Electrifying ride

STEVE LAGUE, MOTORING EDITOR

The first question asked by most people when talking about electric vehicles is: "How does it drive?" And you get the feeling they are not expecting a very positive response.

There seems to be a general impression that the words "electric vehicle" equate to slow and boring. This was reinforced the first night I took The West's new electric vehicle (EV) home and was greeted by my son on the driveway.

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As the Focus crept silently up the drive and into the garage, next to the newly installed 15-amp power point ready to be recharged for another day of driving, he was holding his stomach laughing.

As the laughter subsided he said: "I hope you are going to enjoy driving around in that shopping cart for the next month."

It was his way of letting me know that this was a car with no performance credentials.

A short drive around the neighbourhood was enough to wipe the smirk off his face.

While the Focus is no sports car, it is no slouch either.

It accelerates faster than the petrol-powered model and cruises very comfortably on the freeway or country roads. With all the torque on tap all of the time, overtaking is an easy manoeuvre and response to any input on the accelerator immediate.

But it does take some time to get used to the lack of engine noise and EVs do change your driving psyche - you become "range obsessed".

Every time you get in the car you find yourself either checking or resetting the trip meter to make sure you know exactly how far you have travelled since your last recharge.

While you go through the same procedure as a normal car to start it, you certainly don't get the same feedback.

Replacing the roar of an engine is the sound of silence.

I have had several people jump in, turn the key and then turn it again, thinking it didn't start first time.

The West Australian's car began life as a manual petrol model so to reverse it, you put your foot on the clutch and push the gear lever into reverse. You then lift your foot off the clutch and drive it like an automatic.

The reason for this is an electric motor stops spinning when the car is stopped so you don't need to engage the clutch to prevent it from moving, or stalling.

While this seems simple enough it does take a little time to adjust your driving habit. The first few times I reversed the car, I tended to ride the clutch with the only result the smell of a burning clutch permeating the cabin - not pleasant.

It is the same when you accelerate forward. You need to put the car into gear and take your foot off the clutch before you accelerate.

Depending on how you feel, you can drive the EV like a manual or an automatic.

Starting in first will give you stronger acceleration (enough to spin the front wheels) but with all of the torque (200 Newton metres) available immediately, it can quite comfortably accelerate away in higher gears.

I found that for automatic driving, third was the best gear because you could still accelerate quite quickly.

While the motor will cope with travelling at 100km/h on the freeway in third, it does feel more relaxed if you put it into fourth or fifth for prolonged periods of driving on the freeway or highway.

Once you have mastered these few irregularities, driving the EV is exactly the same as a petrol car.

The biggest pitfall with an aftermarket vehicle such as our Focus is that you lose important safety features like electronic stability control which has to be disconnected because it needs the engine-management system to operate.

You also start to notice different noises, like the air-conditioner or the heater fan or any other little rattle in the car.

The other big issue for electric vehicles is their range.

The Focus has a range of up to 130km, depending on driving style and what features - especially the air-conditioner or heater - you are using.

Research shows that the average Australian travels less than 40km per day which means for most of the time you could comfortably complete your daily running around on one charge.

For me, it was not an issue driving the car to work and home, a round trip of about 40km, and any other running around I needed to do.

But there were a couple of occasions, especially on weekends, when I elected to leave the EV at home because I was not sure if I was going to travel more than 100km.

Each time I would have been fine.

It is just going to take a little while to gain enough confidence not to overestimate how far you intend to drive.

Mind you, the consequence of running out of battery charge is a tow home which is why you become "range obsessed".

But I have not been to the petrol station for more than a month.