Here’s an interesting contradiction. Electric cars are a fresh, new, fast-changing technology, but most of the well-known models spearheading the electrification drive are now getting decidedly long in the tooth. Take the Nissan Leaf, which dates back the best part of a decade to 2010. Or the Renault Zoe and the Tesla Model S, which both first arrived eight years ago in 2012. The BMW i3 and the Volkswagen e-up! are seven, having first hit the roads in 2013, and the e-up! is based on the petrol-powered up! which is older still.
There’s an interesting debate to be had some other time about whether electric cars can somehow break or defy the motor industry’s traditional upgrade cycle, but the fact remains that if any of these cars were mainstream petrol or diesel models, they would probably have been replaced by all-new successors by now.
Of course, the reason for making these models last so long is obvious. Electric cars require a lot of investment, but at least to start off with, they were selling only in small numbers. It follows that manufacturers will try to stretch their production lives, even in a fast-changing market.
So does this mean these cars are out of date? Not in the sense that electric cars are the future, so any electric car is future proof in a way that that petrol and diesel cars never can be. And of course, these cars have also seen a lot of development. Most of them have two to three times as much battery capacity and range as they did when they were originally launched – the Tesla is the exception, but only because it already had decent range from the beginning. The Leaf has had quite a bit of new bodywork and the Zoe was recently thoroughly revamped, while the i3 and the Tesla Model S, with their avantgarde designs and use of lightweight materials, were arguably already years ahead when they were launched. Tesla keeps even its older cars fresh with over-the-air software updates that feed in a constant stream of new features.
The comparison these electric favourites really need to fear is not with petrol and diesel cars, but with a coming wave of whizzy new electric models on purpose-built electric platforms. Renault evolved its existing Zoe rather than having it jump to a new platform like its petrol/diesel counterpart, the Clio, but Volkswagen took the opposite approach of basing its combustion-engined Golf 8 on the same MQB architecture as the Golf 7, while giving the electric ID.3 a radical new cutting-edge platform.
We won’t see head-to-head tests between, say, an ID.3 and a Leaf until later in the year, but let’s take another new/old pairing and, without the chance to drive them yet, compare them on the features – the Honda e and the Volkswagen e-up!. Like the ID.3, the Honda e uses a purpose-built electric platform that tucks the motor away deep down between the rear drive wheels, permitting a spectacularly tight turning circle. The e-up!, apart from its electric drive, is just a straightforward front-wheel drive sub-supermini, and can offer no such party piece. Inside, the Honda e wows with a spectacular array of screens that stretches right across the upper surface of the dashboard and can do all sorts of tricks, information and entertainment. Even the door mirrors are replaced by camera-fed screens at the extremes of the main video array. And what does the e-up! have? A bracket for your smartphone, which, loaded with the right apps, you are expected to use for functions such as a navigation system that the car itself lacks. Great!
So an easy victory for the Honda? Not so fast. The two cars’ batteries are of almost equal size, but the Volkswagen has more range. And the Honda e is costing nine grand more than the keenly priced electric Skoda Citigo-e iV, the e-up!’s budget-brand sister model.
Like most enthusiasts, I really love the beautiful little Honda. But as a cost-conscious car buyer who opens his wallet only reluctantly, I’d probably be looking at the Volkswagen or its Skoda twin for something to buy with my own money. Basing your mini city electric vehicle on a decade-old platform that has already sold in the hundreds of thousands has its advantages as well as its drawbacks, it would seem.