Three landmark electric cars due in 2013

6 January 2013

woman about to start charging a Renault Zoe EV

2013 will be an important year for electric cars, and especially for a trio of electric vehicles from Renault, BMW and Tesla. All three cars will arrive with great expectations heaped upon them, and each one has been conceived with battery-powered propulsion from the outset – there are no cobbled-together transplants here. Read ahead for a rough rundown of what to look forward to, and when:

2013 Renault Zoe rear view

Renault Zoe

The Renault-Nissan Alliance has poured billions into electric cars, in a visionary project that has already yielded both the Nissan Leaf and Renault Twizy, as well as the Fluence EV saloon and Kangoo electric van. None is as important as Renault’s Zoe, which is heading for the heart of the European car market – the supermini sector – with a camel-crippling stack of hopes pinned on it.

At least Zoe has good looks and a keen price on its side. When the electric supermini arrives in British showrooms in the spring it will cost from £13,650, after a 25% contribution from the government’s Plug-in Car Grant. And if you’re interested, order books are already open.

The low on-the-road price may be a little deceptive because batteries are not included – hiring them costs from £70 per month. That fee is for a three-year agreement limited to 7,500 miles per year, so any owners venturing further or lacking commitment will face bigger bills each month. The aim is for rough parity with the cost of running a conventional car of similar size, however.

2013 Renault Zoe interior

Leasing the battery will at least remove concerns about the lifespan of the powertrain – a prematurely dead battery will be Renault’s problem – but alas no rental agreement can soothe away range anxiety. Zoe has been homologated with a range of 130 miles, but Renault sensibly guides owners to expect 60 miles in cold weather or 90 miles on milder days. These ranges will be ample for the second car in many British households, a suburban role for which today’s electric cars are perfectly suited.

Zoe’s motor provides 65kW (about 88bhp), enough to reach 62mph in 8.4 seconds and thus making the car noticeably quicker than the Leaf, which needs 11.9 seconds. The low-down torque provided by an electric motor should make Zoe feel even livelier from a standstill, though acceleration will no doubt wane rapidly as speed builds. Renault will cap top speed at 84mph.

Tesla Model S front view in the desert

Tesla Model S

The Lotus-based Tesla Roadster, stuffed full of laptop batteries, is no more. Model S, the first ground-up product from California-based Tesla Motors, is a much more sophisticated beast both inside and out.

Most noticeably, it’s huge compared with the dinky Roadster, with an option to seat seven as long as you don’t mind slotting two bods in the boot. That’s not actually as uncomfortable as it sounds, as the boot can provide a surprisingly deep footwell for the final two rear-facing folding seats. With no petrol tank or exhaust silencer to deal with, the back of the car is entirely uncluttered, yielding great space for either people or their luggage. And when the back end is full of kids and legs there is still room for a few bags in the empty space under the bonnet – Tesla dubs this front-trunk a “frunk”.

These surprising quantities of space are liberated because the Tesla’s big battery is mounted flat and low between the axles, providing the floor of the car’s aluminium structure. The drive motor, power electronics and transmission all fit within the arc of the rear wheels. Where a conventional car has big lumps of hot metal, the Tesla has fresh air.

Inside, the Model S will pioneer a new approach to car interiors by offering up a huge touch-screen panel to control all of the car’s functions that can’t be accessed by pedals, wheel and stalks.

2013 Tesla Model S interior

Interested UK buyers can reserve a Model S today, with a deposit of £4,000, but they will need to be patient. Right-hand-drive production isn’t due to start until the end of the year, with the first UK deliveries not pencilled in until early 2014. And the final price is still an amorphous grey area.

European prices provide the only guide – with French customers paying from €64,760 (about £52,800) after tax and the French government’s €7,000 subsidy. That’s for the version with a 60kWh battery, good for about 230 miles. An 85kWh version of the car promises 310 miles of autonomy together with more a powerful motor, but also arrives with the unavoidable penalty of increased bulk. The long-range edition costs from €75,150 in France (about £61,100).

BMW i3 Coupe side view

BMW i3

The first product of BMW’s new “i” brand is expected to go on sale towards the end of the year, after the finished i3 urban car is revealed at September’s Frankfurt Motor Show. The build-up has been long but hopefully this new electric supermini will prove well worth the wait.

The i3’s 125kW (168bhp) electric motor is fed by a lithium-ion battery holding about 20kWh of charge. Effective range should be around 100 miles between recharges, with top speed capped at 93mph.

While the i3 is much smaller than Tesla’s Model S, and looks a lot more avant-garde, the two are surprisingly similar in conception. Both are rear-wheel drive, both package their batteries and motors into a low-slung aluminium skateboard under the bodywork, and both provide surprisingly spacious accommodation as a result. The pair also break new ground in interior design, with sparse cockpits that lean heavily on modern screens in place of buttons, knobs and dials.

BMW i3 interior

Where the two differ most markedly is in their choice of materials. The BMW’s body structure is fabricated from exotic carbon fibre finished off with plastic panels. The Model S, by contrast, is built like a modern Lotus or Aston Martin, assembled from stamped or cast aluminium components glued and riveted together.

We are still waiting for both a UK price and an availability schedule for the high-tech i3, which despite its small size seems certain to command a big pricetag due to its groundbreaking construction. Comfortably north of £40,000 seems likely, or roughly the price of a mid-range 5-Series saloon.

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