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... and the CoTY goes to.... a car that won't get you home in a snowstorm

Bryan Edwards

The Nissan Leaf may be a great car (Nissan haven't given us one to drive yet) but as the UK disappears under another snow storm, it's clearly not the car for this year, or at least not this winter.

Sitting here, as we do, in sunny Kuala Lumpur, electric this-and-that seems quite a good idea, especially if we can charge it up with sunshine.

In the case of a car, it needs to be charged up on the go: if it is to go anywhere meaningful.

If one wants to run around town, then a scooter's a better bet - and if someone would make a sensible three wheeler, that took two people side by side and had space for the shopping, that would be a perfect town vehicle. It would do about 70 miles to a gallon of ordinary petrol and, with some kind of slip-over cover to keep passengers dry from the neck down, (the crash helmet handling the bit above that) it would be an ideal and practicable commuter vehicle. It would have lower environmental impact, damage roads less and cost much less than an electric car.

Electric cars are great if you want to go around a golf course or a mile and a half to school. They are no use at all if you want to travel more than 100 miles or 150 kilometres - and that's a long range one like the Leaf. Mostly, 40 miles is about as far as you can go before it starts to wheeze and you are looking for hills to glide down.

100 miles is not enough for someone to drive the one and a bit hours from Ashford in Kent to central London and back again. But that's what people want to do with an electric car because they don't pay road tax, don't pay tolls and pay a couple of pence a mile for fuel. Set that against the new rail fares of almost GBP2,000 a month and the higher price of an electric car looks like a good investment.

Except when it rains: headlights and windscreen wipers plus de-misting / air con soak power. Result, the range falls.

And what happens when it snows? Well, so long as you keep moving, it's no different to the rain and manufacturers say that cold or hot, wet or dry, the batteries keep giving out the required power.

At least until they don't have any power left.

And being stopped in a freezing cold car in the dark, the last thing anyone is going to want to have to do is turn off the heater, turn off the demister and turn off the lights and windscreen wipers - especially if the snow is coming down so hard that turning them off means they will be snowbound when a chance to move comes along.

And so, as the UK's airports fail to get runways cleared and aircraft de-iced, where does that leave a car that won't go because the battery has run out?

Answer: don't buy a white one - you'll need it to be seen when its lights pack up. Bright yellow? A yellow stain on the snow? At least ribald humour might mean it gets seen from the air.

Then there's another issue : the place that makes the most fuss about being "green" is California which is a huge laugh as it's one of the most profligate automotive societies in the world.

It also frequently runs out of electricity.

So, how do you charge up your electric car if your city's having rotational brown-outs?

No matter how good the Leaf is as a car, the basic problem is simply this: in most of the world where real motorists live, the electric car is not ready for prime time. Anyone that buys one now is, in effect, being used for beta-testing.

Worse, it's expensive - even after governments give ill-advised incentives to purchasers to buy it. In the USA, it's listed at about USD25,000 - after almost USD 10,000 in various credits have been issued (and most of those expire at the end of this month) but excluding the USD2,000 to install the special charger.

To be fair, the first one sold in the USA has got a got a lot of interest: the owner, who calls himself "Gudy" has been writing frequent reports of his experience and he says that he has done a 100 mile trip and got home with the batteries showing 10% remaining. He also says that highway driving uses lots of power at higher speeds and that the car does recharge itself in low-speed use.

One interesting thing: even in the USA, it takes a 240v electrical supply.While there is a US standard 110/120v option you don't want it: it takes 20 hours to charge the car. Surely one of the things you want from a city car is to be able to jump in and go whenever you want to. Worse: Nissan USA admit that driving 15 miles in traffic would mean that the car only goes for four hours.

Another interesting thing: you need to use a dedicated charging dock: you can't just plug into an ordinary socket in your office car park.