Greater Manchester plugs into electric automobility

I’m not sure whether it is the egg that has been laid or just the arrival of the chicken but, at long last, Greater Manchester can ‘socket’ to them, as the region now has an electric vehicle recharging infrastructure.

Last week, I attended the launch of the Greater Manchester Electric Vehicle (GMEV) scheme held at the Trafford Centre. Proceedings kicked off at 8 a.m. with a rather welcome coffee and pastry, followed by speeches by David Hytch from Transport for Greater Manchester, Gordon McKinnon from Intu Trafford Centre, transport minister Norman Baker MP (via pre-recorded video) and Michael Hurwitz of Greener Transport International.

Zero-emission automobility arrives in Rochdale (Picture source: author's photograph)

Zero-emission automobility arrives in Rochdale (Picture source: author’s photograph)

Carried out in conjunction with the government’s Plugged-in Places initiative and administered by Charge your Car, the scheme itself has resulted in 250 recharging posts across the ten Greater Manchester authorities, including four in Rochdale – two in the Town Hall Square and two at the Middleton arena – and there are also plans for installing rapid chargers. I’d be intrigued to see figures as to the use of the Rochdale-based charging points in time.

TfGM say that cars will be able to recharge fully with the GMEV chargers within 3-4 hours, and that pricing will be revealed in the autumn although, in the meantime, users will be able to recharge their cars for free.

The formal proceedings on the day were over by 9.30 a.m. and so it was down to the business of poring over the cars on display inside the Trafford Centre – a Renault Zoe and a Tesla Model S – and taking a quick spin in a Zoe.

Tesla Model S

Making only its second appearance in Britain, the Tesla Model S is something of an EV phenomenon. The ‘base’ model comes with a 60kWh battery offering a 230-mile range (at a steady 55mph) which would appear to answer questions about range anxiety, while the 85 kWh battery model provides a 300 mile range. However, with European prices starting at €60,000 (+VAT), the Model S is very much a luxury car and while it isn’t cheap, the fact that the model S outsold class competitors the Audi A8, BMW 7-series, Lexus LS and Mercedes Benz S-class in the US appears to buck the notion that no-one buys electric cars.

A very modern luxury - Tesla Model S (Picture source: author's photograph)

A very modern luxury – Tesla Model S (Picture source: author’s photograph)

Trimmed in wood and leather, the interior leaves you in no doubt that the Model S is very modern luxury car, not only because of the style of its execution, but also because of the huge multimedia touchscreen – all 17” of it – that dominates the dashboard, which provides a myriad of information and control options.

The Model s also provides an insight into the packaging possibilities of a move to EV technology. With the battery mounted in the floorpan and an electric motor in line with the rear wheels, the Model S has two luggage compartments front and rear while there are also two occasional rear-facing seats in the luggage area – much like some of the larger estate cars of the 1970s – making the Model S a 5+2 seater.

Electric dream - Tesla Model S (Picture source: author's photograph)

Electric dream – Tesla Model S (Picture source: author’s photograph)

A thoroughly impressive car, the Model S shows what is currently (badum tish!) possible with electric cars – if you have the money, of course. But then all nascent technology is expensive at first, and it will be interesting to see some of the technology and possibilities of the Model S filter down the automotive food chain in time.

Renault Zoe

A second date... - Renault Zoe (Picture source: author's photograph)

A second date… – Renault Zoe (Picture source: author’s photograph)

I briefly wrote about driving the Renault Zoe in my last post, having driven one at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders test day at Millbrook and I have to say I was rather looking forward to reacquainting myself with ‘her’. After driving up and down Millbrook’s Alpine circuit, this test drive was always going to be a rather more sedate affair and was even more so, limited as we were to pootling around an empty overspill Trafford Centre car park. Nonetheless, I’m sure such an experience would have been instructive to those visitors over the two days who had never driven an electric car before, and I did get the chance to experience the difference between normal and eco mode – which maximises range by sacrificing a little performance – something which I forgot to do during my first meeting with Zoe.

Silent partner - Renault Zoe (Picture source: author's photograph)

Silent partner – Renault Zoe (Picture source: author’s photograph)

Apart from an innate serenity, one of the main differences in the way that an electric car and a conventional car drive is that there is instant performance from standstill in an electric car. In Zoe’s standard mode, this instant ‘shove’ is very noticeable whereas there is no discernible shove, rather a gathering of momentum, in eco mode. The performance definitely feels ‘thinner’, for want of a better word, but progress is still entirely adequate – you might not want to select eco mode for overtaking, but it’s fine for regular driving.

As on my previous drive, the tactility of the wheel still pleases, and you can see regenerated charge heading back to the battery upon braking or just taking your foot off the accelerator. The multimedia touchscreen – while much smaller than that of the Tesla – provides charge/range information, car settings and communication connectivity. Another thing I’d overlooked on my first meeting with Zoe was the ‘in-car ioniser’ providing a choice of fragrance modes; I’m not sure I’d choose the ‘relax’ option while driving an electric car!

A moment of Zen - Renault Zoe (Picture source: author's photograph)

A moment of Zen – Renault Zoe (Picture source: author’s photograph)

One thing that did strike me about the test drives was that on a warm, sunny day and on a car park test ‘route’, Renault had rather missed a trick in not bringing any Twizys for people to try.

Driving the point home

EVs may not be the answer to the pursuit of a low carbon automobility, but they are an answer. They are perhaps the most immediate ‘new’ technology available, a key part of the future transport mix, and are as much about reducing localised air pollution as they are about reducing carbon emissions. The nature of electric cars, along with their technological characteristics, perhaps invokes a different ‘affect’ – a different feeling – to conventional cars, and provides a new way of practising automobility.

Myths and perceptions of milk floats and golf buggies abound – no doubt perpetuated by vehicles like the G-Whiz and/or a dissenting media – and issues such as prices, practicalities and recharging infrastructure still perturb many. However, various low carbon vehicle trials, and indeed some of my early research, suggest that those who’ve driven EVs like them, and find that they fit in their lives more easily than was first thought.

As is the case with anything new, practice makes perfect and the best way for people to learn about EVs is to experience them first hand. If governments and manufacturers are serious about electric cars as part of a low carbon automobility, then events like the GMEV launch in a high-footfall environment such as the Trafford Centre, or last year’s Renault ZE tour or even the now seemingly defunct EcoVelocity event, which gave people the chance to experience and to drive electric cars, are absolutely imperative.

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Car-nival day

At the beginning of May, I had the extreme good fortune to attend the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) Test Day at the Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire. Here are my – somewhat belated – thoughts on the day.

With over 100 cars available to drive on a variety of circuits – city, Alpine hill, high speed bowl and off-road – the SMMT Test Day is rather like having a birthday and Christmas all at once for those of an automotive persuasion. Having read about previous test days, I’d always thought this event was the preserve of proper motoring writers, and so was stunned to receive an invite (thank you, Major!).

This was as close as I got - Jaguar F-Type (Picture source: author's photograph).

This was as close as I got – Jaguar F-Type (Picture source: author’s photograph).

Perusing the list of cars on offer, I’d already resigned myself to not even getting close to current automotive darling de nos jours, the new Jaguar F-Type, though the potential prospect of driving a McLaren 12C (!) was something to really look forward to. There would be more to the day than the driving too, with the chance to catch up with other motoring twitterati in between drives to compare notes and chew the automotive fat; great stuff!

The number of attendees and cars available to drive meant that drives were necessarily brief. Here are some fleeting impressions of the cars I drove on the day.

Renault Zoe Dynamic Intens

A smooth start to the day - Renault Zoe (Picture source: author's photograph).

A smooth start to the day – Renault Zoe (Picture source: author’s photograph).

In my capacity as treehugging petrolhead, I suppose that I had to make this my first drive of the day. Having driven electric cars before, I had an idea of what to expect, but the Zoe seemingly surpassed memory. An innate serenity is a given with EVs, yet still somehow seems odd from a small car (or maybe my old Punto is getting on a bit). It felt so tactile, with nicely weighted steering and a wheel which I thought was a lovely thing to hold. Watching the battery range fall going uphill and rise again going downhill on the Alpine course was amusing and, knowing how breathless little hatchbacks can be once they reach the tops of hills, the Zoe’s linear power delivery was a positive boon. Like the Nissan Leaf, the Zoe has been designed from the ground up to be an electric car and it shows; indeed, I thought it made some of the internal combustion-engined cars on offer seem old fashioned.

Toyota GT86

Toyota GT86 (Picture source: author's photograph).

A hybrid version would be nice – Toyota GT86 (Picture source: author’s photograph).

I must admit that I didn’t really do the GT86 justice. My abiding memory of driving it was of the gearchange, which was very short in a ‘snicky’ kind of way that precluded any particular tactility, and had a much narrower gate than I’m used to (inadvertently changing from 2nd to 5th more than once wasn’t brilliant). It was a great car to drive around the Alpine course when I did get it right, but I think I definitely need to spend more time with one. I wonder if there are any plans for a hybrid version – it could be a real low-carbon ‘halo’ car.

Fiat Panda Trekking

Hot on the city course - Fiat Panda Trekking (Picture source: author's photograph).

Hot on the city course – Fiat Panda Trekking (Picture source: author’s photograph).

I’m a huge fan of the previous model Panda and so was quite looking forward to driving this. Despite having read much about the TwinAir engine, I still couldn’t help but think its distinctive thrum was redolent of my Punto when it was poorly. All at sea on the Alpine course (a corollary of the raised suspension on the Trekking model?), it nonetheless excelled on the city course. The Panda Trekking is a very comfortable ‘little’ car, but I think I’d like to try a regular Panda before I decide how much of an improvement the new model is over the previous, frankly brilliant, one.

Porsche 911

Iconic and all you need - Porsche 911 (Picture source: authors photograph).

Iconic and all you need – Porsche 911 (Picture source: authors photograph).

The most powerful and expensive car I’ve ever driven, the 911 was the only car I took on the high speed bowl where it was predictably unflappable at the maximum 100mph we were permitted there. On the Alpine course, its acceleration was intoxicating to one more used to 1/6th of the power, and the handling was inevitably surefooted. A lovely, easy car to drive and yet still very much possessed of its own ‘essence’, this basic, manual, no frills 911 would do very nicely, thank you.

Porsche Cayman

Causing a flap - Porsche Cayman (Picture source: author's photograph).

Causing a flap – Porsche Cayman (Picture source: author’s photograph).

I only managed to take this around the Alpine course and, after the 911, it felt … I don’t know … maybe it was the PDK gearbox, but it didn’t feel as connected or as ‘special’; it certainly lacked an intangible ‘something’ of the 911. I’m sure it would work better in the hands of someone more used to it and not as overawed at the prospect of driving such an expensive bit of ‘new’ technology without any previous acquaintance (I’ve never used ‘flappy’ paddles before). Like the Toyota GT86, I think I need another go in one.

Skoda Citigo Sport

Little car, big fun - Skoda Citigo (Picture source: author's photograph).

Little car, big fun – Skoda Citigo (Picture source: author’s photograph).

After my cotton-wool approach to driving the brace of Porsches, I thought the way I then climbed into the Citigo and proceeded to throw it fearlessly around the Alpine track was striking – have I become conditioned to cars like this? A hoot to drive, I found it to be simple, unpretentious (stripes notwithstanding) fun; I absolutely loved it and, on this showing, I think I might prefer one of the VW group’s upmiicitigo siblings to the new Panda.

Vauxhall 30-98

The original sports car - Vauxhall 30-98 (Picture source: author's photograph).

The original sports car – Vauxhall 30-98 (Picture source: author’s photograph).

Brought by Vauxhall to celebrate the 100th birthday of the 30-98 model, I didn’t actually drive this 1920’s-built example – instead, I was taken for a five-mile spin around the Bedfordshire countryside in it. Being driven in such an old, open car is quite an experience, especially on such a glorious day – the sounds, the smells, the sunshine – and passing some of the older cottages en route in a vintage sports-tourer felt particularly evocative. Cars have come quite a way in the last 100 years or so, and the 30-98 clearly requires some effort to drive, but it’s great fun to be driven in.

Vroom with a view - Vauxhall 30-98 (Picture source: author's photograph).

Vroom with a view – Vauxhall 30-98 (Picture source: author’s photograph).

Mazda MX5 2.0i RC

Delicate, tactile and great fun - Mazda MX5 (Picture source: author's photograph).

Delicate, tactile and great fun – Mazda MX5 (Picture source: author’s photograph).

Very much a chance drive as someone else hadn’t turned up for their slot, it was also a brief drive in case they eventually did! As such, I only managed one circuit of the Alpine course but I was instantly struck by a delicacy in the way it handled; this was the first MX5 I’ve driven, and it seems the hype is true. So tactile and easy to drive, the MX5 was possibly my favourite drive of the day, prompting a perusal of a certain used-car website when I got home!

Thoroughly pleasant - Mazda 2 (Picture source: author's (blurred) photograph).

Thoroughly pleasant – Mazda 2 (Picture source: author’s (blurred) photograph).

Mazda 2 1.3

An affiliated understudy for the Fiesta EcoBoost that was never around when I visited the Ford stand (neither, unsurprisingly, was the ST180), I found this to be a thoroughly pleasant little car. Being accustomed to all of 60bhp from my own car, every car at Millbrook inevitably had great performance but I also really liked the 2’s ride and handling. It was such an easy car to drive smoothly; the air-conditioning was very welcome too!

BMW Z4 sDrive35i

A sound of music - BMW Z4 (Picture source: author's photograph).

A sound of music – BMW Z4 (Picture source: author’s photograph).

From the pleasant to the potentially sublime, the Z4 was a stark contrast after the Mazda 2. Not being obsessed by powwwwerrrr, I was actually a little disappointed that the promised newly-introduced 2-litre sDrive18i model had been substituted for a 3-litre model with all of 306bhp – overkill, surely? It may have been a tad conspicuous for my taste, and lacked the delicacy of the MX5, but it did make a lovely noise while blatting up and down the Alpine course; I’m not sure that the lesser sDrive18i would have sounded quite the same.

Vauxhall Firenza Droopsnoot

Suits me...? - Vauxhall Firenza (Picture source: author's photograph).

Suits me…? – Vauxhall Firenza (Picture source: author’s photograph).

My final drive of the day was in this almost mythical (only around 200 were made) 1970s icon. Sporting shades, boot-cut jeans and an ‘appropriate’ haircut (think Milky Bar hippy), I must admit I had a bit of a Spencer Haze moment as I opened the driver’s door – indeed, someone shouted “It suits you!” as I got in. The simplicity, the weight of the steering and the quality of the gearchange served to highlight how much cars have changed in the last 40 years or so; it was certainly an intensive driving experience. A fabulously contemporaneous car, though I think I’d prefer a Triumph Dolomite Sprint.

So there we have it – ten all-too-brief drives and one countryside spin, in cars spanning almost a century. Many thanks must go to the SMMT for organising a brilliant day, which was blessed with equally brilliant weather. And, no, I didn’t get to drive the McLaren.

Some other time, perhaps... - McLaren 12C (Picture source: author's photograph).

Some other time, perhaps – McLaren 12C (Picture source: author’s photograph).