Britain’s motor industry, at least in the form of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, is now taking electrification very seriously indeed. That seemed to be the big message from the Society’s Drive Zero 2020 event held at the ex-General Motors proving ground in Millbrook, Bedfordshire recently.
The SMMT’s chief executive Mike Hawes emphasised the scale of the challenges the industry faced in meeting the government’s target of phasing out sales of conventional petrol and diesel cars by 2035, or indeed earlier if they choose to bring it even further forward. One of the obstacles to widespread electrification lies in the attitudes of the car-buying public, who are interested in the technology as a means of cleaning up the environment and reducing running costs, but worry about the high initial prices of electrified models and the limitations of the current charging infrastructure.
And building that infrastructure is one of the other main challenges. A study commissioned by the SMMT from the industry research firm Frost & Sullivan suggests that switching to a fully zero emissions UK car market would require 1.7 million public charging points by the end of the decade and 2.8 million by 2035. Personally, I think those estimates are a bit on the high side, but let’s not quibble: there is no doubt that the investments required are enormous – £16.7 billion based on the Frost & Sullivan numbers.
The industry itself seems to be keeping up its side of the bargain, with a claimed investment of £54 billion in 2019 alone, although the SMMT is also calling for the government to make a long term commitment to continue its support as well.
The fruits of that industry investment were clear to see at Drive Zero, with the chance to get behind the wheel of most of the dozens of plug-in models on sale in the UK today.
One thing that was obvious – the number of different EVs has expanded greatly compared with a few years ago. If you want a big, slightly SUV-like softroader, you are spoilt for choice. There on the day were the Audi e-tron, Ford’s Mustang Mach E (static only, mind) and the Jaguar I-Pace. Other choices in this category include the Mercedes-Benz EQC and the Tesla Model X. Buyers shopping a rung or two down the ladder for a smaller SUV are also well served, with the Kia e-Niro, Hyundai Kona Electric and MG ZS EV and soon to be joined by the Volkswagen ID.4 and Skoda Enyaq iV.
I chose to concentrate on catching up with the latest offerings in another now crowded sector – small electric cars – and drove MINI Electric, the Honda e, Renault Zoe and Vauxhall Corsa-e, the latter representing several small PSA group EVs, such as the Peugeot 208, which are all sisters under the skin. It’s a decent car, but it was also slightly sad to be driving a Vauxhall that is basically a Peugeot-based Opel around Millbrook, a test facility originally built for Vauxhall back in the days when it still developed its own cars from the ground up.
Although all four models appear to belong in the same category, they fall into two further sub-groups. The Renault and the Vauxhall are practical and mainstream. Their 50kWh-plus batteries equip them to do long journeys of over 200 miles. On the other side of the divide, the Honda and the MINI major on style, and despite higher pricing have smaller batteries with less range; 35.5kWh and 32.6kWh respectively. That’s quite enough for a stylish urban runabout, a role both cars will fill well, especially the Honda with its home-from-home interior that features an unusual, but successful mix of traditional and high-tech elements.
But the MINI is also a case of potential unfulfilled. Electric power, with its immediate, snappy acceleration, really suits, and in fact greatly enhances, the MINI’s trademark nippiness. That should make it an enjoyable companion around town, but also, as I discovered on the hill circuit, makes it a superb car for open road driving, or at least it would if the battery pack were bigger. With a few more kWh under the rear seat, it would be a brilliant car for storming across Alpine passes like the Stelvio. It was one of the very best, but also most frustrating cars that I have ever driven.
And that tells us roughly where we are with electrification – electric cars have come a long way, but we still need a few more that will go a long way.