Electric cars have arrived. It hasn’t been a subtle arrival, more it has been a relentless and endless churning of electrification of both newcomers and old-hat manufacturers over the past two decades. We’ve moved from electric cars being a gimmick, being something futuristic, being the “next-big-thing”, to them being accepted, expected and, dare I say it, common. But is Electric or Petrol still the one for real drivers?
The electric car revolution has been expedited in the past 5 years by the likes of Tesla showing just how capable and easy to live with electric cars could be. Formula-e has precipitated the need for manufacturers to get on-board, and government investment has vastly improved the necessary infrastructure required to make electric cars feasible for the masses. However, there is a problem.
Electric cars don’t excite me.
Now before I get accused of a severe case of electron-induced ego-centrism, I want to clarify what I mean. I use “me” as a metaphor for anyone and everyone who shares my fondness for the internal combustion engine. For those who appreciate the magic that is turning liquid dinosaurs in to noise, smoke and power.
My attitude towards electric cars is not a nostalgic reluctance to embrace change however. I have great admiration for the capabilities of electric cars, for the engineering behind them and of the advances that have been made on such incredibly short timescales. The Tesla Model S P100D remains to this day the fastest accelerating car I have ever driven. It is, quite literally, absolutely breathtaking in its delivery of utterly outrageous speed. But that speed simply doesn’t equate to an exciting car to drive.
The fact of the matter is, you will be the fastest away from the lights every single time you try. But so what? That isn’t what driving is about. Driving is about engagement, about challenge, about reward and about thrill. After that initial acceleration, you reach the speed limit in an absurdly short amount of time and then… that’s that.
Show a Model S a twisty British B-road and you’re never smiling at the driving experience. The fastest accelerating production car in the world is not a driver’s car. It is technological marvel, no doubt. But it isn’t the weapon of choice for a Sunday morning blast. The reasons for this are best explained through the frame of motorsport…
At Goodwood Festival of Speed this weekend, there was a significant contingent of electric vehicles going up the hill. That group includes the Volkswagen ID-R that recently claimed the all time fastest climb up Pikes Peak, and is now the record holder for the prestigious Goodwood hill climb as well. It is an incredibly fast car, with a Nurburgring lap record under it’s belt too. But that hill climb at Goodwood, that ground-breaking, competition destroying, future-defining 1.2 mile (1.9km) run up the Duke of Richmond’s driveway was simply not exciting to watch.
The car flashed by, faster than anything else ever has, in total silence. Romain Dumas (a fantastic driver and a really nice gent too) may well have been giving the ID-R the thrashing of his life. It may have been the most technical, most demanding drive of his career. But from outside, there was no sense whatsoever of taming of the beast. Despite the immense quantity of power, its predictable and linear delivery makes driveability a sinch, especially for likes of Dumas. The lack of noise means there is no sense of danger; that primal instinct to look towards loud noises being completely removed meant half the crowd would have been double-checking their last Instagram post, not even noticing the ID-R whizzing by.
A similar plight affects the Formula-e championship as well. The cars are just not exciting to watch and they don’t even have the ID-R’s party trick of being incomprehensibly quick (the organisers opting to line the (very) narrow track with scaled down advertising boards to give a greater impression of speed). The racing itself is good, because it’s so closely matched, but there is a total lack of engagement and lack of any sense of danger when viewed through a camera lens. This is reflected in the sub 50k UK viewing figures for the Monaco e-prix back in May. The series relies heavily on social media to boost its fan base, rather than its petrol burning big brother that does it with excitement. (Note: I don’t believe it is any coincidence that viewing figures for F1 has dipped sharply since the move away from V8’s)
Back to driving. Electric cars are selling, and sales are increasing month-on-month. Electric cars make sense for people nonchalant about the driving experience. For those who do less than 50 miles a day, choose comfort over engagement, willing to make the commitment and have got the financials to come out in the black, electric cars make perfect sense. And to these people, no one should ever judge their choice. Live and let live.
But for me (and that means “us”), electric cars are not ready yet. There needs to be something more. I am an analogue enthusiast. I love a manual gearbox, a naturally aspirated screamer that comes on-cam above 6000rpm. I love the drama of rev-matched downshifts with a car squirreling under braking. That sense of taming the beast that just doesn’t exist for an electric car yet. I love a car that spits flames on lift-off, that need for throttle corrections to sort out the non-linear torque delivery of a turbocharged 4-stroke. I love using the engine note to decide if a gear change is needed or not, and those gear changes instigating the need to modulate the brakes, or correct for oversteer.
This is all a very difficult concept to explain to someone who doesn’t drive a car just to drive a car. Its the same reason people will spend thousands on a Tag Heuer Monaco when a Casio f91w works just fine. Someone who opts to read the book when the movie is on Netflix. Or someone who will happily spends hours in the kitchen creating gastronomical excellence when Deliveroo could be here in 20 minutes.
It’s horses for courses, and I like my horses to be noisy, smokey, engaging and rewarding. I like what is fast becoming the alternative choice.