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Bright Spark

It goes without saying that the coronavirus lockdown has been a frustrating time for anyone who likes cars. I’ve spent even more of my time than usual on online car searches and spotted a few electric bargains – pre-registered delivery mileage MG ZS EVs for less than £20,000 and Nissan Leafs with the smaller 40kWh battery for about £21,500, to name a couple.

There’s been time, too, to explore online some of the businesses that have grown up around the developing electric car market. One that caught my eye was Muxsan, a Dutch firm that is transforming Nissan Leafs and electric vans with battery swap-outs – the different sizes of battery are broadly interchangeable – or additional range-extending cells in neatly packaged housings that don’t eat too much into the rear boot space.

And of course, I’ve been plotting the drives I hope to do when the lockdown ends. My favourite UK route takes me from my base in East Anglia to Edinburgh through back-road Britain: B-roads through Lincolnshire, East Yorkshire and North Yorkshire, taking in the majestic Humber Bridge along the way, and then the A696 and A68 as an alternative to the A1 north of Newcastle. I’ve driven this route many times, but never paid sufficient attention to the wealth of sights and landmarks along the way, and it is these that I have been researching. It occurs to me too, that I have never completed this favourite drive in an electric car, so that has now become an early post-lockdown goal.

One piece of news that really attracted my attention was the confirmation of a new addition to MG’s electric line-up, the MG 5. On the face of it, it doesn’t look very exciting. It’s a medium-sized estate car based on an established Chinese-market model from Roewe, MG’s stablemate within the SAIC group. It’s not a trendy SUV and nor does it seem to have any of the flashy features you’d see on a Tesla or a BMW i3. But what the MG 5 does have going for it, if its Roewe sister is a guide, is a decently sized 52.5kWh battery pack in a car that is expected to cost about the same as the MG ZS EV. If MG gets anywhere close to that combination, the MG 5 will represent great value for money.

Small estates may have yielded a lot of ground to crossovers and SUVs, but they still dominate a couple of important niches. Provincial taxi operators are heavy users of the Toyota Auris and Corolla estates in hybrid form, and it’s easy to see how that market could open up for a cheap-to-run electric alternative. Of course, for that to happen, operators will need to be convinced that MG’s quality, reliability and dealer back-up pass muster. My guess is that a 52.5kWh battery may give enough range for a long shift of local journeys, but drivers new to electric vehicles might still need to be reassured that the charging infrastructure is up to the job. So rapid chargers may start popping up at local taxi ranks, or other favoured haunts of the trade.

Another important category of users for small estates are the UK’s police forces, which have bought large numbers of models, such as the Peugeot 308 SW and Ford Focus Estate under big centralised contracts. This would appear to be another market that could be ripe for a convincing electric alternative. It’s worth remembering that as well as lower running costs and emissions, smooth and quiet electric vehicles also provide a less wearing environment for drivers and passengers than the alternatives over the course of a working day.

Gloucestershire Constabulary is one police force that has already gone well beyond experimenting with a few token EVs. After earlier experience with the Leaf, it decided earlier this year to order an additional 75 electric Nissans. The availability of a small electric estate must surely increase the chances of more forces adding to their EV fleets.

The impact of the coronavirus on the wider picture, as far as electrification is concerned, is still quite hard to fathom, but it is likely that the slowdown will hit at least some investments. One victim is a project by Ford’s luxury arm, Lincoln, to make an electric SUV based on technology from Rivian. If I had to guess, though, I’d say that the electrification wave has enough momentum to see it through even this crisis.

David Wilkins

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