Are friends electric?

Motoring Network catches up with the power players of the electric car push on a drum-banging day for a brand that isn’t available here.


THREE Tesla car owners midway through a Cape Reinga to Bluff drive to promote electric cars say they’re not so brand-wed as to ever consider other choices – there just aren’t any to sway that allegiance at the moment.

Steve West, Carl Barlev and Sean Dick laugh off suggestion that driving the brand’s flagship Model S sedan has made them them total acolytes for Elon Musk’s dream drive. Says West: “If something better came along, I’d consider it. But it’d have to be a lot better than what I have now.”

Zeal for the US firm’s technology was patent when Motoring Network joined these three on the Leading the Charge convoy yesterday for in Picton.

The midway point of a 2000km drive that began on April 6 and will finish at Bluff the day after tomorrow delivered the longest single leg, with 350kms covered.

Outwardly, the idea of this second expedition in as many years is to spread the good word about the Better NZ Trust, which dedicates to promoting alternates to wholly fossil fuelled motoring.

For West, a multimillionaire who made his fortune as an audio software developer, and his wife Dee, this is a family outing. Their four kids, from a toddler to a pre-teen, and mother-in-law too have joined the ride for the South Island leg.

But it’s also opportunity to spread the word about their next big idea, development of a national network of electric car fast chargers, and also to talk Tesla: They are, after all, the country’s highest-profile owners, with three in the garage and a fourth on the way.

Wherever this convoy stops, a crowd gathers and they're all looking for one thing: The world's only electric car with global street credibility.

The stop in Blenheim provides a good example of this. The drive also involves a BMW i3 – my car for the day – plus a Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, both distributor-supplied, and local battery bicycles and Nissan Leafs have also rocked into the appliance store carpark where we have stopped for an hour. Yet insofar as public interest in ohm time goes, the Teslas are obviously the show. At least some people check out the Be-Em. The Mitsi  might as well be invisible. And I don't think it's just because the organisers have neglected to dress it (and ours) with event livery.

It’s a graphic illustration of Tesla’s fad status, all the move elevated as result of the April 1 release of the Model 3, a supposedly mainstream sedan that could well cost around $NZ52,000-plus in base form when it reaches this market.

Yet West, the guy who showed Kiwis the Tesla way with a Lotus Elan-based roadster he imported in 2012, and his colleagues clearly bask in the attention, but he assures he doesn’t intend this as a brand crusade.

“Me? Who says I’m committed to Tesla?” he retorts when asked about the extent of his allegiance. Yet, in the next breath, he enforces it would take a big effort to ruin this marriage.

It’s coming. A contradiction in the Tesla story is that it is not destined to remain the lone explorer it portrays itself to be. Nor, despite a spectacular popularity rise, is it yet anywhere near as big as its needs to be to play a global game.

With demand for electric vehicles on the rise – in some markets, a 20 percent within four years, is predicted –  so will the number of car makers and models.

A multitude of mainstream brands, from Nissan, Skoda and Volkswagen up to Porsche, Jaguar and Aston Martin are intent on depowering the market status of a fledgling San Francisco-based independent whose avowed intent to build 500,000 cars a year by 2020 seems a huge reach when it currently creates less than one tenth that volume at present.

A world that might be awash within as little as five years with rival machines of equal efficiency as Tesla’s current wares – plus the Model 3 that’ll be here in perhaps two years – is great news at one level, but it does raise potential for the current cool kid to become just another face in the crowd.

Or maybe not. West believes Tesla has also earned the right to be considered a mainstream car brand, too. “I think they are, at least in terms of branding. If you look at Tesla’s stock, their market capitalisation – it’s bigger than Fiat. So that makes them pretty mainstream.”

Anyway, that’s in the future: In the now, this is the best there is, he continues.

“It’s not out of loyalty that we buy Teslas. They are the best cars available. We’ve all come from Ferraris, Audis or Aston Martins … it’s that pursuit of excellence and right now Tesla is achieving excellence in this automotive space.

“Of course that could change – but I will believe it when I see it. And those cars would have to be better to really be compelling to change. We love our Teslas because they are excellent.”

Does that mean ‘excellent’ for an electric car, or simply overall?

There’s plenty of documented evidence about Tesla not being immune to design flaws and the process of remedial actions, even recalls, that blight the car world have touched this brand as much as any other. Recently, its Model X crossover was pulled from sale to remedy ongoing issues with the trademark cantilever doors.

No-one likes living with faults, not least when buying the best. Luxury car ownership is usually a highly-cossetted affair; anyone buying a $180,000 car can assume their every whim or need will be immediately taken care of by the dealer or distributor. That’s the case with the i3 and the Outlander. Help is just a local dealership away and it's never too much trouble.

For Tesla … ‘local’ is Australia. There's no NZ-based servicing or support whatsoever, so any work that demands a trained technician also requires the cars have to be shipped across the Tasman, again at owner cost. 

The P85 model (the numerical designates its kWh output) West is driving is his first faithful, a 2014 seven-seater rear-drive variant, he bought for $180,000. He says it has been utterly reliable and foible-free.

Barlev hasn’t had quite that experience with his left-hand-drive example, which having being built in 2013 (and originally shipped to Norway) and with 80,000kms on the clock is the oldest Model S and highest-mileage Tesla in this country.

On a Model S, the door handles are flush with the bodywork and come out as the sensor that acts as a key comes in proximity. The one on the driver’s side of his car has gone kaput (he explains it’s a known fault of early build cars such as his). Is that worth a $5000 trip overseas? At the moment, it’s not. (His is also the least flashy and most time-worn, but has cool wall kudos of having won a rally to Moscow and been ridden in by Prince Albert of Monaco).

These owners have all arranged insurance cover yet there’s a lot of finger-crossing and wood-touching too, in respect to accident damage. Everyone seems relieved no Tesla here has ever been in a serious smash. The unspoken thought that the repercussions of a big repair, or replacement, might cause the industry to revaluate the terms, and cost, of cover.

In any event, there are no quick fixes. I’m told that when one owner lost a windscreen, the most expedient solution was for him to personally arrange for a replacement to be airfreighted in.

Pre-purchase testing a car presumably means flying to Sydney or Melbourne. Buying one isn’t so simple, either. There’s importation to arrange and, even though most of NZ’s Teslas come out of Australia, the purchaser is still buying in US dollars. The exchange rate is so fluid it’s impossible, West agrees, to assure whether today’s sticker will still be relevant tomorrow.

“Last time I checked you could land a base Model S for around $120,000 … but the pricing is changing constantly. It’s not just the currency, Tesla has constantly updating which brings price bumps (just last week, for instance, a whole styling refresh).”

Who can be bothered? Remarkably, a growing count of Kiwis. There are now 40 Model S cars in Kiwi ownership and their drivers are enjoying a good life that delivers more positives beyond the initial biggie of severing dependence on Big Oil.

The car brings lots of wow-worthy whizz-bang technology and future-now design – notably that huge 17-inch tablet-style touchscreen in the centre console: A feature that totally caught the car industry by surprise and is still only being now matched by Volvo’s XC90.

It’s a big car, with enough cabin room to make it a seven-seater, something you don’t expect in a low-slung sedan (though the two rearward-facing chairs in the back are short-journey, kid-only options). The car’s shape has also stood the test of time; you’d never think it’s been around since 2012.

But from my observance ownership also also means accepting American build quality standards. Dick’s assertion that his $220,000 2015 P90D is of a quality equal of the Audi product he abdicated isn’t wholly borne out by inspection.

And is he being tongue-in-cheek in suggesting a car that, thanks to the 7000 cell Panasonic-supplied battery, weighs 2200kg – as much as a Jeep Grand Cherokee - is just as athletic through the bends as the RS6 he used to have? I’d love to find out, but his initial offer of a drive is rescinded because “you’re with BMW, best you stick in their car.”

Still, there’s no PR puffery about the cars’ initial acceleration. The beauty of any electric motor is that there’s no torque or power buildup: You get maximum in both from the get-go, so accordingly the off-the-line shove is pretty … well, electrifying.

Dick’s car is the leader of the pack through having a pair of 193kW and 375kW motors – the former driving the front wheels, the latter driving the rear for all-wheel-drive action. Initially this type ran with an ‘insane’ mode software upgrade that allowed for 100kmh in 3.2 seconds - as fast as a McLaren F1 - but his packs the next-step ‘ludicrous’ mode, that knocks a further 0.4s from that sprint time. Does that make it New Zealand's fastest road car?

The Dick car is also the height of Tesla tech in other respects. It also has the semi-autonomous driving software that lets it become the closest thing yet to being a driverless car. It’ll change lanes with only a simple tap of the indicator stalk and also hold lane position without driver control.

But, anyway, back to the drive: Sixteen days for a journey that might reasonably take three at most in an orthodox car might seem a damning indictment of the range anxiety issue always hanging over pure electrics.

Even though the Teslas are especially good for their type with ability to clock 400kms per charge, unlike the range extenders they cannot emulate the splash-and-dash capability of a normal vehicle.

It’s a touchy subject for West: He rails when I suggest, intending humour, that it does seem ironic that the quickest cars off the mark are slowing down this effort because of the plug-in time they require.

He argues that the trip timetable is set by the number of towns being visited – 20 in all – and the other stops along the way. Also, the Teslas are mainly charging off the good stuff, three-phase power: “A couple of hours on a 32 Amp feed is enough.” But what if there’s no choice but to take normal, household 10Amp feed: “Well, yeah, that’s quite a bit longer.”  Like? “Well, 35 to 40 hours.”

Still, I departed this exercise firm in belief this was a day on which the smallest car held the biggest sway.

BMW had prescribed a setting that optimised regenerative braking and also asked the engine to chime in whenever the battery fell below 75 percent charge; even on steep descents you could feel it drag down the speed the moment the accelerator was released and, though I hardly ever heard it, the fuel burn signaled the engine was frequently interacting.

Which meant? Three refuels – in Picton before heading off, in Kaikoura then again on arrival in Christchurch – which isn’t distressing as it sounds. Feeding the motorcycle-derived 660cc two-cylinder engine is a minibike-sized fuel tank. The first and second stops were $15 hits,  with seven litres input each time, whereas the last, costing $18, resulted in nine-and-half litres being taken on. Which is actually half a litre more than the tank’s capacity.

Good thrift? It probably could have been better had I soft-footed. But I’m not one to drive an ‘eco’ car in fully eco manner – to my mind, that just annoys other road users – so we weren’t dawdling, to the extent that if there was overtaking to be done, we did it.

It was an eye-opening exercise for several reasons. First, until yesterday, I was convinced the i3 was basically a city slicker. Size-wise, it still is, and yes, you do notice some small car traits. No-one's pretending it's a sports machine, yet even when driven with consideration the skinny tyres, tall body and rear-biased weight distribution mean it doesn't always have a lot of grip when flung into a bend. It's a busy bee, too: Those low-profile run-flats are also noisy on coarse chip, the ride is a bit too firm at times – and the short wheelbase ensures it can bounce around over imperfect surfaces.

But, overall, it accomplished the run with real flair. So, basically, I’ve u-turned on that original thought. I think I could manage to drive one of these on an inter-city jaunt. At least occasionally. Dunno about being behind the wheel for a full two weeks, though. That kind of exposure could be quite wearying.

It does work out in the big bad world as a bone fide electric car. It had no choice in our hands; 20kms short of our destination, the trip computer signaled that the petrol tank was totally empty.

If that was the case – and the final refuel suggests so – then I’d be hard-pressed to point out exactly when the last drop was burned and the transition to pure battery urge occurred.

There was never any sense of a switchover of motivating urge; we just kept rolling on at a steady 100kmh. And when pulling up to pump at Rolleston, the car assured there was just over 30kms’ electric range in hand. Just in case.

So, if you’re down in the deep South and happen to see this group rolling through, don’t forget to give a cheer for the little guy in the pack. It might not have the Hollywood status of a Tesla, but I’d call it the more pragmatic choice.