All the things you look for in a car designed to appeal - carbon fibre, electric powertrains, and government subsidies?
It will probably come as no surprise that of all the cars that have been in the news in 2013, the one which most captured my imagination involves carbon fibre, productionised high-tech batteries, an in-car permanent 3G connection and 19" wheels. It may surprise you more that it's essentially a city car: the BMW i3.
Wait, come back! I'm serious!
It's easy to say objectively why the BMW i3 is interesting. Technologically speaking, having carbon fibre on a production car costing just £30k is impressive, the ground-up design of the interior is interesting and the support package answers many of the concerns of electric vehicle ownership. However, BMW has achieved something far more impressive than the spec list would suggest; it has created an EV that is cool. The iMev and Nissan Leaf are complete production EVs, but they are the anonymous beige PC to the BMW's sleek iMac.
I'm hoping that BMW will let Drive Cult near an i3 long enough that we can show you exactly why it's so cool and interesting. For many people, though, it's still an EV, subject to the same problems that have always plagued EVs.
I conducted a quick survey on Twitter, with just one question: what range would an electric car need in order to become viable? Most answers were sub-100 miles, with some occasional longer journeys. Others highlighted charging problems for people without a drive or garage. The fact that half the responses didn't actually answer the question shows how much of a shift EVs will be for a lot of people. As I've said in a previous article, the actual daily or weekly range that people need is far less than you might think. For those who regularly travel further for work and so on, the good news is that EVs won't replace internal combustion for a long, long time, it'll just be a matter of using the right tool (or car) for the job.
There's no doubt that this is still early adopter technology. I look at the BMW i8 - gorgeous machine that it is - and wonder why it's not a pure EV. It's not even a range-extended EV, but a petrol/electric hybrid. We're in a migration phase at the moment; as battery technology improves and petrol is still relatively cheap and mature as a technology, we're finding out what works best for now. In some ways these are the days of the original iPods; different from the alternatives but relatively expensive, limited in capacity and reliant on technology that might be nearer the end of its life than the beginning, but that still makes the device feasible. The i8 is useable because of its petrol engine in combination with the electric power, whereas it wouldn't be anywhere near as viable as an everyday means of transport if it were a pure electric car (*cough*SLS eDrive *cough*).
We've learned from the computing industry that early adopter technology evolves quickly and therefore depreciates heavily, and we're at that point with automotive technology too. Battery, motor and controller technology will rapidly improve as the EV market grows (sales are up 361% year on year in the US), and more and more manufacturers will invest in EV tech which will further speed up the evolutionary advancements. Let me put it this way: if you think the i3 is good, wait and see what the equivalent car looks like in 10 to 15 years' time.
Which brings me to a feature that is both a big benefit and drawback of electric cars: the noise, or rather the lack of it. I can't imagine what city streets were like when horses' hooves clip-clopped around the place, but imagine a world where the taxis are silent, and the inside of the car is a place where the sounds of Test Match Special can easily be enjoyed with only the background roar of wind noise to give away the fact that you're speeding along. To me, this sounds like heaven, but others are not so keen. Chris Harris recently drove the Drayson Lola ex-Le Mans car, which has been converted into a state-of-the-art electric car and now holds the land speed record for a sub-1000kg electric vehicle. Exterior shots of the car showed the speed of the car, the interior camera demonstrated the forces Chris was being subjected to as he drove, but without a soaring engine soundtrack punctuated with gun-shot gear changes it lacked any indicator of speed.
It just needed something, an on-screen speedometer maybe, to indicate how fast it was going and how rapidly it was accelerating. It's probably true that I've watched too many onboard videos from racing cars, where the engine speed combined with the ever-rising gearbox whine sound like the car is building to a violent explosion, but the Drayson EV lacks appeal because of its silence. Will we learn to live without the noise? Are we looking at a future where a V12 fettled by enthusiasts is occasionally brought out and fired up at car shows full of vehicles based on alternative fuels? I don't know. What I do know is that in the real world, in day-to-day usage, the lack of noise is a positive thing for me. However, for those moments where the objective is motoring rather than simply transportation, noise and vibration are part of the experience. They engage your senses on a visceral level, and I'm not sure that the silent-but-deadly approach that the Drayon takes will win over the hearts and minds of motoring enthusiasts and racing fans.
Which brings me onto the car I'm looking forward to seeing in 2014. OK, it's not new globally - it's been available in the US for some time now - but for me, the Tesla Model S truly is a game changer. For a start, it looks like just any other car and this is good. You don't stand out as an early adopter or peace warrior, and it's easier for people to imagine themselves driving one. It's also built from the ground up as an EV, so the batteries are sandwiched under the floor and as a result inside the cabin there's no transmission tunnel, just flat floors. There's also a 911-style luggage space under the bonnet, and another in the boot. And, if you buy the big battery pack, it's genuinely quick, and can manage around 280 miles on a single charge. It's also reasonably priced compared to the BMW 6 Series and the Mercedes E-Class, so what's not to like? Well, apart from the oddly enormous touch screen in the middle of the dash.
We haven't yet really seen the Model S in the UK, but Jay Leno has done a drive video which shows what it's like to use in the real world.
If you want to see one now, head over to the new Tesla showroom at the Westfield shopping centre in London. Or move to California.