Hitting an ohm run

This week MotoringNetwork joined a crusade for freedom from the shackles of fossil fuel … Leading the Charge, a nationwide road trip promoting the benefits of electric vehicle ownership, also provided opportunity to stretch the legs of three key new EVs.


Electric cars are important.

In 10 years, fully one quarter of all cars being made will have an EV capability.

Also, our Government has grand plans: It wants to double the numbers of EVs in New Zealand every year to reach 64,000 by the end of 2021.

So we need to pay attention, right?

Well, just right now this is a quiet revolution, still fermenting. Fewer than 3200 EVs are registered in NZ. That’s four times the mid-2015 count, yet still around a third the sales count for last year’s best-selling vehicle, the Ford Ranger.

Still, the EV evangelists on the Leading the Charge effort, an electric vehicle rally meandering from Bluff to Cape Reinga, are working assiduously to achieve something beyond their cars' capability - make some noise.

The 2017 rally which MotoringNetwork joined in Wellington on Monday and remained with until it reached Taupo (via Palmerston North and Napier) yesterday is the third run by the Better New Zealand Trust, and has attracted significant public attention. Distributor involvement is also unsurpassed: Audi, BMW, Hyundai and Mitsubishi have all placed cars in this year’s convoy.

Leading the Charge is not an endurance or economy run; there are no prizes for lasting the distance or coming first. On the other hand, it is also more than just a crusade for latest technology.

Underlaying this effort is something of soft-push sales drive for ChargeNet, the commercial operator involving in the overall establishment of an emerging network of public and private plug stations.

ChargeNet’s big push is to implement 54 fast-charge locations that will really give zap to the ideal of an electric highway. They’re backed by BMW New Zealand, which has provided an undisclosed funding.

Local bodies and electricity companies are also raising their game by installing public charging stations that are generally free to draw from, for now at least. There’s talk that ultimately a rate of 40 cents per kilowatt hour might be imposed; still small potatoes compared to fuel prices.

However, the installation programme is very much a work in progress and for now it's really just about State Highways, particularly SH1. that's totally logical. But it means anyone straying off that track, say for cross-country running, needs to plan carefully.

The stations look just like petrol pumps, right down to having three types of ‘fuel’ and heavy duty power plugs and cables that don’t look dissimilar to petrol bowsers. A cinch to operate (thanks, Margaret, for the quick lesson) they have two DC chargers and one for AC. However, while AC and and DC charging can be conducted simultaneously, only one or other of the DC feeds can be used at any one time. With most of the fleet requiring DC, and more cars than ‘bowsers’, you learn to have to wait your turn.

The fast charging stations’ locations are not always obvious – the one in Napier is in a council carpark, Waipukurau’s sites behind the town’s cinema, across the road from a supermarket and a cafe – but they can be tracked down using a brilliant app, PlugShare.

Not one of the stations I encountered offered much in the way of shelter from rain or wind, so we were fortunate to be driving on fine, calm days.

Better suited were the three cars for three consecutive days. The $67,990 Mitsubishi Outlander VRX PHEV taken from Wellington to Palmerston North, the $74,300 BMW i3 BEV (Palmy to Napier) and a $65,990 Hyundai Ioniq Elite (Napier to Taupo) were latest versions able to replenish from the growing count of direct current fast chargers, a breakthrough process for EV acceptance.

The Mitsubishi – which has the smallest battery bank – requires around 20 minutes’ input to fully replenish; from my experience, the Ioniq and i3 EVs need to plugged in for 35-40 minutes. A longish coffee break, perhaps, but still a big step up in this world.

These models also maintain the previous ability to refresh from alternating current, though this – especially when you’re using a typical home powerpoint – is a much longer deal, measured in hours; overnight if you’re using a household plug.

It’s the DC recharge update that should conceivably make the pure EVs especially far more useful for some degree of practical beyond-city running. But good enough to equal a PHEV? And just because the wee battery-pure offers can now properly get out of town now, does this mean they should? That was what I intended to find out.

These cars were running with another distributor-provided car, an Audi A3 e-tron, plus an assortment of private cars, ChargeNet’s own i3 BEV and some Nissan Leafs, Renault Zoes – grey and ex-Japan imports using older technology.

It wouldn’t be a Leading the Charge event without a couple of Tesla Model S sedans, though these were all provided by private owners, rather than the recently established factory shop, which declined to involve. As always, the car that sets the pace for range, ridiculous off-the-line performance and outrageous price was the first draw for the curious at every public stop.

Of which there were many. The immediacy of electric driving certainly isn’t reflected in the time Leading the Charge is taking to spread its message. A drive that could conceivably be achieved in just over two days is taking three weeks.

The core fleet of 12 cars left Bluff on April 19 and won’t finish until May 10. Range considerations do affect the daily distances, but the primary reason why they’re taking so long is because the route is far from direct and they’re also stopping frequently to spread the good word.

Clearly, it’s a special kind of zealot who can commit to a 21-day break from their regular lives’, presumably at considerable cost – while the running is cheap, at an estimated $3 to $3.50 per 100km, there are still motels and so on to pay for - simply to relate their enthusiasm for ohm driving.

While my primary intent was simply to test drive the cars, I couldn’t escape the sermon stops and it was interesting to hear the spruik.

Some in this crowd are cheerfully offbeat; others a bit too intensely righteous for my liking.

They're certainly well informed about the positives in respect to Green energy generation and carbon footprint reduction opportunity, though I heard a few ‘alternate facts’ too. Just to clarify: there really isn’t any likelihood that fossil-fuelled cars will be extinct within a decade. Nor is there any truth to conjecture that new EVs are being sold at inflated price to protect Big Oil. I’d personally also question contention that EVs are more reliable than regular cars simply because they have fewer moving parts seems simplistic (because … well, they’re still cars. Stuff fails). Also, just because grey/parallel and used import EVs cost considerably less than properly new stuff, there’s no certainty that the ex-demo Renault Zoe from the UK or a six-year-old Nissan Leaf out of Japan is identical to NZ-new or even as reliable. And if you want a waranty, a distributor provided new car is the way. Those eight-to-10 year battery warranties are a powerful statement unlikely to be matched by any private importer.

Anyway, I was here to drive cars, and that was what I did. The attached video shows something of how each one went. It’s no spoiler to say, though, that I’d have to say that the exercise left me in two minds.

I was truly impressed by the quality of the technology now coming in. All three cars are true exemplars of their makers’ efforts to push the envelope.

The i3 is clearly the most city-centric – though, in saying that, it drives well on the open road, with the biggest bugbear there being the overly-firm ride. It’s pricey, but it is a quality product from a top-end brand.

The Ioniq, to my mind, has a brilliant future. It’s a good size, is sensibly equipped, drives nicely and is asily the best value new pure EV on the market. But don't disregard the Outlander. Yes, you still burn petrol, but it stands out as a brilliant alternate to a diesel SUV assuming (because it still gives away that third row seat for a battery pack) the RUC-adverse family unit stops at five members and doesn’t intend to off-road.

At the same token, I’d have to say that, though that any thought about the EVs being able to equal the PHEV’s ability to ease range anxiety in respect to open road driving was quickly curtailed. As enjoyable as their smooth performance was, both left me thinking they’re still a touch stretched by this exercise.

Hyundai claims the Ioniq will give 200-220kms’ real world range while BMW here testifies the i3 might achieve up to 200kms’, so realistically legs which presented 180kms and 142km s running respectively should have presented no great issue.

In reality, after full recharges and even when operating both in their optimum economy modes (but still driving at real world speed), neither came up their billing.

After 12 hours’ trickle charging the i3 set off with the trip computer estimating I had 180kms’ driving, but that didn’t last long. With the Manawatu Gorge closed by a slip, I had no choice but to drive to Hawke’s Bay via the Saddle Road, a notorious ascent. This alone so sapped the car that I was down to 55kms’ cited range by Waipukurau, roughly the halfway point. Thirty minutes on the fast charger there saved the day (and, weirdly, pushed the estimated range to 207kms’), but on arrival in Napier it was estimating 50kms’ running in the tank.

The trek to Taupo had potential to be more ‘interesting’, due to the ruggedness of the terrain, so though we had to be in Taupo by midday I decided to take heed of advice from Steve, a fellow participant in a Leaf, and set out early, in hope that would mean a clearer run and also leave opportunity to find extra zap, if necessary, at two camp grounds along the route that, according to PlugShare, are the sole recharging points.

First stop on the day was my last stop the night before; Napier’s fast charger. Perplexed that the car had shut off on achieving 94 percent recharge on the DC feed the previous evening, I’d gone back bright and early – this time with a warmed-up car (because I’d been told that ‘hot’ batteries take on more charge) – in hope of securing the missing six percent. It didn’t happen.  

So I set off with 190kms’ running predicted by the on-board computer, surely more than enough, but I wasn’t utterly convinced. After two days on the road, I knew two things. First, trip computers returns on EVs are, to a degree, finger in the wind estimates. And also, with these things, ‘stop’ means potential to be stuck unless you’ve happened to cease motion right beside a power outlet. There’s no borrowing the battery equivalent of a can of petrol to get going again.

I determined to play ultra safe: Adopt the most overt eco driving mode, including the most intrusive regen braking setting (to harvest kinetic energy on ascents), drive cautiously enough to keep the eco meter in the green and, finally, even though it was a chilly morning and the car is well kitted for the cold (it even has heated seats and a heated steering wheel) refrain from using any of that. Every bit of energy was going toward keeping me moving.

It was good practice, but hardly comfy. I was pleased to have had the foresight to bring a coat: It was freezing. Also, at 90 – and never more than 100kmh, in order to keep the eco meter in the green – I was initially holding up traffic; even stock trucks were hogging my tail on the flat. In that terrain, as you’d expect the car definitely used more energy; that’s when I really started to worry, probably without foundation, but still.

When each next ascent seemed steeper than the last and increasingly, more of my attention became focused on the dials and displays. Once or twice I started to wonder if it was behaving like a big engine sucking on a small tank. It wasn’t. But every time one of those fuel gauge bars winked out …

Anyway. I made it. With 30kms’ to spare. In EV terms, that’s probably plenty. In a petrol or diesel car, it’s basically running on empty.

As I rolled through Taupo, I got to thinking. What if I’d been carrying passengers and luggage? Extra weigt would mean extra effort from the powertrain. What if it had been raining and dark and I’d had to run lights, wipers, the demister? Again, I'd be diverting electricity from turning those wheels.

The sense of being out on a limb on an exercise that would be an ordinary drive in any other car hit when I passed the second of those camp grounds. It was closed. By then I had no choice but to press on.

Agreed, an open road run this ambitious wouldn’t have been possible in any EV a few years ago. In a few years’ time, it might cease to be any kind of challenge for any type. Just not at the moment. Not quite.