Electric cars: charges answered

I’d like to put a few facts straight regarding a story in today’s Times about our recent road test of two electric cars, the Nissan Leaf and the Peugeot Ion, which was shown on Sunday’s programme. The Times’ headline reads: ‘Clarkson didn’t give our electric cars a sporting chance, says Nissan.’

Further into the story it says that the film was embarrassing for Nissan, because it shows that electric cars cannot be trusted to get you to your destination. The writer, Ben Webster, the media editor, then goes on to suggest that actually ‘it is Top Gear, not the car, that cannot be trusted.’ Mr Webster’s logic for this centres on the fact that when the film started the cars were not fully charged, and were therefore destined to run out at some point along the way, thus giving a false impression of the ability of the vehicles.

In response, I’d like to say:

1) We never, at any point in the film, said that we were testing the range claims of the vehicles, nor did we say that the vehicles wouldn’t achieve their claimed range. We also never said at any time that we were hoping to get to our destination on one charge.

2) We never said what the length of the journey was, where we had started from, nor how long we had been driving at the start of the film. So again, no inference about the range can be gleaned from our film.

3) We were fully aware that Nissan could monitor the state of the battery charge and distance travelled via onboard software. The reporter from The Times seems to suggest this device caught us out, but we knew about it all the time, as Nissan will confirm. We weren’t bothered about it, because we had nothing to hide.

4) The content of our film was driven by the points we were trying to explore.  As James stated in the introduction, you can now go to a dealer and buy a ‘proper’ electric car, as in one that claims to be more practical and useful than a tiny, short-range city runabout. That’s what the car company marketing says, and that’s what we focused on in our test: the pros and cons of living with one as an alternative to a petrol car.

So yes, when we set off, we knew we would have to recharge at some point, because that was an experience we wanted to devote part of the film to. Now granted, James and Jeremy’s stopover – which included brass rubbings, adult scrabble and tattoos – was more knockabout than an average motorist would experience, but the consumer points coming out of the film were quite clear:

1) Electric cars are still very expensive.

2) The recharging infrastructure is patchy.

3) The range readout varies enormously, unlike the information given by a petrol gauge.

4) The Leaf is a very good car per se, and there’s nothing wrong with electric motors, but the battery, in our view, remains the Achilles’ heel of the whole package.

In the story in The Times Andy Palmer, Nissan’s Executive Vice President, was quoted as saying that our film was misleading. Well with respect to Mr Palmer, Nissan’s own website for the Leaf devotes a fair amount of space to extolling the virtues of fast charging, but nowhere does it warn potential customers that constant fast charging can severely shorten the life of the battery.

It also says that each Leaf battery should still have 80 percent of its capacity after five years’ use, and that, to a layman, sounds great. But nowhere is it mentioned that quite a few experts in the battery industry believe when a battery is down to 80 percent capacity, it has reached End Of Life (EOL) status. Peugeot, for example, accepts 80 percent capacity as End Of Life.

Now I also know, to be fair to Nissan, that when you go to buy a Leaf they do warn you about the pitfalls of constant fast charging. But the website is the portal to the Leaf world, it’s their electronic shop window. Is it misleading not to have all the facts on display? I’m only asking.

In conclusion, we absolutely refute that we were misleading viewers over the charge/range, and we stand by the consumer points raised in the film.

Andy Wilman is the Executive Producer of Top Gear

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