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A dud, but politically in vogue

It might have something to do with the British inventor Sir Clive Sinclair’s public humiliation over the abominable C5 — a sort of milk float-cum-coffin for the mid-1980s commuter.

Or maybe it’s just that element of machismo inherent in the internal combustion engine. Whatever the root, it has always been – and still is – very difficult to take electric cars seriously.

The UK government is set to suggest that we definitely should, amid various recommendations for its renewable energy strategy.

As part of a £100-billion plan to get Britain back on track to meet its CO2 reduction targets, the scheme will point towards the potential for electric cars, charged straight from the national grid. Long term, there is even the hope that renewable sources, such as wind or wave generators, could meet some of the demands for electricity.

Suddenly, it seems, electric automation is politically in vogue. Paris proposes to bolster its Vélib’ bike-hire scheme with an Autolib electric car, while in the US John McCain is trying to seduce left-leaning Californian voters with promises of sizeable tax breaks for battery-powered cars.

So can this really be the turning point for the electric car after so many false dawns? All this forward thinking and lofty ambition would seem to say so, but it overlooks one unalterable fact. The reason electric cars have failed so spectacularly in the past is because they are rubbish.

There is a phrase that buzzes about the motoring industry, one that aims to assess, then applaud or condemn a new product at its most basic level: “Fit for purpose”.

No electric car has ever been fit for purpose. The C5 was nothing more than a bicycle with a battery that double-decker buses couldn’t, and frequently didn’t, see. More ambitious and concerted efforts such as Ford’s decade-old Th!nk came closer to gaining a foothold. But a lack of development and inadequate range meant it never took off.

Incidentally, this car is making a comeback, not through Ford, but through the Norwegian outfit that sold it to Ford in the first place. It is still slow, tiny and seemingly on permanent trickle charge, but really can be yours now. For £14 000. Which is another reason why electric cars don’t catch on. No one wants to be first to pay more for less.

Unless, it seems, you live in liberal west London. Here, where money is as plentiful as virtuous thought, the unutterably awful G-Wiz is gradually gathering momentum. This is the doomed electric car of the moment, popular with drivers who delight in cramming their progeny into the back of a car that is allowed to sidestep proper crash testing for cars on the grounds that it isn’t a car at all, but a “quadricycle”.

In April 2007, Top Gear magazine bought a G-Wiz and crashed tested it under exact industry-approved conditions for cars: 40mph into a deformable barrier, complete with hi-tech dummies on board.

One expert who was involved said he felt physically sick after the event. The dummies would have had their legs cut clean off if they had not been reinforced with steel. The steering wheel left a space no wider than a fist between it and the back of the driver’s seat.

G-Wiz has made efforts to improve safety since then, but its new model still only has to be crash tested and classified as a quadricycle. And one that costs a whisker under £9 000 too, a small fortune for a car unsuitable for extra-urban driving and ill-equipped to carry much more than a briefcase. Is it fit for purpose? Only if that purpose is to expose your loved ones to comparative peril, at comparatively large expense, while looking comparatively ridiculous.

Broader European political pressure on manufacturers to meet stringent CO2 emissions targets over the next decade is no more convincing. What happens if these targets prove unachievable? Nothing that might cost factory workers their jobs (and the government their votes), that’s for sure. Until there is a product out there that is fit for purpose and can, at least in part, replace the technology they are lobbying against, nothing meaningful is going to happen.

For a seriously flush few, American firm Tesla is exporting a handful of its Lotus-based roadsters to Europe. Yours for a mere £79 000. But none of these is going to take two kids, a dog and all their respective clobber on an ecologically sound week-long holiday. ‘

Ultimately, the answers probably do lie in going electric, but for the time being they are to be found elsewhere. Hybrid technology, where a small electric motor works in conjunction with a small petrol engine, is a stepping stone. As is a recent rash of ultra-efficient diesel engines that use minute amounts of fuel and emit vastly reduced quantities of CO2. —

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