Matt Saunders reckoned it would be easy to drive the length of England in an electric Mini. So we set him off with just enough rope (well, charging cord) to hang himself.
Sunday, 8.17pm at home
Tomorrow morning, we’re heading to Brighton to collect one of BMW’s all-electric Mini E development cars. And then we’ll set out on one of the most half-baked road trips conceived in 115 years of Autocar history: we’ll be turning north to find out how far you can drive an electric car before you run out of power or patience, or both.
Monday, 9.36am EDF Energy, Brighton
Our chariot’s right on time. It’s been trailered here. It’s about 75 miles from BMW UK’s Bracknell base, but if they’d driven it we’d be waiting all day to charge it up.
BMW’s delivery man gives me a two-minute briefing on how to charge the Mini. You can lock your cable into Elektromotive’s on-street charging socket, but there’s no way to secure it at the car end. Still, operations-wise, the process seems foolproof, albeit not quite tamper-proof.
Monday, 11.15pm Premier Travel Inn, Luton
Our first day ends after 132 miles. After leaving Brighton, we made it home to Surrey for a five-hour charge. That topped up the Mini’s batteries to 75 per cent, good for a 79-mile range and enough to get us to Milton Keynes.
But on the motorway – even at 50mph – the Mini E sucks current more quickly than its computer allows for. Approaching Luton on the M1, with less than 10 miles remaining, we decide that running out of power on day one wouldn’t be much of a story and plot a course for the nearest bed-and-mains-outlet.
Tuesday, 3.46pm Victoria Shopping Centre, Nottingham
Now we’re getting somewhere. The Mini promised us 118 miles this morning – enough to get us to Nottingham’s Victoria Centre. We arrive in the multi-storey to find a Mercedes C-class in one of only two charging bays. You’d think a car park operator who installed charging bays would make them available only to EVs; not this one.
10.27pm Travelodge, Leeds Colton
We’ve made it another 60-odd miles to our digs, just. The Mini played its usual game of chicken on the way by shortening its range on the dual carriageway. You have to hold your nerve, I’ve discovered; when you get off onto back roads, you get 10 to 15 miles back with regenerative braking. But doing that when you’re still miles from your bed isn’t exactly a fun way to spend a Tuesday night.
Wednesday, 1.26pm Newington Road, Newcastle
The A1 has been kind, and we’ve covered the 96 miles between Leeds and Newcastle with 14 to spare. Time for a hitch. We fire up the laptop and look up an elektrobay in nearby Gateshead: the Metrocentre shopping mecca. More coffee and bargain hunting, then. Marvellous.
We left Gateshead at 9pm with 85 miles’ available range, and 75 to Dumfries. But climbing over the Dales decimated the Mini’s batteries. So we limped into Carlisle with five miles to play with.
No choice but to wait until 1am and, with 39 miles available, set out once more. Before we’ve had time to take a deep breath, however, the range predictor hits zero again. Eventually we arrive in Dumfries, as relieved as marathon runners that the day is over. Turns out EVs have reserve tanks too.
Thursday, 2.48pm Harry Fairbairn Mini, Glasgow
The end of the line. There are no more public charging points north of here. We’ve done 578 miles in a little over 74 hours, averaging less than 10mph. We’ve proven that, as slow and nerve-jangling as it is, travelling long distances in an electric car in the UK is at least possible in 2010. I wouldn’t recommend our journey, but 10 years ago I wouldn’t even have contemplated it. And as battery technology and charging infrastructure improves, it can only get easier.
And then we leave the Mini with Glasgow’s local dealer, and get a plane and a taxi back to Autocar HQ. When we arrive, our Mercedes E350 CDI long-termer is waiting to convey us the few miles home. For those few miles, for the first time in days, I can drive without worrying about how much energy I’m using, or whether we’ll get where we’re going. It’s a blissful reminder of why we buy cars: not just as a means to an end, but because we want to enjoy the journey.
Electric vehicles like the Mini E have a way to go before they can deliver on that front. But I’m sure that eventually – just as we did – they’ll get to where they’re going.