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Monday, 12 September 2011

EcoVelocity 2011

Yes, this is a deer. Made out of a Yamaha bike. Any questions?
The inaugural EcoVelocity motor show has wrapped up after four days of displaying the latest green machines available in the UK. Selling itself as "the low-carbon motor festival" despite the lack of tents or mud, visitors could walk around poking, prodding and going "ooh, that's clever", or they could test drive a variety of new cars, ranging from super-clean petrol/diesel cars like the Fiat 500 TwinAir and Ford Focus ECOnetic, to hybrids like the Vauxhall Ampera and Honda CR-Z, to full-on electric cars like the Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Nissan Leaf. Kids were also entertained by an 11-to-17-year-olds driving school with Seat Ibizas and R/C racing, while the over-18s waiting for test drives could also try out a Segway witchcraft-on-a-stick in a controlled environment.

Held outside Battersea Power Station, which was in a worse state than I realised (I thought before I got there that it might be held inside the building, but it looks too neglected to play host to anything other than rubble and wild plants), there proved to be just about enough to do to keep my dad and I there from 1pm until nearly 5pm, although we did have to stretch it out a bit because my final test drive was a Nissan Leaf at 4:20, later than I was hoping for. Nissan also played host to an electric car debate hosted by Robert Llewellyn and featuring people who generally know what they're talking about, including one of the Leaf's engineers (or should I say electrician?), which I didn't make a real effort to see because I figured it would largely cover stuff I already knew about, but I caught the end of it and it made for mildly interesting listening.

They made a balanced and fair verdict on the liability of hydrogen cars (of which there were two at the show), making the point that they're still incredibly expensive and always seem to be just around the corner. Mr. Llewellyn said that the fuel cell in the Honda FCX Clarity (which he had driven and described as "wonderful") is £250,000, with the car being a cool £1million, and that the much cheaper fuel cells are very big and heavy, so for him, hydrogen power is better placed in trains and home generators and such like, but putting them in a car everyone can buy is still not something he can see happening. I can understand this, but I'm still optimistic that H-cars can exist properly by, let's say, 2020, especially now that Honda has had the stones to start selling one (or leasing one if you're not a multi-millionaire), but the infrastructure still has to be implemented, something that's also a problem for Nissan Leaf owners, according to one or two customers who don't live in big cities. Talk of a Formula 1 pitstop-style empty-pack-out-charged-pack-in service that will take all of five seconds was promising, but at the end of the day, people will just have to take the hit and spend £20-30,000 on an electric car that's difficult to charge conveniently as the system improves, then replace it in a few years with something cheaper and more refined when it arrives. Companies can't develop better cars without income from sales, that's just a fact.

For me though, the highlights were mostly the test drives (which is two laps plus chatting at either end with one's chaperone about cars and driving, all of which takes 10-15 minutes and is all very lovely), as well as a peculiar electric city car called the Mia with McLaren F1-style seating, a delicious Cumberland sausage hot dog and some quite sweet cider, but don't worry, I drank that after driving. So I'll tell you about the three cars I tested on the day. It was quite nice really, because you didn't have to book them in advance and you weren't pressured by salespeople afterwards, although they were of course very nice, perhaps in the hope that happy people would consider their cars later. All you needed was you driving license. So in chronological order, I drove:

Fiat 500 TwinAir
As a Fiat customer, this seemed like the best place to go first. It had ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with the fact that they're the very first people you see once you've crossed the bridge over the track and into the show area. Honest. The only car they were exhibiting was the 500 TwinAir (and a "500 by Gucci" edition with lots of fancy trim and Gucci logos), most likely because they don't currently have an EV or hybrid in their range. It actually rather annoys me, the TwinAir, a 500 with Stop/Start and a dinky 2-Cylinder engine like the '50s original, except it's 875cc instead of ~500cc, turbocharged and sits in the front. It's engine is smaller than the 1.2 8v in my Grande Punto, yet it's more powerful, has a lot more torque, produces much less CO2 and has a much higher MPG rating (although some owners are claiming otherwise). The car it sits in is also lighter and smaller. The Grande Punto sits above the 500 in the range, so the 500 should, in a manner of speaking, be a lesser car, and yet it's a bit better in every way save for space. That's mean!

Instead of shaking my fists and wondering about an engine transplant, I signed up for a 3:10 test drive to see what I'm missing. Quite a lot, as it turns out. The seat was a little high, but he (again, I can't remember his name, but I'm pretty sure it was short and started with T, so I'll go with "Tim") showed me something I've never worked out how to do on a manual seat: adjust the height. Pump down to go lower, and vice versa, using a lever that I thought moved the seat forward like an MPV's so you can get in the back, but never mind. The little two-pot sounds quite good for what it is. It's fizzy and buzzy and thrummy in a way that befits a small Italian city car. With that sound, you can almost imagine it gritting its teeth and growling and enthusiastically trying to run as fast as Uncle Ferrari, if you were to apply a lead foot. It's not rattly like an agricultural diesel though, because it's well noise-insulated, so it wouldn't get annoying, I don't think.

What might get annoying is how my left leg rubs against the side of the dashboard when I'm using the footrest, particularly over bumps, but that said it does ride well, better than my Punto. I could almost feel my Punto in the ride, actually, except the 500's is softer round the edges, like it was making a more/better dampened impact with said bumps. Initially, "Tim" had me drive in "Eco" mode, activated via a button on the dash, which softens the throttle response, in order to reduce unnecessary acceleration and save you precisely one smidgeon of fuel every time you use the go pedal. The steering also becomes very light to make it easier to use in town (or car parks), but this is something I'm not keen on in the Punto - because it's "overly assisted", there isn't as much feel as I'd like. After a lap, I pressed the Eco button again to feel the differences in non-eco mode. The throttle definitely sharpened up, and the steering was slightly heavier, but I still mentioned that it was too light. "Tim" reassured me that it firms up at speed, so it's still easy to whip around town but gains more feel on faster roads. I'd have to try it on real roads to be sure of this, as the small P-shaped track didn't really let you hit more than 20 or 30mph, and in the long-geared TwinAir, second was barely necessary (that'll make it rev lower at cruising speed and save more fuel). I have to say that I did like the Fiat 500 onc eI got used to the later biting point in the clutch, and part of me wants to drive it again, even though I probably won't be buying a new car any time soon. The tiny engine was very characterful, everything looked and felt nice in the interior, and it was a good drive at low speeds. When we pulled up at the end, I put it in neutral and relaxed... and the engine cut out. "Oh, did I just stall it?", I asked, wiggling the gear stick to assure myself it was in neutral. "Ah, no, that's the Stop/Start system. If you push down the clutch again, it'll come back on again [sure enough, it did]. It only does that once though, because it takes a lot of energy". I assume this is electrical energy, perhaps gathered from the brakes, that allows the system to hold the engine and restart it, because he mentioned that using a/c or the stereo or both might not give it enough charge to stop/start multiple times. It's an intuitive and unobtrusive system that should save you pennies at the lights, although you can turn it off it annoys you for any reason.

It definitely has personality, the Fiat 500, and the award-winning TwinAir engine suits it down to the ground. A fun little car that could be your friend. Until it breaks.

Honda CR-Z
After failing to win Honda's "Live Every Litre" competition last year to do your dream drive in their new hybrid coupé, I was eager to finally get behind the wheel of this CRX remix and see what it's like.

Mugen CR-Z Concept, with 200PS and some spoilers
Because it's wider and a bit longer than the Fiat, there's more room inside, although I reckon the back seats are still gimmicks (suffice to say my dad didn't volunteer to get in the back of either car). The power button for the engine/motor combo was a sporty touch, I guess, but it makes the starting process more complicated (well, it becomes a "process" and not just the turn of a key), as you need to turn the key and hold down the clutch pedal before you press it, and it's a little out-of-the-way, sitting behind your left knee. The real highlight of the interior though is the very 3D dials. They're just excellent, easy to read and incredibly clear, even with sun glare on them, plus they just look really cool, and the little halo around the speedo changes colour the harder you accelerate, going from green to blue to red (I got it to go red once in Sport mode :D).

Unfortunately the temporary course wasn't exactly Davos to Stelvio Pass, but I did get a pretty good idea of what it's like, particularly the way it's affected by the three buttons on the right-hand side of the steering wheel, marked "Econ", "Normal" and "Sport". These buttons really do affect how the car responds. In Econ the accelerator is a little vague, lessening how much throttle you use and saving a smidgeon of fuel each time like the 500, and apparently the electric motor that makes this a hybrid contributes more, although I couldn't really feel it (maybe that's a good thing?). Normal mode felt, well, normal, with a good ride quality, nice steering, a nice gear change and a quiet refinement, most of which is true in all three modes. When I put it in Sport mode and poked the throttle it really responded, which was a pleasing sensation. I think the steering is meant to firm up a little as well, like all Sport modes, but I couldn't really explore this at ~25mph...

The Start/Stop - which may or may not work only in Econ mode - works a little differently to the 500 TwinAir's. Whereas in the Fiat the clutch pedal effectively acts as an off/on switch in neutral (just the one time, as it then expects you to set off again), the Honda requires you to select a gear before reviving the engine, and you then release the clutch to go as normal. It would confuse an idiot, but again, you'd get used to it pretty quickly if you owned one, and it's a handy penny-pincher.

All-in-all, I thought it was a pretty nice car, on which everything was at the very least 'good', but on that day the 500 was the more memorable car. Maybe on a nice road at speed, that would be different, but the 500 sounded more interesting and was a little more cheerful at low speeds.

Nissan Leaf
This for me is the important one. Going into the later-than-ideal 16:20 test drive, I had never driven an electric car before. Do I compare it to my petrol-powered car at home or an electric dodgem? My only points of reference in terms of electric vehicles I've driven are go-karts at some family fun park and the kid's leaner cars at Legoland. For £30,000, it had better feel like a hell of a lot more than just some milk float dressed up as a Japanese Ford Focus (the government may give you £5000 off now, making it £25k, but that's set to end next March for some reason)...

When I first sat in one, it felt like a car, which was a good sign. Being an eco-freak-o there was now murdered-cow skin on the seats, rare for a £30k car, but the fabric they used was inexplicably soft. It was like sitting on a neat pile of baby clothes recently washed with class-leading fabric softener. After a few years, you'd probably leave a bum impression in the driver's seat, provided you didn't have to keep getting out to find a charging point. The rear legroom was perfectly acceptable, and the boot was bigger than it first appears, mostly because the back end sticks out so much at the bottom, making quite a weird body shape but a longer boot floor. My dad reckons it should have a straighter back, but I guess it's partly about aerodynamic streamlining for better efficiency, as well as perhaps some 21st-century Japanese design.

(Image from Wikipedia)
The chaperone for this car clearly hadn't got used to just how quiet the Leaf is at all times, because he had a rather loud and clear salesman's voice and yet nothing to talk over. That said, he was a nice guy and he did talk me and my dad - who could tag along for this one thanks to five doors and proper back seats - through all the features very well, including the Zero Emissions button, which when pressed changes the decent-sized plasma screen in the dash from whatever the radio/sat nav's doing to a screen showing everything you're using and how much battery life it's sapping, a bit like the "Battery Usage" screen on my smartphone. So if you don't really need to be using the Air Conditioning, turn it off and see the predicted range gain 5 miles (which doesn't sound like much as a number, but think about how long five miles is). It's a nice touch and probably a useful function for owners looking to get where they're going.

Despite the electric drive having no gearbox at all, Nissan want people who are changing over from engine-powered cars to adapt to this easily and naturally, so the car almost pretends it has an automatic 'box, with a P-R-N-D knob in the usual place (except P is a button on the top of the plastic blob that you move around to choose which direction you'd like to go in), and there's a built-in "creep" when you take your foot off the brake in D or R. Otherwise the pedals are as easy as go and stop, like those plastic cars at Legoland. The difference is that when you move off in a Nissan Leaf, you definitely feel like you're in a car. A nice one, too, with a brilliant reversing camera that depicts whether or not you can clear an obstacle with the amount of steering lock you have on. Quite apart from the fact it doesn't make any noise, it feels very refined, especially compared to the other two cars, and my own car at home. The steering felt, well, electric, but it went where you pointed it without fuss, and it rides really well too, floating over the bumps with ease. Of course, the main plus for driving enthusiasts with EVs is the instant torque, and the Leaf produces 207lb/ft from 0rpm. As the chaperone (whose name also escapes me) said, "it's got the same kind of power as a 1.5/1.6 petrol [80KW, or 107bhp], but it has the torque of something like a 2.5 litre V6, and it's instant". It definitely is instant. The clockwise P-shaped track has a bit of a straight on it, and on instruction I dropped back to get some space and squeezed on the accelerator... that's the second Nissan I've driven with mind-readjusting acceleration. There was just no waiting, no brief moment of lag, I pressed the go pedal and it just went. It was a very impressive surge, and apparently it will do that at any speed, save perhaps for speeds approaching its ~95mph top end.

Which One's Best?
To be honest though, I wouldn't buy a Nissan Leaf now. It has its selling points, yes, but not only do I not have the faintest idea where I might charge it in Wokingham, I still want a clutch pedal and engine noises. I'm sorry, but even though it had a car interior with car seats and car steering and a car's refinement (maybe even £25-30k's worth), the pedals let it down for me, feeling artificial in the same way as the ones in go-karts and kiddie cars. It still felt a little bit like a toy to accelerate and brake with, and the fake creep was quite weak to be honest, just feeling like I hadn't quite stopped. Don't get me wrong, all-round I thought the Leaf was a very good car, and I could definitely get used to that acceleration on a daily basis, but for the time being, I'm not terribly interested in driving something that feels like a toy, I want something that feels like a car, and out of the three, I'm thinking the Fiat 500 TwinAir just about edges it, on the proviso that the steering gains more feel at higher speeds, although the CR-Z is in no way a loser or a bad car. I wouldn't say no if I was offered a Nissan Leaf for free (which sadly isn't going to happen any time soon), but I think I'd buy the little Fiat.

So, with that out of the way, I'll sign off by saying it was a show I'd recommend to anyone interested in modern technology and/or trying out the near future of motoring. Make a point to drive something electric while you're there, too. It would be good for more people to break their EV virginity. I'll see you there next year. If you go on a Saturday, at least.

Check out my photo dump on Flickr for more pics and info on the day. This post's long enough already!

For more information about EcoVelocity, visit their Official Website.
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