battery. If you’re worried about a lack of warning for the car behind you, the brake lights will illuminate if the energy recuperation process produces the same braking effect as if you were pressing the brake pedal.
New kid on the block Tesla has looked to cut out the middleman in American car sales by attempting to sell directly to its potential customers. US dealerships, predictably, aren’t too happy about this, and have filed suit across multiple states to avoid having to compete with the electric brand. Tesla has since been battling dealers and their friends in political places to allow them to sell their cars without having to set up a dealer network – at the moment, Tesla operates stores or galleries in 22 US states, though consumers can’t actually buy a Tesla car from these locations as they might from a conventional dealership.
There are arguments for and against direct sales. Dealerships in America, for example, are going with the argument that such a move would leave the poor, defenceless consumer at the mercy of the automaker, in the event of anything going wrong. Those in favour of Tesla selling directly to consumers take great glee in poking holes in such arguments. And you can’t really argue with them. Anybody who has bought a car knows that while there are some salespeople out there who are genuine these are, unfortunately, few and far between, and a great deal too many seem only interested in squeezing as much as they can out of your wallet before you leave. In a report published by the Consumer Federation of America in July 2013, complaints about car sales topped the top ten list of consumer complaints for the country in 2012; including misrepresentation in new/used car advertising, faulty repairs and the sale of ‘lemons’ i.e. cars which have only been found to be defective after they’ve been bought.
Tesla, meanwhile, maintains it wants nothing to do with the dealership model, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it views this system as a way of extracting more money from consumers, particularly in relation to servicing and maintenance. Secondly, it remains wary of the risk it might run in putting its new technology on sale beside conventional combustion engines. As Elon Musk said in a recent blog post: “The reason that we did not choose to do this is that the auto dealers have a fundamental conflict of interest between promoting gasoline cars, which constitute almost all their revenue, and electric cars, which constitute almost none. Moreover, it is much harder to sell a new technology car from a new company when people are so used to the old. Inevitably, they revert to selling what’s easy and it is game over for the new company.”
It has to be said there’s a certain irony in such restrictions being placed on Tesla in what has been known as ‘the Land of the Free’, particularly as the US has long been a capitalist nation, with many politicians and commentators lauding the benefits of a free-market economy. Most recently, the state of New Jersey blocked the automaker from selling directly to the public, something which Tesla has vowed to fight. In early March, NJ Governor Chris Christie addressed a conservative convention saying: “We need to talk about the fact that we are for a free-market society that allows your effort and ingenuity to determine your success, not the cold, hard hand of the government,” a contradiction which has not gone unnoticed.
Dealers in Ohio have also been campaigning against Tesla’s expansion in their state, arguing that their prospects for success will be damaged if a line isn’t drawn between manufacturer and dealer. Basically speaking, dealerships in America are protected by laws dating back decades, which were brought in to protect auto dealers from the likes of Ford and General Motors from moving in and taking a slice of the profits. The only problem is that there aren’t any Tesla dealerships for them to hurt by selling directly to the public, yet they remain bound by those laws, or those which have since been updated.
One solution, according to the dealerships, is for Tesla to change their business plan, and adopt the third-party dealership route used by other car manufacturers. So why can’t Tesla simply do this?
Part of it has to do with simple arithmetic. The reason Tesla’s two models have come into being is a result of their development of a battery which could offer similar performance to fossil fuel-powered cars in the same class. Unfortunately, the lithium cell batteries are expensive, and add quite a lot to the cost of the car to the consumer, factoring in Tesla’s cut. Add in the cut for a third-party dealership and you’ve got a car which could be prohibitively expensive for a new technology. That may be alright for a BMW or Mercedes running on petrol or diesel, but Tesla’s battery-powered offering is still leaving consumers undecided. Tesla officials have also stressed the point that with a new technology the process would run much smoother with direct interaction between manufacturer and consumers.
And, in cases where the dealership sells more than one car, issues could arise around a mix of electric and fossil fuel vehicles – dealers may be less inclined to sell an electric car which would need a great deal less servicing when compared to a petrol/diesel car, as Musk referred to in his blog post.
This is a new technology, and Tesla will unsurprisingly do whatever they can to make sure it takes off, and to make sure that it doesn’t become another Fisker or Coda. Selling directly (and by doing so, eliminating the middlemen and a chunk of the price) is one way of doing it. In the future, the price of the batteries should decrease, thanks to Tesla’s upcoming investment in their ‘Gigafactory’ where the company will work with battery manufacturing partners to cut costs through creative manufacturing processes. The company expects that the cost per kWh will be reduced by 30 per cent by 2017, and the benefits to consumers from such reduced costs will only increase, something the auto industry is fully aware of.
Perhaps some compromise could be reached down the line, or perhaps the fighting will only get more fierce. While dealers are up in arms about Tesla selling selling to their customers with a brick-and-mortar shop, many perhaps don’t realise the fact that many people buying a Tesla are doing so online. It’s a simple process – you can choose your model, colour scheme, alloy wheels and a variety of optional extras when it comes to the trim or technology. Then it’s simply a matter of paying – through financing, leasing or simply buying outright. You’re given an estimated delivery date and your car added to the production queue, generally around the 2-3 month mark.
This mightn’t simply be some Tesla-hate by car dealerships across the US however – word is that dealerships are afraid that should Tesla be allowed to sell directly to the consumer, other auto manufacturers such as Ford and GM would seek to do the same, leaving their dealer network in a very uncomfortable place.
To get around this sticky issue proposed legislation in Arizona, one of the proposed sites for the Gigafactory, would allow only electric cars to be sold directly to the consumer. There is some light at the end of the legislative tunnel, however, highlighting that a career in politics doesn’t necessarily have to mean getting in bed with the big boys. In New Jersey, for example, a lawmaker has reacted to the state’s recent direct-selling ban by introducing legislation which would allow such activity – pointing out that sending consumers to a different state to buy electric cars isn’t exactly the smartest move for the state economy.
In any case, the dealership model is an outdated one, and one which many consumers are frustrated with, to varying degrees. The up-and-coming generation is one which wants to buy products with as little fuss as possible, and may simply turn to Tesla’s online stores and buy from there, avoiding dealerships altogether. Still, when it comes to cars, you really need to see them in person, to get a feel for them and whether they’re the right fit for you. In terms of a much more transparent process, direct selling on the part of the manufacturer is the logical next step, for Tesla at least. The dealership model has operated for the best part of a century, and though it doesn’t necessarily have to be abandoned wholesale, just because we’ve become used to something doesn’t make it the best and only option.
As all drivers will know, there isn’t much which is more painful than the sight of brake lights lighting up in front of you on the road, while all the cars around you gradually slow to a complete and frustrating halt. Yup, you’re right in the middle of yet another traffic jam, something which can turn even the most patient driver into a roiling hurricane of hatred.
Presumably some of the designers at Renault have to brave the traffic on their way into work, giving rise to the new Kwid concept, which includes a small drone which can be deployed from the roof and sent on ahead to let you know just exactly what it is you’ve been cursing for the past half an hour.
It’s actually a great idea – the drone can be released at the press of a button and will either follow the car or buzz ahead on a pre-determined route, all the while beaming back images to a dashboard-mounted tablet. It’d be worth it just for the looks on the face of the drivers in your vicinity. According to Renault, the Kwid is aimed at the younger market, as evidenced by the oversized wheels, bright yellow colour scheme and the funky white interior of its initial release photos.
We here at Car Craic are avid fans of motoring technology, particularly those inventions which are undoubtedly cool (such as the force field system destined to render the windscreen wiper a thing of the past).
Ford’s new concept car – the C-Max Solar Energi – fits a little awkwardly into this genre, despite being an electric car. It is, however, an electric car with a bit of a twist. Ford has announced to the world its intent to develop an electric car which uses solar panels to harness the power of the almighty sun, which does pique the interest a little. Working with Georgia Institute of Technology and a firm from California called SunPower they’ve used a special lens, like a magnifying glass, which directs the sun’s rays onto the panels. This clever little device can also track the movements of the sun at all times, much like the NSA and your browsing history, so that the car can be charged at any time of day there is sunlight, instead of plugging it into a socket.
Drivers and onlookers around NYC today were probably wondering if some futuristic car had time-traveled from 2050, and got caught up in traffic on their way to find some trash to fuel their Mr Fusion energy reactor. Actually, and a little disappointingly, this is the VW XL1, one of the latest of a line of more unconventional vehicles from Volkswagen, which made its debut as a prototype way back in 2002 and was confirmed for production ten years later.
This isn’t the first out-there automobile from VW; the German car maker has a reputation for building limited-run, expensive cars, often at a loss, as exercises in engineering to prove a technology’s viability, like the Bugatti Veyron (€1.4 million) and the Golf Design Vision GTI (€4 million). But while the Veyron has an 8.0L 987bhp engine, and there’s 3.0L 500bhp on tap in the superpowered GTI, resulting in some pretty frequent trips to the petrol station, the XL1 is a test of a different kind. That’s because it’s a diesel-electric hybrid with an electric range of 31 miles and overall mpg figures of 261. That’s right. 261.
Got your attention now? That’s like five times better than your average run around. Take that, Prius.
Boffins at the German company have really outdone themselves this time; combining an incredibly efficient hybrid engine, a lightweight carbon fiber structure and the most aerodynamic body of any production car in existence. It has a 48 bhp two cylinder diesel engine combined with a 27 bhp electric motor and a 5.5 kWh battery, but don’t let the small figures fool you; it’s not the fastest car you’ll ever drive, and 0-60 takes around 11 seconds, but you can still cruise comfortably along at 60 miles using only 8 horsepowers. That’s actually amazing. Somebody’s surely getting a bonus.
One of the failings of many electric cars is that they’re just so damn ugly – I’m looking at you, Nissan Leaf. Hang your battery-powered head in shame. The Tesla Model S is one of the first to realise that you can have an electric car that is astoundingly good looking while using to force of electrons to whisk you from A to B. I’ll stop short of calling the XL1 a beautiful machine – sure, the front end is captivating, the best of the new Golf/Passat face glaring at you to get out of its way. But the further down you go, the less sure you are about its design – VW decided against side and rear windows to keep those mpg figures as high as they could. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great either.
Apparently 50 of a 250 run have been built already, with 200 to be sold to the public in 2014. Don’t get your hopes up – the registration process closed in October and in any case, pricing starts at around €111,000. Like the Tesla Model S, Volkswagen presume the first buyers to get their hands on the XL1 will be early adopters; tech heads with plenty of money and concern for the environment. For the rest of us, we’ll just have to make do with watching our fuel gauges visibly dropping as we resolutely hang on to our love of petrol and, logically speaking, distaste of disposable income. It’s a cruel world.