My EV Test Drives in Geneva
Of the major car shows, Geneva is one of the most pleasant. Geneva itself is a wonderful place, located on a beautiful lake with a great view of the snow-bedecked Alps. More to the automotive point, since Switzerland does not have a (real) domestic auto industry, there is none of the triumphalism, none of the loud horn-blowing of so many other car shows. It's nobody's home turf here, so everybody tries a bit harder to make a convincing case that their products are worth buying, or in our case, worth reporting about.
In Geneva, car makers not only in principle allow the average journalist to drive their cars here, but also actually follow up with enough staff and enough machinery. So, we were able to snag some interesting electric test drives.
Basically, many electric cars feel similar. Be it a Tesla or a Volt, they all have very little motor noise, low vibration, linear power delivery, and strong initial torque. Those EVs that have their battery packs underfloor also have a very low center of gravity, enabling excellent handling and a compliant suspension set-up. This gives many EVs a kind of grace most people would previously only know from luxury cars, like Jaguars of yore. But apart from the similarities: when you drive four cars in a row, what are the differences?
Smart EV: The Best Smart Ever
Nicolas Hayek, founder of Swatch watches and "inventor" of the Smart car, originally wanted it to be an EV. Instead, Smart has tried gasoline engines, has installed Diesels for better mileage, has expanded the line to include droptops and four-doors, and then trimmed the line to reduce financial losses. After all that, Smart is getting back to the original concept and is building (limited amounts of) electric Smart cars. And everybody who has driven it says it's a better car than any Smart built before, which would make me feel pretty stupid if I was the Mercedes manager who made the original decision to go ICE (internal combustion engine).
What they say is true! There is none of the sewing-machine noise behind your head, no "think-rethink-rethink again" transmission shift nonsense, and less of the feeling of topply instability you (fairly or not) feel in the ICE Smart.
The Smart EV, indeed, is quite good. As in any Smart, the initial impression from the driver's seat is great. Excellent visibility, fantastic headroom, and width to spare makes this a two-seater that only feels like a two-seater when you look over your shoulder. Operation is simple, like with most all EVs. You turn the key which, Saab-like, is located on the floor; you watch the instruments light up and the needles on the dials stand to attention, you shift the gear into "drive", and off you go. Controls are Germanic-meaty as with other Smarts; everything feels substantial and as if built to last. Acceleration is prompt and linear and the car feels more planted and stable than Smarts previously witnessed.
So is the best Smart a Smart you'd want to own? Sadly, it seems the car's fate is to be flawed, no matter what. The EV Smart is limited to a top speed of 100 km/h (60 mph), turning what could be a versatile commuter into an urban one-trick pony. With the Toyota iQ (which in prototype form was introduced yesterday, here in Geneva) sporting a top speed of 125 km/h, where does that leave the Smart? Not to mention that there are already other useful slow-poke EVs on the market (http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2009/12/review-citroen-c1-evie/).
Nissan Leaf: State of the Art
Electric cars are fun. You can utilize their low center of gravity and toss them around without fearing an iffy reaction from the suspension. You can use the recuperative brakes without worrying about the environment or, more to the point, about overheating them. You step on the "gas" and find yourself in the best video game ever.
The Leaf is just like this, only better, because you get all the fun you want, but also all the comfort you need.
Back to fun, I spent a quick 30 minutes driving in Geneva and loved every minute. It was unperturbed by potholes and delt out wallops of torque without any ill effects from its front-wheel drive, even in sharp curves. (Experience the squirrellyness of a recent VW Polo GTI to see how unsettled even modern cars can be). I took it up to 125 km/h (traffic permitting no more than that), a speed at which it felt like the ideal long-distance car (which, of course, due to limited range, it isn't).
And comfort? The Leaf is quiet, has van-like amounts of headroom, has a modern, non-generic interior with first-rate fit and finish, and feels really strong and solid. The graphics on the information system are nicer than on any other car I've seen. It also has what is charmingly called Carwings, which means you can program the Leaf with your iPhone, so you have another thing to play around with during boring meetings.
A good fifteen years ago, famous automotive writer LJK Setright asked "what is a true luxury car?", and offered the Honda NSX as his ideal, because it provided power without any of power's usual disadvantages (dimensions, weight, vulgarity, waste). I offer the Leaf as a true luxury car, as a truly desirable vehicle, because its engine is as quiet as a Rolls-Royce's, it has more interior space than many executive cars, it has the smooth and instant acceleration of a Daimler, and it provides you with more social prestige in the young and sexy crowd than a Ferrari does.
Chevy Volt: The Swiss Army Knife
Of course, the Leaf has one fatal flaw, namely its range. If you are one of the few people who drive more than 100 miles a day on a regular basis, then it is not for you. (On the other hand, without wanting to be cynical: if you drive that much although you're not a travelling salesman, perhaps you should re-think your life priorities). If you have a two-car garage and you can keep a beater for the occasional long-distance trip, then by all means get a Leaf, if it makes financial sense for you. But of you want only one car for almost all purposes, then consider the Volt (or its European equivalent, the Opel Ampera, which was introduced here in Geneva yesterday).
Here's why: it is also basically flawless. It is so much fun to drive that one of my journalist predecessors overcooked a curve and ripped a tire. That's why, here in Geneva, there was an undersupply of functioning Volts, and I was limited to a 15-minute drive, during which I tried very hard to get my money's worth. Thus, I can report it brakes hard, takes sharp bends with equinamity, accelerates without drama, and does everything as well or better than could be expected. It is cozy inside, more so than the Leaf, so wait for the Voltvan if you have a large family.
Any other demerits? Under the hard light of the exhibition hall the Volt's interior plastics looked like a poor attempt to out-iPhone the competition. In natural light however, the Volt's interior is perfectly fine, if not as Japanese-sublime as the Leaf's.
But in contrast to the Leaf, it gives you a feeling of completeness, of being able to do basically anything you like with it. It's the have- -your-green-cake-and-eat-it car. (Yes, this is rather expensive cake. Your doctor's orders have merit, though: don't eat cheap cake).
Tata Indica Vista EV: Nice Try
The Volt and the Leaf are fantastic new takes on electric transport. These are no alibi-mobiles to fend off the greenies while you're making money with SUVs: these are the real thing.
So what can a competitor hope to do? How about: make a cheaper EV? It seems that's what India's Tata intends to do. I spoke with a personable engineer from Tata who says the Indica Vista would be at least £5,000 cheaper than the Leaf. (That's around 8,000 US Dollars). On paper, it looks like an acceptable proposition. 55 kW motor, a top speed of 114 km/h (71 mph), 26.5 kWh battery capacity, 100 miles range, space for 4, four doors: this does not appear to be a bad car.
Granted, the exterior styling is circa-2005 and the interior is Dacia Logan, vintage 2007. In other words, dated, utilitarian, slightly depressing but not without perspective. Fit and finish are acceptable and there is actually more space than in the Volt.
And how does the Tata drive? Well, since they did not get approval for public roads, the testing route was short, and possible flaws were hard to detect. Certainly, the Indica is not as solid as the Nissan or the Chevrolet, but the electronics were OK, with good feel in the gas and brake pedals. To be quite honest, the Tata felt like a rather OK third-world car that had been equipped with a first-world electric-propulsion system. Which it is.
Tata is proceeding carefully, and only plans to sell about 150 units within the fourth quarter of 2011. It seems Tata is investing "tons" of money in its electric system, and has plans to be the second-biggest (after Nissan-Renault) maker of electric cars in Europe at some point. At this point, it is hard to know whether this is a realistic scenario, but the effort involved is surely commendable. If only Mercedes invested that kind of energy in their EV effort...
Interior view of Tata Vista EV. Photo by the author.
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