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The big switch: How Irish drivers are changing to electric and hybrid power

Four owners tell us why they’ve swapped their fuel-burning cars for greener models

‘There definitely seems to be a big waiting time for electric cars now... but the charging infrastructure is getting better all the time.’ Photograph: iStock

‘There definitely seems to be a big waiting time for electric cars now... but the charging infrastructure is getting better all the time.’ Photograph: iStock

 

Clearly, many of us are making the switch from petrol or diesel power to using at least a little electricity in our cars. So far in 2021, even as the total new car sales market is down on its last “normal” year in 2019, sales of electric cars have risen by just over 100 per cent at the time of writing, while hybrid car sales are up by 47 per cent, and plug-in hybrid sales by 215 per cent.

However, of all those who’ve swapped from combustion power to electric or part-electric power, it’s doubtful that anyone has made quite such a physically big change as Linda Murray. Murray is, along with husband Paul, the proprietor of a bookshop, Book Paper Scissors, on Belfast’s Malone Road, and has gone from large to little in her changeover to an electric car.

I actually feel a bit smug because I was driving around thinking, ‘look at me, not polluting the environment’

“We had been driving a big diesel Range Rover. And we just knew the time had come to get rid of the diesel,” she said. “We felt incredibly environmentally guilty, and we’ll probably never have a diesel car again.”

So, when switching from a Range Rover, you’d expect her choice of electric car to be a large, spacious electric SUV, right? Nope – they went completely the other way, and got a battery-powered Mini Cooper SE.

“We’d been looking at various electric cars, but the Nissan Leaf didn’t really appeal, and we are ‘car people’, I suppose you’d say, so we wanted something that was fun to drive. So along came the Mini, and it got some very good write-ups in the press, and that was the trigger – we actually pre-ordered it even before we’d test-driven one.”

Serendipitous

While the delivery of the electric Mini was delayed by Covid-related hold-ups, the sport hatchback arrived at a serendipitous moment for Murray. With the shop’s front door firmly closed under lockdown, the Mini became indispensable to the survival of the book shop.

“I’ve done so many book deliveries, all over town, and I actually feel a bit smug because I was driving around thinking, ‘look at me, not polluting the environment.’ On top of that, what has surprised us is that it’s actually an enjoyable car to drive. We were prepared for it to be a bit clunky, for the sake of the environment, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised. Haven’t got tired of it yet.”

Longer journeys are a bit of a challenge – the Mini’s short one-charge range of 232km at most is limiting, and it means the Murrays keep an older, petrol-powered Golf on hand as a second car, but they are now thinking about possibly replacing that with a longer-range EV, creating an all-battery two-car household.

The drive is very surefooted, even on a rare sunny weekend drive in the Wicklow hills. It’s a relatively small car, and has zippy acceleration

Also keeping a second petrol-powered car on hand, at least for the moment, is Naas-based Peter Davis, who recently replaced his Volkswagen T-Roc 1.5 TSI crossover with a new VW ID.3 electric hatchback.

“Our two motivations for going electric were that it was the right thing to do, and that we didn’t want to get stranded with an internal combustion-engined car that would be difficult to sell on,” says Davis, who works with Irish Life Health. “Hybrids felt like a bit of a cop-out to us, and plug-in hybrids too, as you’re carrying all of that extra weight, complexity and cost for only a couple of hundred extra kilometres’ range that you’ll only use a couple of times a year.”

Davis says that he had considered a Kia e-Niro, but thought that the Volkswagen was “less compromised in its design”, although he acknowledges frustrations with the car’s sometimes-infuriating touchscreen controls.

As for the rest of the car?

‘Surefooted’

“The drive is very surefooted, even on a rare sunny weekend drive in the Wicklow hills. It’s a relatively small car, and has zippy acceleration. We mostly charge at home, but getting the charger fitted was quite expensive: €1,280, although the SEAI grant will help offset that. I’ve also managed to get a new electricity tariff, which gives us free electricity from 9am to 5pm on Sundays, so if we’re disciplined, we can charge the car for free for the week ahead. It’s a very usable and enjoyable car to drive.”

Also stepping into a new electric Volkswagen is celebrity TV fitness expert Karl Henry. Henry is among the first wave of Irish drivers to not be switching from petrol to electric, but actually from one electric car to another , having previously driven a Hyundai Kona.

“I think its the future and our experience with the Kona on the whole has been a good one, with the exception of a charger not working when on a long trip, so we have decided to stay electric. There definitely seems to be a big waiting time for electric cars now and I suppose that’s down to demand, but the charging infrastructure is getting better all the time so its a win-win all round. Mostly I charge at night with a home charger, but have an ESB charge card for long journeys now. The Kona did 370km on a long journey and the ID.4 seems to be going further, so it works for anywhere in Ireland really.”

Amidst all the electric fervour, though, hybrids still have a significant part to play, especially for those making their first steps on the electric driving ladder. 18 months ago, Dublin-born, Belfast-based academic Colin Shaw switched from a diesel-powered Renault Clio to a Toyota Auris Hybrid estate.

Diesel particulates

“Back when we bought the Clio, we were told that buying diesel was the environmentally sound thing to do, because of reduced consumption,” Shaw tells The Irish Times. “I had no knowledge of diesel particulates, or the effect on air pollution. We used the Clio for a lot of school runs, and while I was always very diligent about not idling the engine outside the school, inevitably you’d have to start the thing again, and then you’re just filling the air, and children’s lungs, with this invisible, noxious gas.

“The greatest pleasure is that the engine stops when the car stops, and that’s very satisfying because it’s so obviously efficient. I do think that car dealers, though, try to push too hard on the ‘enjoyment’ aspect of driving. That was one thing we were told at the time of buying: ‘you’re going to love driving this.’ No I won’t. I try to use the car as little as possible. I think they should assume that at least half of the people they sell cars to absolutely hate driving and cars, then they could do a lot more business. Because I don’t care, I don’t care about the car, I just want it to not kill people. Or kill me.”

Even so, Shaw has already decided that his next car will be fully electric. “We’re well set up for it here. We have a driveway, and once you can get better than 500km out of a single charge, if that’s guaranteed, then yeah, we’re in.”