Drivers who want to help the environment can buy an electric car in Derby for just £6,999. Joey Severn tests what it feels like to go green on the road.
FOR years, electric cars were expensive, slow and often looked like the back end of a bus.
This is no longer the case.
For £6,999, you can walk into Motorpoint, off Pentagon Island, and drive away with a four-door saloon that looks like any other car. It will ferry you and four others in comfort to your destination and in plenty of time, thanks to the in-built sat-nav system.
And that destination, according to Renault, can be anything up to 115 miles from your front door.
So could this be the turning point for electric cars in Derby?
To answer that question let us look at Norway. In September, the top selling car across the whole of the country was the electric Tesla Model S.
The following month, the Nissan Leaf, another electric car, went top. This is no fluke.
In Norway, there has been a sustained campaign to make electric cars more appealing to consumers. If you buy an electric car there you get: Zero VAT and sales tax, free access to toll roads, use of bus lanes, free parking, free charging and a low annual road fee.
Car charging is also less of a headache with a good network including electric vehicle car parks in the centre of Oslo.
There has also been a cultural shift with Norwegians being far more likely to be able to name and recognise electric vehicles on the market.
Contrast that with the UK and it makes bleak reading. In September, 403,136 new cars were registered. In the first nine months of this year, just 2,681 electric vehicles were registered. That is not just one type of electric car. That is every single model.
So what is the problem?
On a test drive in the new Renault Fluence with Steve Wright, from Motorpoint Derby, it is difficult to see why take-up is so low. It is not a pokey “city” car with zero boot space and dimensions that make you think 20 clowns are going to suddenly jump out.
Rather it is a premium four-door saloon which slips nicely in with the company’s venerable Laguna model.
Everything appears normal. But turn the key and nothing happens. “Is it on?” I ask with more than a hint of disbelief in my voice.
There is no noise. Not a whisper. A strange scenario for a driver used to an early 2000 Citroen Saxo.
“No, it’s on. That is all the noise. When you put your foot down there is a bit of a whine but that is it,” Steve says.
A glance down at the pedals reveals there are only two where the normal three would be; this is an automatic.
Pulling out of Motorpoint, the lack of noise is disconcerting to begin with but a pleasant side effect is that it allows for a conversation to take place at a normal volume.
And as I took the car on a spin around Derby, Steve explained how that price is so low. He said: “Most people won’t buy a nearly-new electric car over fears over the battery life. The battery cells are generally worth more than the actual car, which effectively means the car becomes almost worthless once the cells are exhausted.
“However, Renault’s ingenious battery rental policy means that people who buy the Fluence are insuring the battery life of the vehicle, as Renault will either replace or repair the battery while the rental policy remains in place.
“Unfortunately, most people are unaware of this policy thus far and, as a consequence, sales have been low and prices from suppliers have been impacted.”
This situation has allowed Motorpoint to step-in and buy the Fluence in bulk and pass on savings to the customer.
Steve said: “We’ve sold a good number of Fluences, mostly at our Chingford branch, because of demand from the London market.
“We’ve got a reasonable number still in stock with an option to buy more based on demand.”
The other major difficulty that people have with electric vehicles is the range. But again this is something that Steve does not think is as much of an issue as it has been previously.
He said: “The range of this car is around 60 miles under normal driving conditions which, when you think of what people drive on a commute to work, is far less than most people will drive.
“If you live just outside Derby and drive in every day it really isn’t that far. Most of the time is spent just sitting in traffic.
“So you are looking at a lot less than a 60-mile round trip.
“How I see it though is that most families have two cars. If you look at the kind of people that are going to buy this type of car it makes sense.
“You can have a normal petrol car if you want to make long drives and then the Fluence for the school run.”
As we continue with the test drive, I take in the interior. It is well appointed, one of the nicest cars I have had the chance to sit in.
The ride is smooth, the cabin airy and there is never the feeling that you are having to race to keep up with traffic.
Steve said: “The car pulls just like a petrol. You are always up with the speed of the rest of the traffic.”
As we get on to the outer ring road and I put my foot down, there is the unmistakable whine as the motor spins up and the car’s speedometer pushes 70mph.
But the most over-riding feeling when you step out of the car? That it isn’t any different than driving any other car, and that this is the key.
Humans are creatures of habit, we hate change. People kicked against mobile phones for an age. Then, when everyone had a Nokia 3310 which you needed to charge once a week, the idea you would have to plug it in every night seemed like madness.
Now a good proportion of people go home, stick their smartphone on charge and set their alarm to wake them up in the morning.
And that is exactly what will happen with electric cars.
Each Fluence comes with a charger which plugs into the mains of the house.
Steve said: “You go home and plug it in. From empty to full it takes about eight hours. People are used to going to the petrol station and filling up.”
But that cannot continue. By some estimates we have gone past the point of peak oil and if you think the price of petrol is bad now, just wait when barrels of crude go through the roof as Brazil, India and China keep pushing through with their own industrialisation.
The more electric vehicles there are, the less carbon is being pumped into the atmosphere. Steve said: “People buy electric cars for all kinds of reasons and one of those is the fact that they are greener than the petrol equivalents.”
So what you are looking at in the Renault Fluence is the future today – and at a price that is so low you would be mad not to take it for a test drive and see if you can tell the difference.