The future of driving? Living with two electric cars in the UAE for a week

Dewa announced it would have 100 electric-car charging stations across Dubai by the end of last year. A year on, we test the practicalities of electric cars.

The BMW i8 in Abu Dhabi. The plug-in hybrid combines a 131hp electric motor at the front with a six-speed-automatic, petrol unit at the rear that generates 231hp from a 1.5L engine. Christopher Pike / The National
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The most-recent Ford Edge TV commercial rattles on about how the city is constantly evolving, so you need a car that mirrors such modernisation. Which is all very well if your home city is, say, England's roundabout capital Milton Keynes or some white-picket-fence conurbation in the American Midwest.

But at the UAE's Blade Runner extremes of futuristic architecture, to achieve that, you require something a little more interesting than a middling SUV with the design flair of a tin of corned beef.

BMW i8

The BMW i8 is that exact car. It looks like it should take off rather than drive. Beneath the skin, the i8 isn’t any old sports car, either: it’s a plug-in hybrid with all the forward-thinking intent that you would hope of such a visionary project. The question is, however, how does that stack up in terms of using it as a daily driver?

On the open road, it’s a delight. It’s an incredible feat of engineering and design. It’s not often you feel like you’re living in the future or piloting something more akin to a spaceship than a car. It’s the Batmobile, if Batman cared about environmental issues.

The effect for the person behind the wheel, though, can be more Superman to Clark Kent. However dorky you are in real life, you will look like the coolest person alive while driving it. As soon as you clamber out beneath the flash-Harry “butterfly” doors, you’re back to reality, as you attempt not to stumble over, bump your head, knock off your sunglasses or hit the horn while using the steering wheel as an anchor (check, check, check and check, on various occasions).

The practicality of living with this automotive wonder isn’t so much a case of worrying about the juice – while its electric motor only has a range of 37 kilometres, kinetic energy from all four wheels recharges the battery. Drive correctly, and you may never need to find a charging station. Speed humps do pose genuine hazards to the perilously low carbon-fibre front splitter and under-tray. On the plus side, you can fit two young children (or minuscule adults) in the small but perfectly formed back seats.

During my five days with the i8, I journey from Abu Dhabi to Dubai and back, and even after a previous day dashing around in the capital, the combined range only necessitates a quick splash-and-dash petrol refill. There are a select range of charging stations across Dubai; despite Abu Dhabi’s green credentials, however, there aren’t any public charging outlets in the capital. The i8 does come with a home-charging cable in its tiny boot that connects to a regular wall socket via a normal three-pin plug. A brief trial hour at my office, running the cable through an open window, doesn’t glean any noticeable battery boost, though. It proves trickier at home, particularly if, like me, you live several floors up in an apartment block, with a designated underground parking space.

The 131hp electric motor with two-speed-transmission is mounted upfront, and in eDrive mode can take you to the UAE’s national speed limit of 120kph without burning a drop of fossil fuel – perfect for urban driving. The six-speed-automatic, petrol unit at the rear gives extra beef: 231hp from a measly 1.5L. The performance truly comes alive with a growl when you flick the gearstick to the left into Sport, the virtual dials turn an angry shade of red and the two systems combine to propel it from 0 to 100kph in 4.4 seconds. Take things easier, and BMW claims you can reach astounding fuel consumption – 2.1L per 100km – and a total range of about 600km. The harder you drive, the faster its battery seems to recharge, but if it’s running low, eDrive won’t activate. It’s also worth noting that the i8’s carbon-fibre production and vehicle assembly uses 100 per cent renewable electricity.

There’s a stack of on-board technology: head-up display, splendid Harman Kardon sound system, surround- and rear-view cameras, parking-assist warnings and built-in phone charger, to name a few. Plus, you can download a free iOS/Android app to remotely track your car’s location, charge level and to lock it, although you do need to be the car’s registered owner, so I wasn’t able to test it. The range info, hidden behind the steering wheel at the bottom of the main driver display could be more prominent, though.

There are only 10,000 i8s on the road in the world, but for extra individuality, BMW's Abu Dhabi/Al Ain dealer Abu Dhabi Motors is now offering exclusive colours. Not that you need that for the i8 to attract significant attention, with its Tron-reminiscent blue accents (and seat belts), while simultaneously doing its bit to save the world. It really has got it all.

Renault Zoe

Some people count calories. But last week, all I was counting were kilometres. My fixation on the number of kilometres it would take to get me from place to place rivalled a diet addict’s obsession.

My car was the full-electric Renault Zoe, and while the prospect of trying an eco-friendly vehicle was exciting at first, the test drive was far more stressful than enjoyable because of the car’s impractically low range – a mere 100km. I was told beforehand that it would be 200km, and when I went to the showroom to collect the car, the Zoe’s spec sheet read 400km. The agent who handed me the keys told me it was actually 80km – only after charging it fully myself did I learn that it would stretch to 100km.

I now know that it’s 31km from my home in Jebel Ali to Mall of the Emirates, 42km to my parents’ house in Arabian Ranches and 56km to the Renault showroom near Dubai International Airport. Do the maths – that means it took more than half of the car’s battery just to reach my home after picking it up. I know that if I want to go anywhere in Dubai beyond Al Barsha, I need to factor in the time it takes to find a charging station, plus one-to-two hours to recharge. Running errands such as buying groceries or heading out for a movie date become annoyingly prolonged when charging time is added on.

Actually driving it is relatively smooth and it’s almost completely silent. You don’t hear the constant revving of an engine, which makes it quite peaceful – that is until the anxiety about the battery drainage kicks in. You can set the car to “Eco” mode, though it didn’t really seem to extend battery life and made the drive painfully slow, because it doesn’t allow you to exceed 90kph.

Even a week with the Zoe ingrained new habits. I kept a constant watch on the battery icon on the far left of the dashboard, feeling a twitchy sense of panic every time it dropped even one per cent. Assuming that turning the radio on or charging my phone in the car will slow down the battery charging process, I kept a book in the car with me – more than an hour in a stationary, charging car can get real boring, real quick. At times, I was tempted to disconnect and drive away once it reached 80 per cent – but I knew I would pay the price when it ran out earlier the following day.

A frustrating fiasco occurred on my first night charging the car. With no reliable list of charging stations, and initially being told the only ones were in Sustainable City, I called Dewa, and learnt that there was a station at the Dewa Sustainable Building office in Al Quoz. I parked in the green parking spot marked “electric vehicle only” feeling smug and special, but this was short-lived. I spent an extra 40 minutes there when my cable got stuck in the charging port. After enlisting the help of four kind gentlemen, one of whom had a friend with an electric car, we managed to yank the cable free and begin charging the car in a different port. In an hour and 12 minutes, my car’s battery was charged from 32 per cent to 100 per cent. Sadly, by the time I reached my apartment, it was down to 63 per cent – the drive drained more than a third of the battery.

My experience may not be reflective of the average Dubai resident’s – I do live far from the city’s epicentre. Still, a 100km range isn’t sufficient – the car isn’t equipped for road trips or even for a commute to Abu Dhabi. Plus, if you’re on the highway, miss an exit and are forced to pull a U-turn, this could have severe repercussions. Perhaps if the UAE was equipped with more charging stations or if it were possible to charge the Zoe in normal electrical sockets in owners’ garages or underground car parks, the experience would be easier on the nerves. Until then, the Zoe isn’t a practical purchase.

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