Ready to charge down the road

Below is a first hand review printed by the Times of Malta on 16th August 2014

Silence is golden but on an island where noise pollution reigns supreme and many motorists strive to make their cars as loud as possible, finding peace and quiet on the road is rare.

But hope is on the horizon in the shape of electric cars. The results of a two-month review of a Mitsubishi i-Miev, carried out by this newspaper, were surprising.
On the first day I started testing the electric vehicle, the battery of my own petrol-powered car died after six years on the go, so the timing was perfect.

The first noticeable attribute of this car is its unnerving silence but it quickly becomes a major attraction, especially without the rattling of an engine or vibrations. Driving a practically soundless car suddenly sensitises you to the excessive noise on the roads, which is often unnecessary.

The i-Miev is so quiet the manufacturers had to incorporate a speaker to emulate the sound of an engine for safety reasons but this can be switched off. I must apologise to cyclists who could have been startled by the sudden appearance of a car but the mandatory distance was always kept.

The silence was even more evident driving through Gozo on a hot afternoon when the only noise was caused by the tyres’ friction on the road. A colleague pointed out that the low whirring emanating from the electric motor almost mimicked a flying saucer in a vintage film.

The test drive formed part of the Demo EV project aimed at demonstrating the feasibility of electric vehicles. It is an EU co-funded project to distribute 24 electric cars to volunteers who gave a detailed account of their use. The project also included the installation of a network of charging pillars across the Maltese islands.

Charging the car was easy and cheap, costing something like 30 per cent of the fuel required for an average-sized car besides the savings in servicing, oil and parts. The electricity costs worked out to about 2c per kilometre. On a full charge, the automatic vehicle has a range of between 120 and 140 kilometres, but it depends on the speed.

          

The most important thing with an electric car is conserving energy, so there is no need to keep your foot on the accelerator to keep moving. And although it can easily keep up with the rest of the traffic, it is more energy-efficient to maintain a speed of between 50 and 60 kilometres an hour to ensure the charge lasts longer.

On the dashboard, instruments indicate the range and charge and there is a speedometer featuring an economy mode so you would know just how much power is being used. To top up, you can choose between the charging pillars or an ordinary three-pin plug at home. It is best to top up before driving to your destination.

Some journey planning is required too. For example, going to Sliema would mean that although you have half a charge left, you could plug in at a point in Tigné while shopping. One’s driving style affects the range and once your foot is off the accelerator, the car also begins to charge.

The strong acceleration is achieved through a compact, highly efficient permanent magnet synchronous motor that generates high torque from low speed through wheel rear drive. The car uses a lithium ion battery delivering 330V with a maximum power of 47kW.

Apart from not having any gears to change, you have instant power when you need it. It is also quick off the mark and, much to the surprise of other drivers, the electric vehicle can accelerate faster than petrol cars. The one I was testing is small and the body slim but it fits two generously sized people together with two to three more passengers at the back. Its engine can also cope easily with the air-conditioning full on.

Although driving it was a pleasure, I must admit that having to plug it in whenever I knew I had to drive a long distance was a hassle. The fact I do not have a garage was another disadvantage because I had to ensure I arrived home with enough charge to make it into work the next day.

Another aggravating factor was the disregard people have for parking spots reserved for charging electric cars. Clear signs banning parking were frequently ignored and when the car desperately had to be charged it was frustrating at best.

The Transport Ministry website includes a map indicating the site of the charging pillars. Points can be booked for a maximum of 30 minutes in advance. It usually takes three to four hours to get a full charge and, on average, about eight hours if using a three-pin plug at home.

The particular model I had is equipped with a supercharger made for countries where the infrastructure can allow a full charge in 30 minutes. I feel the amount of charging points need to be increased and, ideally, every parking spot should have one.

Another sore point is the price of an electric car. The small car I had still costs €21,000, notwithstanding a government grant of €5,000. That means it is out of reach for many. The price must drop substantially before we can see more of these great cars on the road.

When it comes to range, technology also has to improve. To conclude, the most positive elements are the silent, clean and emission-free travel, which far outweighed any negative points and, although more needs to be done, electric cars are definitely here to stay.

Just imagine our roads full of silent cars. Bliss!

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