By MJ Majuru
There’s a revolution under way in the automotive world that will transform how we get around, and while electric cars are still relatively uncommon in South Africa, this will probably change over the coming years.
In South Africa, there are currently only about 300 electric cars on the road, according to DTI data. By comparison, last year just shy of a quarter of all new cars registered in Norway was an electric car. Not a hybrid, not a plug-in hybrid, but a straight-up electric car (EV). Earlier this year, Volvo announced that from 2019 all new models the company releases will be electrified. That means it will be impossible to buy a new-model Volvo from 2019 that isn’t either, a hybrid, a plug-in hybrid, or an EV.
Arguments about the relative harm internal combustion engines have on the environment are probably less relevant than more recent understanding of the amount of harm caused to human health by diesel engines, which have been legislated into popularity because of their lower carbon emissions.
As a result, electrification is happening apace. While there can be no doubt that internal-combustion cars will continue to be available for many years, especially in the developing world, a rash of new EVs from traditional car companies and automotive upstarts such as Tesla, Google and Apple will all arrive within the next five years.
As the price of full EVs and plug-in hybrids comes down to parity with standard internal-combustion units, it’s likely we’ll see more model lines available in SA.
However, there’s no reason you can’t enjoy the benefits of EVs right now – and there’s a great deal to enjoy. They’re quiet, they don’t spew filthy fumes into the air and they’re incredibly cheap to run. While most people are obviously concerned about range and charging times, the average commuter does many fewer miles in a day than the EV is capable of.
A good start is the Nissan Leaf, the original mass-produced EV, which is a quiet, comfortable and luxurious hatchback with a range of 180km – likely to be far further than your daily trip to work, the school run and a trip to the shops.
However it is the BMW i3 that has done most to popularise the concept of electric motoring in South Africa. It’s available as a straight EV with a good range of about 180km, but is also available in the (more expensive) REX (range extender) derivative, which comes with a little two-cylinder motorcycle engine that can run to charge the batteries (it doesn’t drive the wheels) in that rare situation where more range is required.
There’s an ever-growing range of plug-in hybrid cars, which run on electricity for a limited distance – usually around 50km or so – before the petrol engine kicks into full hybrid mode. These benefit from quicker charging, so can be fully charged while you are at the office, for example, off a simple three-point plug
A notable example is the Mercedes-Benz C350e, as plug-in hybrid version of the Benz’s much-lauded C-class. It’s capable of 31km on electric power alone and can be charged in less than two hours from a normal socket. The best thing about this car is that it’s built in East London – the first hybrid production line in Africa. Cars with similar technology are also available from Volvo and BMW.