Are electric cars a flawed concept or the way forward? Ian Stringer reports.

As a complete petrol head, I have always fancied the opportunity of pretending to be Jeremy Clarkson, but perhaps without being quite so rude, flippant or downright offensive, depending on your point of view.

Through connections between GVA’s Sustainability unit, the management team at Brindleyplace and the government-sponsored “plugged in places project”’ administered by Cenex and the Central Technology Belt, I was offered the opportunity to drive an electric car for a typical working week.

The concept of a battery-operated car to a “petrol head” is tantamount to driving a milk float, other than the fact that you don’t hear the milk bottles jingling. In fact you don’t hear anything at all.

Those who know me, are probably reading this with gaping mouths as they know that my real passion is a 12-cylinder, four-litre V12 1970s supercar tucked away in my garage at home that does less miles to the gallon than it has cylinders (a true petrol head’s definition of a proper car).

However, I approached the whole exercise with a completely open mind. So on a cold and snowy Monday morning I met the Cenex representative in the multi-storey car park at Brindleyplace where the car was plugged into one of the electric charge points, incidentally offered free for Brindleyplace electric car users. As it happens, bar my new steed, they were all empty. Not quite caught on yet, then.

And what of the car? A two-seater electric Smart with gleaming white and lime-green paintwork and lime-green wheels enthusiastically emblazoned with the words “Electric Vehicle” on both sides and the rear. No hiding now, then!

Brief instructions on how to charge the car (all extremely simple) and driving tips, again little or no different from an ordinary automatic, other than the all-important battery gauge.

As for the car, well a Smart is an er... a Smart, effectively a two-seater city or commuter car and whilst it was not part of the deal to review the car positively or negatively, in summary it was both enlightening and frightening.

Enlightening in the sense of its adaptability, ease of parking, etc (although I couldn’t get my kids and two labradors on the rear parcel shelf), but quite frightening when you see the grill of a 40ft artic 6ft over your left shoulder on the inside lane of the M5 on the uphill stretch to Frankley Services!

I should say at this point that my daily commute is 26 miles in each direction from Droitwich to Birmingham and vice versa. The range on the Smart was reported to be between 60 and 80 miles depending upon driving style and therefore it doesn’t take a genius to work out that a more “ambitious” driver would be bordering on empty for a 52-mile daily round trip.

For the first two days I charged the car at home overnight and during the day at Brindleyplace for fear of not being able to make the round trip. However, on day 3, I braved the two-way journey and, despite being transfixed on the battery gauge as much as traffic in front of me on the journey home, I made the round trip with 20 per cent battery capacity to spare.

This does suggest therefore that it would indeed travel a minimum of 60 miles and probably more per full charge.

The cost of a full charge is probably a little more than £1 which, in fuel cost terms, equates to approximately 2p per mile, contrasted with my normal daily commuter, a diesel mini at circa 12p per mile or my gas guzzling V12 at 60p per mile.

In short, an annual fuel cost saving equating to a decent family holiday, which certainly makes you think twice!

By Thursday of my loan week, I was beginning to feel particularly righteous in all regards, including my contribution towards saving the planet, very aware that people were slowing up to take a closer look as they drifted past me at 50 miles an hour in the middle lane of the M5.

Having typed “electric cars” into Google, I found myself intrigued to find that the Government will pay a £5,000 contribution towards initial purchase cost, there are 40 per cent grants available towards the purchase and installation of charging points (free for me at Brindleyplace). Zero road tax is payable and there are tax-efficient salary sacrifice benefits available if you work for a forward-thinking firm or indeed zero benefit in kind tax for company car users.

As the week drew to a close, I used the car socially over the weekend and dared myself to run the battery charge down to five per cent (albeit only half a mile from home) to establish that it was still going strong when it was nearly on empty.

I suspect the battery falls over the proverbial cliff when it finally dies and I guess you just need to hope that you are not in the middle of the outside lane of the M5 at the time (dream on boy).

I handed the car back a week later with surprisingly mixed feelings. Could this be the vehicle technology of the future? Depending upon your personal commuting or work needs, for me I proved that it certainly could be.

Was the battery range sufficient? Just about, but I suspect that a guaranteed 100-mile range would cover 99 per cent of my commuting work, social and domestic needs.

So would I buy one? I am amazed to find myself saying “possibly”.

As an aside, I have checked the web and all current generation electric cars seem ugly as sin and maybe that is half the battle in convincing the general population of the merits just now.

It is almost as if the manufacturers (Smart apart, of course!) are deliberating trying to make their electric vehicles as ugly as possible so as not to divert sales from traditional (possibly more profitable) cars.

More significantly, could I see my firm GVA using an electric car or two for day-to-day business journeys as we move towards increasing use of public transport for commuting.

All in all, my week was a mind-opening experience and may be something to take really seriously in the next 12-24 months as newer more effective, efficient and stylish EVs join the marketplace.

* Ian Stringer is Regional Senior Director at GVA Property Consultants in Birmingham