THE BLOG

Why Electric Cars Have Come of Age

07/11/2014 13:34 GMT | Updated 06/01/2015 10:59 GMT

by Jason Barlow

It all boils down to chemistry. Internal combustion is inherently thrilling, because it introduces fuel to air before mixing them with genuinely explosive results. There are pistons and cylinders, and reciprocating parts moving at very high speeds, manufactured to micron fine tolerances, operating at volcanic temperatures. These mechanical miracles are engineered for maximum repeatability. Some of them even have a sculptural beauty, especially if the cylinder count runs to 12 and they're under the bonnet of an Aston Martin, Ferrari or Lamborghini.

It's no wonder generations of 'petrol-heads' have thrilled to a concept that transcends the idea of simply going from A to B.

But their days are numbered. Draconian EU legislation is demanding greater reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, a legislative challenge that can only be met by downsizing engines, compromising the purity of their responses by turbo-charging, and, worst of all, by hybridising them. On the face of it, these are tough times for old-school car 'enthusiasts'.

'There is an issue of social acceptance and things are changing,' the CEO of Lamborghini, Stephan Winkelmann, recently told me. 'People are more aware, more sensitive... There are perception issues, like it or not, and when you are perceived as an outlaw you no longer fit into the big picture. So we need to adjust, while remaining consistent to the brand.'

True to his word, at the recent Paris auto salon Lamborghini's stand was dominated by a plug-in hybrid concept, a car that would have been unthinkable even five years ago. Purists will complain, as they always do, but their arguments are thinner than ever.

Why? Because I believe that 2014 will go down as the tipping point for hybrids and electric propulsion. Fifteen years after I drove my first hybrid, this is the year the idea finally became irresistible, the year when one no longer needed to make excuses. This is a hugely exciting time for the automobile, for the concept of sustainable personal mobility, and for the car industry in general.

Why? Convergence is a major factor. No disrespect to Toyota, whose pioneering work with the Prius put the hybrid train in motion, but that was never a car I truly wanted. Because its nickel hydride batteries are chunky, the zero emissions gains in urban areas are offset by the weight penalty on the motorway. A small diesel hatchback made equal sense, and was less expensive.

This year, though, the hybrid or all-electric cars I really do want have arrived thick and fast. To name a few: the Porsche Panamera e-hybrid, Audi A3 e-tron, Tesla Model S, BMW i3 and i8, Renault Zoe, and Lexus IS300h. Each of them represents a crucial convergence of brand and technology, cars that aren't the preserve of the well-heeled early adopter that can fit into normal everyday life without demanding sacrifices or engendering 'range anxiety'. In fact, these are cars that actively improve your everyday life.

To give you one example: I've tested the Panamera e-hybrid for 3000 miles or more (at £88,000, it definitely still is for the well-heeled). Like its 918 supercar brother, the Porsche's genius lies in the integration of its technology. It combines a 3.0-litre supercharged V6 with an electric motor fed by a 9.4kWh lithium ion battery pack. That gives a combined power output of 410bhp, and Porsche claims an overall fuel consumption average of 91mpg, and CO2 emissions of 71g/km. Amazing numbers. This is a big luxury limo capable of 22 miles on electric power alone, which is a fantastic sensation in the city (no road tax or congestion charge to pay). Better still is the way e-power and conventional power blend on long motorway journeys.

The batteries add weight - still the electric car's Achilles heel - but it remains a great demonstration of how a brand like Porsche is embracing the available technology, and moving the needle. BMW's i cars - the city runaround i3 and sports car i8, the products of a multi-billion pound investment - are more focused and perhaps less compromised. Both are remarkable products, and hugely desirable. Renault's little Zoe hatchback is much more affordable, but equally well executed.

Tesla's Model S, meanwhile, carries with it the kudos of founder Elon Musk, the real-life Tony Stark who is also proposing a hyper-link between LA and San Francisco, wants to terra-form Mars, and has recently made the company's patents freely available in the spirit of technological egalitarianism.

In short, I'll always have petrol in my veins. But the creativity and application of the automotive industry in its efforts to take electric power into the mainstream has recharged my passion for cars as a whole.

Jason Barlow is a writer and broadcaster with more than 20 years experience in the automotive sector. He is currently editor-at-large for BBC Top Gear and a contributing editor at GQ magazine.

Jason will be speaking at "Eco Machines: Designing the Cars of the Future" hosted by Intelligence Squared and Shell at Sackville Hall, University of Manchester on November 11th 2014