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Bright Spark

Like most British electric car drivers, I’m mainly a charge at home sort of person and usually stick to my car’s known safe radius of action. In fact, something like eighty to ninety per cent of all electric car charging takes place on owners’ driveways. After all, wouldn’t you mainly fill up at home if you had a petrol or diesel pump in your garage that dispensed fuel at a fraction of normal filling station prices?

But from the beginning, it was clear that electric cars would need to break out of the second car/local journey bubble if they were going to take over the world. Even when the first models with their eighty miles of range appeared, a few hardy pioneers set off on infeasibly long journeys to show what could be done – although I personally have never managed to work up the motivation to drive to either Land’s End or John O’Groats, regardless of the method of propulsion.

Now things are changing quickly. Every year, the battery capacity of the latest electric models leaps forward. Just take one example – the latest version of the Volkswagen e-up!, along with its SEAT Mii Electric and Skoda e-Citigo iv sisters, has a battery that is twice as big as the original model, and is now rated for 162 miles of range on the new WLTP measure.

And on the charging side, scarcely used slow chargers in local authority car parks and the often criticised Ecotricity rapid charging network at the motorway services have started to be overshadowed by an aggressive roll-out of new charging infrastructure by companies such as BP Chargemaster, which runs the Polar network, and Instavolt.

I decided it was time to put one of the latest big-battery electric cars – and also the latest infrastructure – to the test. I set out from my base in Cambridgeshire, first to Manchester, and then on to Newcastle and back, in order to answer a simple question: with the latest advances in mind, is it possible to roam far and wide in the UK as easily in an electric car as it is in a petrol or a diesel vehicle? In my view, the answer to that question is now “yes, almost”.

So how did it go? First the car. I used the 62kWh Nissan Leaf e+, which has more power and a bigger battery than any previous Leaf. Its WLTP range is 239 miles, and with a lightish right foot, it’s not difficult to get more than 200 miles, even in cold weather motorway driving. The WLTP figure should be within reach with a little more effort. That’s a bit disappointing compared with the freakishly good 346 miles I managed to extract from the 64kWh Kia e-Niro in ideal, warm, flat conditions last summer, but it’s still probably enough to tackle most UK journeys.

And that brings us on to the charging infrastructure, which is now coming on in leaps and bounds. On my journey, I used three of BP Chargemaster’s Polar rapid chargers, all of which worked flawlessly, and one Ecotricity rapid charger at a location where only one of the two charging posts was in operation. That meant a brief wait while another Leaf took on a ten-minute top-up. Another Ecotricity location on the A1 wasn’t working, prompting the only detour of my trip into Newark to use a Polar charger there. My charging was mostly accommodated within stops for breaks that I would have made anyway, so there was little delay involved.

Just a little bit of research goes a long way in making for a smooth experience. That means consulting in advance resources such as Zap-Map’s online directory of charging locations, and it helps to know the quirks of the particular type of car you’re driving as well. The current Leaf, for example, tends to be reluctant to take on a full second rapid charge on any particular day, a measure that helps manage the longevity of the battery pack. You may need a bit of planning to work around this, although I don’t think it’s likely to be a serious practical limitation for most people.

Don’t forget that in an electric car, your journeys will be cheaper too. And with their low levels of noise and vibration, and their effortless acceleration, electric cars are real, comfortable mile-munchers as well. With bigger batteries and today’s charging infrastructure, electric cars can finally shake off range anxiety concerns and show their true colours as great long distance machines.

David Wilkins 

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