I recently read a fascinating article in an authoritative design magazine on a project to mass produce electric vehicles on the Isle of Wight. The manufacturer is called Enfield and, unlike many small British makers with big ideas, this one has generous financial backing and a serious engineering pedigree, too. The electric Enfield will have four seats, an aluminium body and a range of 65 miles. Production is planned at 100 cars a week.
Surprised you're not familiar with this project? Don't be.
The story appeared in 1974, in Design magazine. The Enfield project collapsed, as have nearly all electric car ventures before or since. The point of recounting this story is that electric cars — enthusiastically embraced by the government, generously financed by the taxpayer and now zealously supported by
at least one global car giant — are not new. They were flagged as 'the answer' back in the 70s, in the wake of the Middle East oil crisis. And if we go back even further, we discover that electric cars outsold petrol cars in America at the dawn of the 20th century. But despite sporadic enthusiasm since then, the world's car fleet has remained overwhelmingly powered by petrol or diesel.
That is now changing. The world's big carmakers are
all experimenting with EVs (electric vehicles) because
of tough CO2 legislation and global political support for electric mobility. Renault-Nissan is the most enthusiastic car company proponent. CEO Carlos Ghosn says he expects 10 per cent
of all Nissan-Renault sales will be EV by 2020. Poor early sales
of the company's first EV — the Nissan Leaf — suggest he may be far too optimistic. Most car companies forecast one to two per cent, maximum.
None of the new electric cars launched over the past few years has sold well. Last year, only 1,000 EVs were
sold in the UK despite a £5,000 government incentive. That's an eighth of what the government budgeted. It's
a similar story in most big Western European countries,
in the USA and in China.
Blame their high prices, their limited driving ranges and the lengthy recharging time. These are compromises that most car buyers are not prepared
to make. That's why many carmakers feel sales of pure battery EVs will stay relatively small and be restricted to small city cars. Instead, they put more faith in plug-in hybrids or range-extender EVs (such as the new Vauxhall Ampera), which both use supplementary internal combustion engines to either share driving power or act as onboard generators.
Which brings me to the most novel and eye-catching new pure EV to hit the market, and easily my favourite. Unlike most new electric cars, the Renault Twizy
is not just an
of a 'normal' steel-bodied hatchback. Rather, the small (just over 2.3m long) and narrow (1.1m) Twizy is a different sort of car. It is a tiny tandem two seater. Its low 450kg weight is a third the mass of a Nissan Leaf. This helps make it more sprightly and means the battery size can be smaller, reducing mass and cost. Range is about 60 miles. That's sufficient for most urban journeys. Its central seating position, silent power and nippy handling make it a hoot to drive. Top speed is 50mph.
It has its downsides: less all-round usability than a 'normal' petrol car and a hefty price (£6,690) for what is essentially
no more than a four-wheeled electric motorcycle with a roof. The ride is too firm. Windows to keep out the rain would be useful. However, upsides over normal cars (and other EVs) include better manoeuvrability, agility, parking ease and a smaller footprint. All in all, the Twizy is a clever, new take on urban mobility.
It won't be a big seller. But
I suspect the Twizy hints at
the future of electric vehicles rather more presciently than any other pure battery car
out there today.
Gavin Green is a motoring journalist and consultant.
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