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Electric Cars

Nissan Leaf launched last month, Holden Volt due soon, Renault ready by year end and hybrids now made in Australia.

Electric cars are making big news at the moment, but it’s not that simple. There are several types, each with big pluses and some minuses, so we take a look at what you can buy now or in the foreseeable future, and whether they’d be right for you.

There are three types of electric cars:

  • Hybrids – petrol engined cars that charge the batteries to give auxiliary power
  • Plug in hybrids – where the batteries play a bigger part in further reducing emissions.
  • Full electric cars – these don’t have a petrol engine and rely solely on battery power.

Let’s take a closer look at the choices that confront you.

1. Hybrids

You will be familiar with these by now, the most familiar being the Toyota Prius. Generally with this type of hybrid there are two motors, an electric motor and an internal combustion engine. The power from these two motors can be shared to drive the car.

On the open road the primary source of power is the petrol engine but when you need extra power the electric motor cuts in. Also both motors cut out when stationary to preserve power and fuel costs.The main benefits of hybrids like this are a reduction in emissions and increased fuel economy, and while these are hugely important benefits they have to be weighed against a couple of drawbacks. They cost more than an equivalent petrol or diesel car (which can offset fuel savings) and there is still a suspicion about the durability of batteries, and the high cost of replacement. However defenders of the faith say these concerns are groundless and many first and second generation hybrids have done over 300,000 kms without battery problems.

Hybrid-type cars available in Australia:

  • Toyota Prius and Camry (the Camry is manufactured in Australia)
  • Lexus CT 200h saloon, RX450h SUV, GS450h V6 luxury sports saloon, LS600hl V8 luxury saloon.
  • Honda Civic Insight saloons
  • Honda CRZ sports – and watch out for the Honda Jazz Hybrid, due here in December. This is likely to displace the Prius as the cheapest hybrid on the market at less than $25,000

2. Plug in Hybrids.

If you’ve been watching TV recently you will have seen ads from Holden for the new Volt (which will not be on the market until later this year). The Holden Volt is a plug-in hybrid which is halfway between a traditional hybrid and a fully electric vehicle. Some say it’s the best of two worlds.

A plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV but we’ll call it a plug-in) makes more use of the batteries and can run as a totally electric-powered vehicle using its petrol motor as a back up generator.

The only plug-in on the market in the near future is the Holden Volt. It features:

  • Recommended retail price $59,990 (plus on road costs)
  • 49 dealers across Australia – orders are now being taken.
  • Very highly optioned, including forward collision alert, lane departure warning, eight airbags, rear view camera, sat/nav, Bluetooth, MP3, USB and iPod compatibility.
  • Capped servicing of $185 per service over the first 3 years or 60,000kms
  • Range with electric motor, 80kms, but can be extended to 600kms using petrol engine.
  • Can be re-charged at home or office in 4-6 hours or at special charge points that take just 1 hour.
  • Cost of electricity for a re-charge is about $2.50 which is about 30% of the cost of petrol.

So would this car suit most Australians? The vast majority would say ‘yes’ and most drivers would never use the petrol back up. A one way daily commute of less than 80 kms, a few hours to recharge, journey home, overnight recharge, and back to work next day – easy!

But, if you use your car all day every day it may not be quite so convenient as you’ll need the petrol engine to cut in after 80kms, or you need a 1 hour partial recharge break. And at $60,000+ you’ll need to be prepared to pay a big premium for the benefit of saving some fuel and emissions.

3. Fully electric cars

Throw away the bowser you won’t need to visit one if you buy one of the two fully electric cars that are on the market right now – the Nissan Leaf or the smaller Mitsubishi i-MiEV

The two are similarly priced at between $48,800 (Mitsubishi) and $51,000 (Nissan) plus on roads, and both boast similar attributes (and drawbacks). Incidentally be careful of the ‘on road costs’, as by the time you drive away in a Leaf you’ll have paid an extra $9,500 if you buy the special fast charge system installed in your home.

  • Fully electric operation – absolutely zero emissions!
  • Range of 150-170kms before recharge
  • Requires 15 amp house socket for trickle charge (or dedicated charging station for 80% charge in 30 mins.)

Take a look at the Nissan Leaf launch ad here

Of course these cars won’t suit everyone. For example,if you park your car on the street with no access to a 15 amp socket you’ve got a problem. Or if you travel to Canberra from either Sydney or Melbourne you won’t get there as there’s no charging point yet available for you on the route!

If you’d like to read about our initial impressions when we test drove these cars click here

Battery Changeovers

Renault are launching the electric version of the Fluence in a few months. It is expected that the car will cost under $40,000. But that doesn’t include the battery! This will be subject to a separate lease agreement though it does give buyers a further option. You can charge your Fluence in the same way as the i-MiEV or Leaf, or you can do a battery changeover at one of the Better Place changeover centres – a 5 minute job, pretty much like going in for a petrol fill up. As they say ‘enjoy unlimited driving with a battery switchable car – just Drive – Switch – Go’ (providing you’re near a switch centre).

The Future

There’s no doubt that electric cars are one way to the future. Some governments, notably USA, Sweden and China, give considerable development grants and discounts to manufacturers and users to make an electric car easier to buy. Australia doesn’t help, so makers are hampered with substantial price premiums. There are also very few charging points, though the electric car purveyors insist that every major shopping centre will soon have them available- and for a free charge up! We’ll see…

But things are getting better, prices are trending downwards, driving range is trending upwards ( Tessla electric supercars are driving 500km ranges already). So, whilst they may be a market for the pioneers right now, it won’t be long before these become a real day-to-day option for every new car buyer rather than the pioneering few.