BMW's i8, left, and i3 will be launched in South Africa next year to kickstart the dawn of an alternative-fuel motoring era.
BMW's i8, left, and i3 will be launched in South Africa next year to kickstart the dawn of an alternative-fuel motoring era.
All-electric Nissan Leaf, headed for SA sometime this year, has not enjoyed the sales success overseas that Nissan had hoped for.
All-electric Nissan Leaf, headed for SA sometime this year, has not enjoyed the sales success overseas that Nissan had hoped for.

Although electric cars have received a cooler-than-expected consumer reaction, both Nissan and BMW are forging ahead with battery-powered production models as the starting point of a zero-emission motoring future that lies in the distance.

Nissan’s much-publicised Leaf, which, so far, is selling well below its targets in overseas markets, will reach South African showrooms later this year as the first all-electric car to go on sale here. In 2014 it will be followed by the electric BMW i3 sedan, along with an i8 plug-in hybrid sportscar, each in limited numbers.

Limited range has been the bugbear of electric vehicles over the 100 years they’ve been in development, which has kept them out of motoring’s mainstream.

The Nissan Leaf and BMW i3 are no different, and are capable of only 160km before needing to be plugged into a wall socket for a recharge. That range is enough to cover the daily commuting needs of more than 80 percent of the population, but the carmakers acknowledge that the Leaf and i3 will remain pure city/urban cars until more mileage can be squeezed out of them.

QUICK BOOST

According to BMW SA spokesperson Guy Kilfoil, however, that won’t take too long as battery technology is progressing far faster than most people think. Within the next decade battery range should improve five-fold, giving an electric car a range similar to a combustion-engined car, he says.

For now it will take about eight hours to charge an i3 from a domestic 220V electrical socket, which means it will be fully charged if plugged in at your home overnight or at work during the day.

Or, if you need a quick boost, it takes just half an hour at special fast-charging point.

There will be 50 charging points set up around South Africa by September 2013 as part of government’s just-announced Green Cars initiative, in which the department of water and environmental affairs will also operate a fleet of four Nissan Leafs over the next three years.

But it will take decades before electric cars replace internal-combustion cars as our mainstream mode of transport, and part of the reason is that battery technology is very pricey.

A lithium-ion battery is worth a third of the cost of the car, which is why electric vehicles for the forseeable future will be more expensive than their internal-combustion counterparts. At launch the i3 will be priced between R440 000 and R470 000 - about the same as an entry-level BMW 5 Series.

The Nissan Leaf’s price is still to be confirmed.

Purchase price and limited range aside, it will be a lot cheaper to run an electric car than a combustion-engined one. At present electricity prices it should cost R25-R30 to fully charge an i3, less than a third of what it would cost even the most fuel-efficient diesel or petrol-electric hybrid to achieve the same 160km range.

From a driveability point of view there’s little to criticise an electric car, if you can get used to their eerie silence. I’ve recently driven both the Nissan Leaf and the i3 (actually a BMW 1 Series fitted with the i3’s drivetrain) and found their instant torque delivery and brisk acceleration especially suited to town and urban driving.

The i3’s power output of 125kW/250Nm gives it a claimed sub eight-second 0-100km/h sprint, which is quite lively. It cruises easily on freeways too, although its top speed is restricted to 150km/h.

BMW’s i8, on the other hand, is a hybrid-powered sportscar which showcases that green needn’t mean boring.

Marrying an electric motor to a high-performance three-cylinder turbo engine for combined outputs of 260kW and 550Nm, this sleek gull-winged coupé has the ability to race to 100km/h in just 4.6 seconds and reach a 250km/h top speed.

The question is: with the oil wells that feed our gas-guzzling combustion-engined cars only expected to run dry anywhere from 50 years’ time to never (depending on who you listen to), isn’t it too early to start bothering with electric cars?

Apart from wanting to be seen at the sharp end of future technology, what’s driving BMW’s and Nissan’s electric-car programmes are stringent new European Union anti-pollutant laws which specify a C02 output limit of 95 grams per km (from the current 120 g/km), as an average across a vehicle manufacturer’s range by the year 2020.

Zero-emission electric vehicles will help achieve this as the efficiency limit for internal-combustion engines, which have reduced fuel consumption and emissions by about 30 percent in the last decade, is close to being reached.

WHAT ARE THE ALTERNATIVE OPTIONS ?

Battery-powered electric cars are just one alternative-fuel solution being worked on by auto companies - hydrogen is another front-running power source for the future. Like battery power, however, it’s not without its drawbacks.

Liquid hydrogen can be used to power an internal combustion engine, as in BMW’s limited-edition Hydrogen 7, and in theory this is a perfect clean fuel as hydrogen’s the most abundant element in the universe and produces only harmless water vapour from the exhaust. But producing liquid hydrogen requires vast amounts of energy, and storing it in a car in liquid form at the required super-cooled -253 degrees celcius is proving troublesome. This means some of the liquid hydrogen evaporates before it can be burned by the engine, limiting the car’s range to 200km or less.

NOT TRULY EMISSIONS-FREE

Hydrogen’s energy can also be converted into electricity in a fuel cell, to operate an electric motor. Fuel cell electric vehicles presently have a superior range to regular electric cars, which is why a number of automakers see them as a better alternative. But there’s an inefficiency in the process, as hydrogen first needs to be generated using electricity, and then run through a fuel cell, all for the purpose of converting the gas back into electricity to drive the same motor which is found in an electric car.

In all three cases - pure electric, hydrogen, or fuel-cell cars - they’re not truly emissions-free as they require electricity generated by pollution-chugging coal power stations.

Whichever technology wins out in the long run to power the “green” cars of our future, it will need to go hand in hand with more planet-friendly power stations such as wind, solar, or hydroelectric. - Star Motoring

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