Zoe and Trev’s Bogus Journey

Our Excellent Adventure – Bletchley to Ikea Wembley (Image: T. Larkum)
Our Excellent Adventure – Bletchley (A) to Renault Watford (B) to Ikea Wembley (C) (Image: T. Larkum)

After our adventure getting to the BMW i3 event, I was rather nervous of the return journey – still on our first day with the ZOE. Having said that, I had been highly encouraged by the ZOE’s capabilities and in particular by its range prediction. It seemed to me that it was remarkably consistent and – as far as I could tell – pretty accurate, though generally erring on the side of pessimism. I have since mapped the journey down and it was approximately 65 miles (compared to the initial prediction of 72 miles of range which we comfortably beat as we had at least 20 miles of range left).

By this time it was getting rather late in the evening so I made the decision to skip recharging in London and to aim straight for the Newport Pagnell services on the M1 (not far short of home at Northampton) which I knew had an Ecotricity Electric Highway fast charger. This was partly as a result of our good experience with the Ikea Ecotricity charger and our failure to use the Renault slow charger.

Unfortunately, this target location was past the Bletchley dealership where we had picked up the ZOE, and therefore it was necessary to go to Bletchley first (to pick up the wife’s car), and then go on to Newport Pagnell. The dealership was closed by this time so there wasn’t another obvious place to recharge on the way there. So a rather daunting challenge!

Anyway we headed out. As before the satnav told us we couldn’t make it and just as before we ignored it. The difference this time was that I had set Bletchley as the destination (since we needed to go there first) but we would then have to go further on to charge – so I had to keep in mind a reserve of at least 10 miles beyond what the satnav was calculating.

The strategy I used was actually to aim for 20 miles spare after Bletchley since I didn’t know exactly how much further it was to the charge location. I then adjusted our speed downwards as we drove north (as you can always make an EV go further by driving more slowly) so that the range gradually increased towards this 20 mile figure. This resulted in us driving up the M1 at 55 to 60 mph. Normally I would drive significantly faster than this but actually it didn’t feel as bad as I expected (the average traffic speed wasn’t particularly high) and we still managed to overtake many lorries and slower ICEs.

There was one glitch on this part of the journey. Having swapped between chosen destinations a few times on the satnav (too quickly?) it froze up. Turning it off and on didn’t fix it. Eventually I got it working again by turning it off, taking out the map SD card, then restarting it and putting the card back in.

The journey went fine to Bletchley, then driving in convoy to Newport Pagnell services where I had a little less than 10 miles left on arrival. Again I have mapped the journey since and it was approximately 85 miles, a good distance on a single charge (particularly if we add on the 10 miles remaining) on our first day with an EV.

Our Bogus Journey – Ikea Wembley to Billingsgate to Bletchley to Newport Pagnell on a single charge (Image: T. Larkum)
Our Bogus Journey – Ikea Wembley (A) to Billingsgate (B) to Bletchley (C) to Newport Pagnell (D) on a single charge (Image: T. Larkum)

Unfortunately we then pulled into the car park at the services and had another bad encounter with a public charge point. Though the Ecotricity fast charger at Ikea Wembley had done us so well, the one here (a slightly different model) let us down. I contacted the emergency telephone number on the side and the operator confirmed there was a problem with it.

ZOE failing to charge at 43kW fast charger (Image: T. Larkum)
ZOE failing to charge at 43kW fast charger (Image: T. Larkum)

His good suggestion – which hadn’t yet occurred to me – was to instead make use of the Ecotricity ‘medium fast’ 22kW charger located just a few parking spaces further along. I plugged into that, used the same access card, and it worked fine. Although not as powerful as the 43kW fast charger it was still pretty fast – I gained a 20-30% charge in about 20 minutes, plenty enough to get me home to Northampton.

ZOE happily charging at 22kW medium-fast charger (Image: T. Larkum)
ZOE happily charging at 22kW medium-fast charger (Image: T. Larkum)

The key thing I took from this incident (apart from it had dented my confidence in public charging further) was the fantastic flexibility of the ZOE’s Chameleon charging system. It had charged at 43kW in Wembley, it charged at 22Kw at Newport Pagnell, and when I got it home and plugged it into my home charge station it very happily charged at 7kW. I know of no other mass market EV that can do that. Some people complain that, unlike other EVs, you can’t charge a ZOE at 3kW from a domestic socket – but I happily give up lower power charging for more options at medium and high powers.

And so ended our first day with a ZOE electric car – including two successful public charges and two failed ones, and approximately 170 miles driven. The public charging infrastructure clearly still has some way to go – but the ZOE is a fantastic EV that is a pleasure to drive.

Attending the BMW i3 Launch

i3 Launch Venue, late in the evening (Image: T. Larkum)
i3 Launch Venue, late in the evening (Image: T. Larkum)

After much pre-event anticipation BMW finally launched its first electric car on Monday, the i3. It was revealed simultaneously in London, New York and Beijing, with the London event taking place at Billingsgate and featuring celebrities including Sienna Miller and James Franco.

BMW i3 at Launch (Image: T. Larkum)
BMW i3 at Launch (Image: T. Larkum)

The main event was followed with smaller media shows at the same location. WhatCar magazine had a Reader Test Team event on Tuesday evening. I was invited to this as last year I had applied for the equivalent ZOE launch but had missed out.

BMW i3 Launch Venue, at closing time (Image: T. Larkum)
BMW i3 Launch Venue, at closing time (Image: T. Larkum)

The event took place from 6.30 to 9pm but thanks to our big ZOE adventure on the way there we arrived towards the end. The location was Old Billingsgate which is a regular venue for launches – it sits right on the Thames with views across the river and along to Tower Bridge. An i3 in silver-grey sat outside on a wooden platform. Inside there was seating (plus drinks, snacks, etc.) in front of a large stage on which sat a second i3, this time in a dark orange.

IMG-7819_Launch_i3_TLarkum_c_s

We had the opportunity to take photographs, walk around the i3 on the stage, and then sit in it. Having only just received the ZOE, and not having the chance to test drive the i3, it is hard to compare them directly. I was struck, however, by how different the i3 felt inside. It felt very wide in the front, with a broad sweeping dash broken up by two square mini-monitors.

IMG-7814_Launch_i3_TLarkum_c_s

However, the rear passenger area and boot did not seem particularly spacious and I wonder if they might be smaller than in the ZOE. For example, the rear seat is very definitely intended for two people, not three like in the ZOE, and the boot appears to be quite long but not very deep. I will likely examine the numbers in detail in a future post.

BMW i3 – Driver’s Position (Image: T. Larkum)
BMW i3 – Driver’s Position (Image: T. Larkum)

Many people in the media have commented on the i3’s looks in a negative way, partly because it stands out from the crowd. I’m in two minds about this – I agree that for EVs to become mainstream they need to look more like conventional cars (and I think Renault got this right with the Clio-alike ZOE). Good looks are a failing on a number of existing EVs like the LEAF and the i-Miev. However, personally, I want an electric car to look a bit different – and I rather like the style, stance and colouring of the i3.

BMW i3 – Rear Passengers’ Area (Image: T. Larkum)
BMW i3 – Rear Passengers’ Area (Image: T. Larkum)

So, is the i3 a game changer like the ZOE? No, unfortunately it falls down on all the key criteria, not just looks. The price is wrong – even though it costs less than most pundits expected. It is twice the price of a ZOE, so even allowing for it including the battery it cannot compete on price.

BMW i3 – Boot [Trunk] (Image: T. Larkum)
BMW i3 – Boot [Trunk] (Image: T. Larkum)
The range is wrong – it has been compared in market terms to the Tesla Model S yet it only has one third of the range. In fact, while we don’t yet have real-world data it’s quite likely its range is substantially less than the ZOE even though it arrives on the market a year later. I’m in no doubt this is the biggest failing of the i3 – it would easily have been forgiven another 50% on price if it had promised the magical 200 mile (or even 150 mile) range. Another 100 mile EV – especially in 2013 and made by BMW – makes it an also-ran.

BMW i3 at Launch (Image: T. Larkum)
BMW i3 at Launch (Image: T. Larkum)

And finally, the charging is wrong. Firstly, on slow charging: the i3 ‘Standard Charge’ is 2.4kw (7 hours to 80%) while its ‘AC Fast Charge’ is 7.4kW (3 hours for 80%). I think this is a marketing mistake. Technically it is equivalent to the ZOE, and uses the same Type 2 connector, however Renault discourages low power charging and provides owners with a 7kW charger (free in the UK) so the ZOE standard charge is 3 hours – the same as the i3’s so-called fast charge.

Secondly, on fast charging: Perhaps this is an unfair comparison as the ZOE has the best charging system of any EV on the market (with the arguable exception of the Tesla S) in its Chameleon. It can take AC straight from a standard European industrial three-phase supply (as you might find at a large office or shop) and charge to 80% in half an hour. To offer something similar the i3 has to make use of the older DC fast charging system pioneered on Japanese EVs such as the LEAF and i-MIEV but unfortunately the AC-DC conversion cannot be achieved without very powerful and complex transformers so DC fast chargers are large and expensive and unlikely to become as ubiquitous as simple AC fast chargers.

That could perhaps be forgiven – it is highly likely that Renault has its Chameleon technology heavily ringed around with patents and other legal restrictions. But to top it off the i3’s DC charging uses a different connector to the standard DC systems. Instead of a Chademo connector it uses the much-derided but US-supported ‘Frankenplug’ connector, which is essentially a Type 2 connector with extra bulbous connectors joined on the bottom for the DC components, resulting in a very large and unwieldy connector and cable.

So the i3 provides DC fast charging instead of AC, and does it with a plug that is incompatible with all existing fast charging stations. Could BMW have got it more wrong? It needn’t have been like that – the ZOE just uses its standard Type 2 connector and cable for all charging, and the Type 2 has been agreed as the European standard. Furthermore, from what I’ve seen in the i3 brochure, access to public charging (and other services) will be at extra cost from BMW.

Anyway, enough on the i3 – a car that cannot reach its potential because of poor compromises made along the way. After leaving Old Billingsgate (clutching a goody bag of brochures and merchandising) – and still on our first day with the ZOE – we headed back north, and I’ll cover that journey in another post.

[Getting home]

Zoe and Trev’s Excellent Adventure

Our ZOE, just outside the dealership (Image: T. Larkum)
Our ZOE, just outside the dealership (Image: T. Larkum)

The big moment finally arrived, early in the afternoon of Tuesday 30 July 2013, when my wife and I picked up our new Renault ZOE Intens – almost exactly 15 months after I reserved it. Since the pre-delivery visit the issue of the inactive satnav had been resolved (by removing the satnav SD card, then restarting and reinserting). The SmartGuard paint and fabric protection treatment had also been completed.

After signing a stack of paperwork and receiving the owner’s handbook, charging cable (with bag), complimentary 7 day insurance and SmartGuard cleaning products, we were ready to take the car. There was no tax disc – following recent changes in policy this gets sent out subsequently by the DVLA.

The handover itself was fairly brief, covering the main driver’s controls and R-Link features. We also went through the process of setting up the car to charge so we would know how to do it, though in fact it was already fully charged ready for us.

We drove out of the dealership shortly after – but only travelled a few hundred metres. Our adventure began, as I’m sure many do, with a stop at McDonald’s. This was partly for sustenance and partly because it was a perfect place to leave the wife’s car as it is open 24 hours. Our planned journey was going to be a significant one, driving from Milton Keynes to central London, to attend a WhatCar Reader Review event as part of the launch of BMW’s i3 electric car, and then back home to Northampton.

ZOE gets a first taste of McDonald’s (Image: T. Larkum)
ZOE gets a first taste of McDonald’s (Image: T. Larkum)

Without further ado we then headed out in the ZOE, having set Renault in Watford in the R-Link satnav as our first port of call. We drive through Milton Keynes and so began our adventure – starting with a long drive on our ZOE’s first day with us, but also fulfilling a bigger dream of sustainable transport and a life beyond petrol dependency.

I had planned the trip in advance and had hoped that the organisation and preparation would pay off, with everything going smoothly – but it was not to be. The first glitch was disconcerting, though not a major issue: just as we turned onto the M1 motorway heading south to London (but too late to do anything about it) the R-Link piped up to say that there was insufficient power to reach our destination! It was clearly wrong, though, as at the same time it was stating the distance to the destination as less than the range left in the battery, so it seemed pretty confused. We acknowledged the message and ignored it – it recurred a number of times later on and we learnt to take no notice of it.

The next glitch was an hour or so later and much more serious – as we drove up the exit ramp leaving the motorway in London we were fairly violently thrown forward as the ZOE came to an emergency stop. I was taken aback, but piecing together what had been happening I think this was my fault. The details of the event are unclear but – being used to driving a car with a manual gearbox – in slowing down towards the top of the exit road I think I must have unconsciously moved the gearstick forward. This would have put it into neutral, so now I believe I’ve learned what ZOE does when you do that at high speed! We were a bit shaken but I can’t fault the car – it slowed us down to a stop very quickly, but after I’d recovered and we started again it showed no sign of having been damaged or in any way upset by the incident.

We reached Watford Renault soon after but that’s when our worst setback occurred. We had pre-arranged a recharge and they were happy to see us and help us out. After moving one of their ZOE’s out of the way we were invited to park at their public charger. They then connected us up but that’s as far as things went. The ZOE gave a message of ‘Ongoing Checks’ but never started to charge. An hour or so later we were still there, after they’d tried charging with one of their cables, and then failed to charge their own ZOE from the chargepoint. At that point we gave up and headed out again (it is not clear if that charge point had ever actually been used before, as there was apparently one inside the workshops that was usually used for their own ZOEs).

Our ZOE, and the dealership one beyond, failing to charge (Image: T. Larkum)
Our ZOE, and the dealership one beyond, failing to charge (Image: T. Larkum)

At this point we were at least an hour behind schedule and, worse, were still in need of a charge. In fact, we still had a fair bit of range available but with our first ever attempted charge having failed I was keen to get a successful one under our belt as soon as possible. I had originally arranged to use the Renault charger as we did not have any public charge point access cards – but in fact one had arrived during the day and my wife had brought it along with her. We therefore headed straight for Ikea at Wembley which has one of the new fast chargers deployed by Ecotricity as part of their Electric Highway initiative (this one had been recommended by Farblue, a member of the MyRenaultZoe forums). The access card I used was a Source London one, not an Ecotricity one, but it would be expected to be compatible with most chargers in the London area.

The Ecotricity fast chargers are huge (reminiscent of a Tardis painted cream, though not quite that big) – I suspect this is a result of them originally being designed to convert AC to DC to provide a fast charge for the Nissan LEAF. The ZOE is instead happy with a straight AC three-phase supply for fast charging, so these chargers have been upgraded with an extra Type 2 cable coming out the side.

Starting the fast charge was fairly straightforward, although the user interface on the charger is extremely unfriendly. However, we then hit another glitch – a few minutes in it stopped, and wouldn’t restart. I don’t know the cause, though it happened as I went to get my camera from the car. I would guess that the charge was either disrupted by unlocking the doors or, perhaps more likely, I had inadvertently knocked a button on the remote. Charging would not then simply restart by restarting the charging session. After a number of attempts I eventually got it charging again following the method suggested by experience with personal computers – disconnect everything, turn off and back on again (including locking the car doors and walking away) and then retrying from scratch.

A happy ZOE is a fast-charging ZOE (Image: T. Larkum)
A happy ZOE is a fast-charging ZOE (Image: T. Larkum)

Once charging had restarted I locked the doors and gingerly stepped away hoping to avoid disrupting it again. It was very obviously charging now though – not only was the charging percentage on the dashboard going up fast (by about 1-2% per minute), I was quite taken aback by how obvious and electrical the process was. It was loud, though not uncomfortably so, and it had that high pitched whine and sense of electrical power that you get close to a transmission pylon. A lot of energy was clearly being transmitted across a short distance. You don’t need any other feedback; you really know when a fast charge is happening even from some distance away.

We had a brief look around Ikea then headed for the restaurant. After a restorative meal of Swedish meatballs, and salmon lasagne, we returned to the ZOE. There we were greeted by a very encouraging “99%” showing on the dashboard, and we had only been gone about half an hour. In fact I sat and watched it for a few minutes but it didn’t change. I don’t know if it would have if I’d waited, or if the display only goes to 99%.

A welcome sight! (Image: T. Larkum)
A welcome sight! (Image: T. Larkum)

Feeling much happier – but now about 3 hours behind schedule – we headed south again towards the WhatCar i3 event. This part of the journey was uneventful, apart from the usual stress of driving through London that I had forgotten about – busy but slow traffic, regular sirens and emergency vehicles, narrow and irregular streets with poor parking, and so on. Fortunately we reached the event before it closed and I will cover it, and our return journey, in later posts.

In summary, we had poor experiences of trying to use public charging points, and not in the way I had anticipated. However, the ZOE was a pleasure to drive and, despite a couple of minor glitches, performed well throughout. In the flesh it really is the game changer that I believed it to be, particularly in terms of range, charging capability and looks. And on our first day I found it to be just as quiet, smooth, lively and comfortable as I had hoped.

And all without burning any petrol, or paying a penny for fuel. A new day really had dawned for us.

[Next part: BMW i3 Launch]