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Girl TORQUE: Electric Cars


Think electric vehicles are the future? Think again. They’re the present.

Electric bicycles are already cruising NZ streets and have taken China by storm – the Chinese bought 21 million e-bikes in 2008, compared to 9.4 million conventional cars. Yamaha is just one manufacturer already selling e-scooters.

And though electric-powered cars remain headlining rarities in NZ, Nissan’s Leaf starts selling next year, is on the shortlist for the European Car of the Year, and will go on trial as a pilot with the Wellington City Council just prior to the Rugby World Cup.

Meanwhile hybrids – with their electric tech – are becoming more commonplace, plug-in hybrids take a bob each way and car companies worldwide are still working to a hydrogen fuel cell future – with electric cars that generate their power on the move rather than plugging in.

It all sounds a bit boring, but it’s far from. In part that’s because electric motors deliver their biggest shove at low rpm, so they deliver strong acceleration off the line, something Tesla’s exploited with its electric sports car.

I was reminded of this when I drove Mitsubishi’s electric iMiEV around Auckland recently.

It’s basically a Mitsi i-car with battery packs beneath the floor and an electric motor – so bar the instruments, it looks the same as the standard model. Switch on and it’s silent – then prod the throttle and you rocket forward with startling alacrity. This car is quite a bit heavier thanks to the battery packs, but it doesn’t feel it – at least, it doesn’t during round town running where you get the best of the pull, and benefit from brake energy regeneration at every traffic light or queue.

It’s only when you hit the motorway that you notice a compromise, as the car scampers along alright, but drains the battery at a great rate as it does so.

My day’s drive took the iMiEV well out of its comfort zone, from Auckland out west along the motorway to Kumeu for a meeting, into the Waitakere hills for another then back into town. We did 115km with 10km in reserve – more than most city commuter/office runabouts will do in a day. Then we just plugged it into the wall. You wouldn’t buy one to commute from well out of town, but city dwellers and couriers will love them; nimble, nippy at urban speeds and cheap to run, with the bonus that if you leave one idling it’s not poisoning the pavement with exhaust fumes.

NZ’s government doesn’t subsidise electric cars, so we’ll be behind the electric car eight-ball. But we could get ahead with electric bikes. And I don’t just mean standard pedal bicycles boosted by electric motors, though those are on sale here already. I’m talking the YikeBike. The Christchurch invention made the cover of Time magazine and is now on sale. A folding, carbon fibre electric bike designed as an inner-city runabout or to link the bus or train to your office, it plugs into the wall and has a 10km range.

It looks unconventional as the bars are mounted behind you, but works very well in traffic where the high seating position lets riders see and be seen.

Until recently, electricity as fuel seemed to sound the death knell for motoring as fun. Having tried these early experiments, I’d say keen drivers needn’t go into mourning just yet.

Read more Girl Torque columns here.

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