Our first impressions of owning an electric car

Our e-car
Our e-car. Note the distinctive running lights

Buying an electric car was something of an act of faith for us. There is still very little experience of them and even the dealer said it was only the second they had sold. A friend had shown us a Renault Zoe and his enthusiasm was infectious and persuasive, but we liked the fact that the new VW models have an option to charge from an ordinary 13 amp household plug.

But we didn’t, for example, know how well the electric VW would cope with hills. We were quite prepared for it to struggle a bit going up the steep incline from our garage to the road, and similarly on the steep zig-zag up the hill to where we live.

That just shows how little we had gleaned from our short test drive – we couldn’t have been more wrong. The way it gently, silently slips out of the garage and up onto the roadway, and the way it sweeps effortlessly up hills, absolutely ‘like the wind’, is a complete revelation and an intoxicating joy. We can’t resist going out at the slightest excuse to do it again. And we do that knowing that it isn’t costing anything at all: It doesn’t cause any noise; it doesn’t make any pollution. That’s because, charging on a reasonably sunny day, it draws less power than our solar panels are generating. So it  literally runs on the sunshine which would otherwise have heated up our roof tiles.  And – almost too obviously to point out – it doesn’t have an exhaust pipe, so it couldn’t emit exhaust gases if it tried.

With no gears the engine picks up strongly from rest and carries on pulling smoothly right through any amount of acceleration. This feels incomparably superior to the smoothest and most sophisticated of automatic gears. Apart from Park, Reverse, Neutral and Drive you can select one further mode, B, by pressing momentarily on against a spring. This engages the recuperation system which, provided the battery isn’t absolutely fully charged (when there is presumably nowhere for the electricity to go), the motor operates in reverse when you lift off the accelerator, gently but increasingly-firmly retarding the car as it puts energy back into the battery. This means that 1) you rarely have to move your foot onto the brake pedal and 2) at the end of a long descent you find you have several miles more range than you had at the beginning.

It all takes a bit of getting your head round, something so new. The motoring journalists in the reviews I’ve seen missed it completely. The one in the Telegraph, although he said he liked the e-up!, seemed to think the only reason anyone would actually buy one would be to save money, and he declared the issue settled when he found that most people wouldn’t. No economic case at all: QED. It is hard to imagine him applying the same criterion to a Porsche – ten times as expensive and in my opinion ten times less fun. Not to mention immeasurably less sustainable. But then that would only count in the equation if he worried about sustainability, which as a rule motoring journalists tend not to.

So the general impression is that it is an incredibly refined vehicle, uncannily quiet and unfussy, and a complete joy to travel in. It is hard to pin down what is quite so special about it, but it reminds me of a trip I once had in a glider, or of that wonderful sense of peace you get in a sailing boat when you get out of the harbour and kill the engine. As you slow down and stop, the engine stops. Silent, still, cool. Cars whose engines keep running until you turn them off begin to look a bit ridiculous. It could be quite soon that people come to see the internal combustion engine as crude and unsophisticated, and those exhaust pipes – no less than four huge ones on a Lamborghini I saw in a service station the other day – as frankly disgusting.

Everybody asks about the range. Well, a full charge takes it just over 80 miles. Another ten or so if you change to Eco+, which turns off the air conditioning and restricts the speed until you do a deliberate kick-down with the accelerator. Eco mode is somewhere in between. In Normal mode the e-up! zooms along the motorway and keeps up with and overtakes almost anything if you want it to. The instrumentation tells you exactly how much power you are using and the range remaining all the time.

So, we already do return trips to towns 35 miles away in complete confidence. [ADDENDUM – this should really say ‘in summer, using Eco+ mode’ –  see note added at the bottom*]  We have yet to try, or need, a rapid-charging station on a longer journey, but the thoroughly-integrated Garmin ‘Info-tainment’ centre tells us where they are when we do. We are registered with Ecotricity  and we have our swipe card, and charging will be free and take up to twenty minutes. The VW models use the new CCS connector which is currently being installed in charging centres. As far as we can tell we can also use the more common Type 2 connector as well. But I will edit this post to give clearer details of the practicalities of using these stations as we find them out. This is where the lack of people experienced in using the technology is so apparent. There is certainly a pioneering element which is probably part of the fun.

For the time being I would have two major reservations – I do not think we have reached the point where electric cars are practical as an only car for people who need to make long journeys. The extra range of the VW e-Golf might make the necessary difference but I think that remains to be seen.  And secondly, you really do need a garage where you can keep and charge it. I see no solution at the moment for the many people who have to keep their car in the street, and not even in a fixed position outside their house.

Otherwise, I’ve seen the future, and it works…

* Further note on Range 24 August:
Yesterday evening we took four adults on a 63 mile round-trip to the theatre.

Starting  with a full charge and on Eco+ mode the indicated range was 98 miles. As we started home it was 48 miles – battery charge dial showing between half and three quarters full. About ten miles from home we changed to normal mode, turned on the heating and stormed up a couple of hills to show off the car. Arriving home there were 8 miles remaining range indicated.

Full statistics of the journeys, from the VW Car-net e-remote smartphone app:

Out (Daylight, late afternoon)
31 miles in 53 minutes av 35 mph
Av. e-motor consumption 4.1 mpkWh (miles per kilowatt hour)
Av. recuperation 19.5 mpkWh
Av. secondary consumption (heating/lights, etc) 155.4 mpwWh

Return (Dark, temperature  <10°C)
32 miles in 57 minutes, av 33 mph.
Av. e-motor consumption  4.0 mpkWh
Av. recuperation 18.3 mpkWh
Av. Secondary consumption 28.3 mpkWh

 

5 thoughts on “Our first impressions of owning an electric car”

  1. You should bring it on holiday to Denmark. There are loads of electric vehicles here, including Peugeot vans used by the hotel. Charging points are everywhere only out numbered by the wind turbines.

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  2. A friend of ours has a hybrid, so the same silent start, glide and stop. She says that at first she tended to forget to switch the engine off as there was no sound to alert her. I have also heard that there is an idea to “add” sound to electric cars since pedestrians, cyclists and so on do not hear them coming. Seems rather a pity as I like your glider comparison and know just what you mean about the pleasure of moving in silence.

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    1. There is a lot of discussion about this, but actually most modern cars move very quietly at low speeds and the answer seems to be for everybody to exercise caution and enjoy the new dawn of peace. The amusing thought is that any recorded sound could be used as the warning: choo choo, perhaps, or a nightingale singing…

      But we do occasionally have to remember that when the car is silent at, for example, traffic lights, it doesn’t mean the engine has stalled.

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  3. i start the day being inspired by your post.perhaps we should encourage govt to publish annual CO2 emissions from all cars. we will start a list on Energy Alton website.

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