Clean and not heard

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 March, 2011, 12:00am

For those arriving in Geneva by air for the annual motor show this month, it was difficult to miss the Nissan LEAF. The 100 per cent electric car was stationed at a number of reception points for a 30-minute test drive, including one in Cointrin Airport. Electric vehicles starred at this year's motor show in the Swiss city. Twelve brands presented 13 electric vehicles, all of which were available to road rest.

Nissan also unveiled the LEAF in Hong Kong this month, at a ceremony officiated by Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, who announced a HK$300 million government initiative in partnership with Nissan to promote the use of electric vehicles. He also noted that the city now had more than 300 charging stations.

The LEAF (an acronym for Leading Environmentally friendly, Affordable Family car), which is the result of five years' research and development, could be the best placed of the new models shown in Geneva to become a successful mass-market electric car, and is already available in many markets. Other producers were offering vehicles that would be produced in smaller numbers, or just didn't make the cut as a regular, all-round motor. The LEAF was named (European) Car of the Year 2011 by a panel of 59 motoring journalists from 23 European countries. To be in contention to win the accolade, a car 'must be available in at least five European countries at the time of voting', the rules state.

On the test drive in Geneva, the car pulled away after 'Drive' was selected on the small electric shift knob and a little throttle was applied. It did so with a smoothness you would expect of a luxury Swiss watch. My first impression was that it moved like a conventional petrol-driven car, except in almost total silence. Inside the cabin there was no noticeable variation of sound pitch at different speeds, not even the whine of an electric motor.

Wary that pedestrians might wander right into the silent path of an oncoming LEAF, Nissan has installed a device that produces a street-audible alert near the front bumper. Another interesting feature is the ability to use an iPhone app to control the start of the recharging process (to take advantage of cheaper electricity at night in Europe) and the time the car's air conditioning is turned on.

It's a stretch to call the LEAF a beauty, but it does feature some clever designs. The headlamps bulge out for a reason. 'They are designed to divert air flow in a way that the wind won't affect the side mirrors and cause wind noise,' Nissan says.

The driving range of the LEAF, when fully charged, is 175 kilometres, according to the carmaker. There is an ECO mode to give you a longer range for the electricity reserve at the expense of acceleration thrill. Speaking of which, the AC motor is capable of 80kW and 280Nm of torque, which is enough power to safeguard most people's dignity.

The range of electric vehicles is one of the key concerns.

Delbruck, Germany-based Artega is looking to make its cars go farther than the LEAF. The low-volume specialist has a capacity of just 500 units per year- so as not to compromise 'the extremely high quality standards the company has set for itself', a representative says.

Alongside a V6-powered Artega GT, the company has introduced the Artega SE ('Sport Electric') concept vehicle. Thanks to a lightweight configuration and 'state-of-the-art battery technology', the carmaker claims that it has a range of 300 kilometres. But other than revealing the use of lithium-ion polymer cells, the company provides few specifics of the technology used in the battery modules.

Mia operates at the other end of the spectrum to Artega. The German-French joint-venture carmaker has a capacity of 12,000 units per year. There are three versions of the mia: a short-wheel-base three-seater, a long-wheel-base four-seater and a delivery van with only a driver's seat and ample cargo space. Designed by Murak Gunak, who has also worked for Mercedes-Benz, Peugeot and Volkswagen, the mia models do not look like conventional cars.

'They are designed from scratch as an electric vehicle and, at 700kg to 800kg, they are also very light,' says Stefan Metzger, senior project manager of mia electric. 'They are more city commuting vehicles. The battery choice comes in two versions: the bigger of which is good for 110 to 120 kilometres, and 80 to 90 kilometres with the smaller one.'

There are many benefits of a small battery, the company says, one being that it takes less time to charge. Mia says the smaller, 8kW/h lithium-iron phosphate battery takes only three hours to fully recharge. 'Forget the quick-charging station ... it's easy to charge the battery at home or at a place of work,' Metzger says. The company is set to introduce the range in Switzerland in July, and the basic model costs Euro22,500 (HK$248,000).

Three electric vehicles from mainland-based GreenTech Energy Technology are the cheapest at the motor show. An off-roader costs the company about US$6,000 to build, according to Karl Soong, the company's chief executive. These cars will sell in Europe for Euro10,000 after factoring in shipment costs and other expenses.

Like many Chinese suppliers to the giant Carrefour hypermarkets in France, GreenTech likes to think big. 'We don't sell our cars to individuals; we can't make money this way,' Soong says. 'We are thinking of working with a city to supply hundreds of units in one go, or with a 'car-share' operator, so that you can rent a car here and return it there in a network.'

GreenTech has designed its electric cars to have a low top speed, so that they would not have to pass the stringent safety test that the EU has in place. This places them in the 'microcar' or 'quadricycle' category in some European countries, although GreenTech's vehicles look too big to fit into such a category.

India's Tata also displayed an electric car, called the Pixel concept, which looked out of place in a range of unsophisticated Tata production models. It looked more like a futuristic design study than a practical proposition.