Last week, the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders (SMMT) held its first ever electric vehicle-only event, Drive Zero. It was meant to happen in April but was postponed for obvious reasons until early September. The location also switched at the last minute from Amber Lakes to the Millbrook Proving Ground. This felt like destiny for me, because the first time I’d driven a pure electric vehicle that wasn’t a child’s toy or fairground attraction was in this very same location in 2011, at another event hosted by the SMMT. That car was the Nissan Leaf, and although it’s still available and was in evidence at Drive Zero, as our recent review showed, it’s come along way itself. So has the EV market, because it has also been joined by a host of alternatives, most of which were on show at Drive Zero.
As the SMMT pointed out in its press announcement surrounding Drive Zero, there are now 83 different EVs to choose from, although this includes plug-in PHEVs, fuel-cell FCEVs as well as battery BEVs. Notable by their absence at the Drive Zero event, however, were some key choices – Tesla, Polestar, VW and even Mercedes. But there was still a significant number of electric vehicles on show, both cars and vans, and even the LEVC taxi, underlining the increasing breadth of the EV market. Since WhichEV is a pure electric vehicle website, we mostly concentrated on driving the BEVs, but we also gave a few PHEVs a run to see how they compared. Here are some of our highlights.
We were honestly surprised that our favourite car of the day for sheer driving pleasure was the Mini Electric. On the Millbrook hill track, it inspired the most confidence over the steep and windy route. This car does fulfil what a Mini is famous for – nippy, go-kart like handling, and capable road holding. Since the Mini Electric is still an electric drivetrain shoehorned into a petrol platform, this is a commendable effort from BMW/Mini. However, with a range of around 120 miles, the Mini Electric will almost certainly not please us so much when we get around to a full review, although the starting price of £24,900 including government grant is rather tempting.
We will be giving the Kona Electric a full review in a few weeks, but thought it was worth trying it at Drive Zero to get a sense of how it compared to other vehicles with the same drivetrain – the Kia Soul EV and e-Niro (see below). After a blast round the Millbrook track, we are now very much looking forward to a longer-term test. The Kona is not as dynamically well appointed as the Mini Electric, but the 64kWh version has a range of 278 miles, which is in a different league of flexibility and usefulness. It’s still a quick little EV and handles commendably. We’re not surprised so many of our readers who own one are quite happy.
The Kia e-Niro is another car we will putting through its paces properly in a few weeks. But we also wanted to see how it drove compared to the Kona Electric and Soul EV. Considering how similar this car is underneath to the Kona or Soul EV, it’s quite a different feel on the road, since it’s a bigger SUV format. The Millbrook hill drive wasn’t as involving in the e-Niro as with the Hyundai Kona Electric, but this car is notably bigger (around 20cm longer and 50kg heavier), and our experience bodes well for the future review.
The I-Pace is sometimes billed as a direct competitor to the Tesla Model 3, but after driving one we’re not sure why. For a start, it’s a hatchback, so not the same class of vehicle. However, while this was the quickest EV we tried at Drive Zero, definitely had the handling you would expect from a Jaguar, and (if you’re okay with the recycled materials in the sample we drove) has a much more conventionally luxurious interior than a Tesla, it’s not in the same league as a driver’s car. We arrived at Drive Zero in a Tesla Model 3 Performance, and there’s really no comparison for performance or handling. We still love the I-Pace and think Jaguar should be proud of what they achieved in making it, particularly for the decent 292-mile WLTP range it can achieve, but it’s more of a fast luxury mini-SUV hatchback than the BMW M3 annihilator that is the Tesla Model 3 Performance.
We had to give this near-classic a try, particularly as a comparison to its Mini Electric stable mate. When the i3 first came out in 2013 it felt like BMW was really leading the pack. Tesla hadn’t really happened yet, the Nissan Leaf and Renault ZOE were still a bit too worthy, but the i3 had some of that BMW DNA in electric form. It was quick, had eye-catchingly futuristic looks, and those skinny tyres to squeeze the most range out of the battery. But getting into an i3 in 2020 feels like re-watching some old science fiction, even though the one we drove was the updated i3s version. It’s still an enjoyable, nippy car to drive with plenty of space inside, but the instrumentation feels a bit future-past now, and dynamically it’s no match for the Mini Electric. The 0-60mph figure has improved to an impressive 6.9s, and the 175-mile range is closer to today’s standards thanks to a 42kWh battery upgrade, but at £43.7k for the car at Drive Zero, it’s starting to look expensive compared to more recent EV releases.
When we first got into DS 3 there was an uncanny sense of déjà vu. The joystick for controlling the electric drivetrain is the same as the Vauxhall Corsa-e. That’s because, under the DS styling, this is essentially the same car. However, the interior is a totally different experience because of the DS brand’s luxury image. You might not like the plastic diamond shapes adding bling to the dashboard (or you might love them – they’re very French), but where the Corsa-e’s instrumentation felt barebones, the DS’s is much more in keeping with a premium EV. It even has a really nice head-up display. Another case in point is that when you shift this car from D to extra-regenerative B mode, a big B appears on the dashboard display behind the steering wheel, so you know you’ve engaged it properly. This is not clear at all on the Corsa-e. However, the DS 3 didn’t feel quite so fun to drive as the Corsa-e, and is definitely not as quick off the line, taking over a second longer to hit 60mph. It’s also quite a lot more expensive at £35,990 after the government grant.
The MG ZS EV was one of the first cars we reviewed on WhichEV, and is still incredible value. The dashboard instrumentation does look cheap, and the range is a little meagre – although some readers can just about manage 180 miles. But the overall equipment package and driving experience are way better than the price would imply. We can’t wait for the estate version to arrive, which we’ve been told will have a more powerful motor and bigger battery, as well as being the first EV estate on the UK market.
This was another car where elements of the interior reminded us of the Vauxhall Corsa-e, but in this case, it was more expected because they are well known to be based on the same platform. However, the setup is subtly different. The e-208 doesn’t accelerate as fast as the Corsa-e (7.8 versus 7.6 seconds to 60mph), but it has a longer 217-mile WLTP range. The dashboard instrumentation and interior finish are also more what you would expect in a car at this price. So Vauxhall is slightly more of a nippy drive, but the e-208 is potentially more practical and pleasant to live. We’ll find out when we give the car a longer-term test in a few weeks.
It was there… but we weren’t allowed to drive it, just gaze longingly into its darkened interior.
Having recently driven a couple of large diesel vans a long distance, we were keen to get the Renault Master onto a very hilly part of the test track, so we could make a direct comparison. It’s a decently sized vehicle with the kind of equipment level that we now see as standard, including plenty of anchor points, LED lighting in the load space and smartphone integration through the R&Go app, which you can find on the Apple and Google stores. The challenges were clear from the start. The inclusion of a 57kW motor give you the feeling that it’s underpowered for serious loads and the 33kWh battery offers a real-world range of 75 miles in the summer, but just 50 miles in the winter. The lightweight construction may help with acceleration but didn’t give us a ‘glued to the road’ feeling when driving the challenging Millbrook course. Around town, in reasonable weather with plenty of stops to charge during the day, the Renault Master could well fit into a greener overall delivery mechanism. But as it stands, the electric Renault Master comes in at £57,000 – which is £30,000 higher than its diesel equivalent – and you can’t really say that the difference has been spent on batteries.
If you grew up in any of the UK’s major cities, then the latest TX design from the London Electric Vehicle Company will be familiar. These taxis are big, with six seats in the back, a boot and front passenger side door that opens into another storage area. The driver’s position is comfortable, with excellent visibility and plenty of cool toys on the dashboard. Acceleration was smooth and all three of the regenerative braking modes were pleasant – minimising the chances of a passenger feeling ill while their cabbie tries to pick up a bit more charge. Handling was perfect around the flatter parts of the test facility, so we took it up the hill course as well. It felt stable and the acceleration was decent. Finally, we hit the high-speed test track and experienced everything from A-roads at 40mph, right through to proper motorway speeds – for that all-important airport pick up. Finally, when we got back to base, we let the TX play its ‘party trick’. Spin the steering wheel as far as it will go, at low speed, and the LEVC cab will effectively pirouette on the spot, like a ballerina – perfect for those mid-road U-turns that cabs often have to execute. Pricing looks to be just under that of the Renault Master Z.E. at £55,000 – which seems like good value given how the vehicle is decked out.
It was a surprise to see the Nexo at Drive Zero, because only a couple of private purchasers in the UK have bought them so far – the rest have been corporate acquisitions. The Nexo is Hyundai’s second-generation fuel-cell electric vehicle (FCEV) and we’ve never seen a car with so many buttons in its control panel. The Space Shuttle has a less busy interior. It’s also a big, wallowy SUV. Riding inside the Nexo is not a bad experience, and a luxurious form of transport. But you’re not encouraged to drive the Nexio brusquely. The fuel cell system gives it a 416-mile range, which is still a dream for a BEV. However, with only about 10 hydrogen refuelling stations in the UK, the Nexo is still a technology demonstration rather than a viable consumer vehicle. It’s also (wait for it) £68,856.
If someone gives you a chance to try out a £168,000 Bentley it’s truly rude not to accept the offer, so even though Bentley’s Drive Zero participant was a PHEV, we had to put it through its paces. Back in 2011, I was able to try out the Continental GT at the same SMMT event as the Nissan Leaf, and at Drive Zero it was the Bentayga Hybrid’s turn. The Bentayga has been much derided for its looks, although we think the latest version isn’t quite so much of an eyesore. It is still basically a stately home on wheels, however. The interior is an acquired taste, and an odd blend of classic veneer and tech. It’s definitely comfortable, and on the Millbrook hill track both accelerates and corners in a way that a 2.7-ton car really shouldn’t be able to. However, at full chat the petrol motor whines like an angry teenager, which really stuck out after all the EVs we’d driven on the day. Bentley is planning to go pure EV, and we feel it would suit the brand perfectly. A huge battery and an unfeasibly powerful electric motor would be completely on message – and much a quieter route to high-speed luxury transportation.
Also on show…
These are some of the other vehicles at SMMT Drive Zero. We also join the SMMT in giving thanks to the sponsors of the event!