Still waiting for a game changer: Eight years of electric cars in SA

A quick recap of the evolution of the country's e-car industry

26 July 2020 - 00:00
By AND Brenwin Naidu
BMW's ActiveE-1.
Image: Supplied BMW's ActiveE-1.

Veteran automotive scribblers may recall firsts such as automobiles that did not require a crank to start. Decades from now, millennial pen-wielders like myself might be asked to comment on the evolution of the electric vehicle in our market.

For me, it all started in 2013, when BMW brought two of its trial vehicles to local shores for a demonstration. We had a turn in the ActiveE-1 and MiniE models, the former based on the E88 1-Series and the latter on the R56-generation Mini Cooper.

The littler of the pair was hugely compromised, with its battery occupying most of the rear, where seats and cargo space would usually be. It took ages to charge and the real-world range was only good for a trip to work and back. Obvious reservations around charging infrastructure were expressed — in addition to those warranted criticisms of the national energy parastatal and its inability to keep the lights on. No change there.

But the gist of the technology sparked genuine excitement.

In November that year Nissan was the first brand to sell an electric vehicle in SA. It was not cheap, of course. At the time, it had an asking price of R446,000. For perspective, the Volkswagen Golf 7 GTI retailed for around R368,300 then.

The Audi E-Tron.
Image: Supplied The Audi E-Tron.
The Nissan Leaf.
Image: Supplied The Nissan Leaf.

In March, two years later, BMW dropped its egg-shaped i3, rich in carbon-fibre, replete with novelties such as suicide doors (hinged at its rear rather than the front) and a kitsch interior employing organic, earth-derived materials.

Perhaps it was telling that Nicky Oppenheimer was the first i3 customer in the land, a shopper with the wherewithal to buy into the pricey charms of the progressive Bavarian.

At the end of 2018 Audi invited us to report on its E-Tron sport-utility vehicle in Dubai. Imbued with the solidity and build quality expected of the brand, the model ushered in other nifty digital tricks, such as cameras in place of conventional side mirrors.

Nicky Oppenheimer, left, who bought the first BMW i3 in SA, with Tim Abbott, MD of BMW Group SA, and Antonio Antela Martinez, director of sales and marketing.
Image: Supplied Nicky Oppenheimer, left, who bought the first BMW i3 in SA, with Tim Abbott, MD of BMW Group SA, and Antonio Antela Martinez, director of sales and marketing.
The Jaguar I-Pace.
Image: Supplied The Jaguar I-Pace.

Although the company planned to bring it to market in 2019, delays saw the excitement grow cold. Jaguar beat them to it, releasing their I-Pace. At great expense, the manufacturer also established a network of charging points across major national routes to enable cross-country travel.

But again, hefty outlay was one of the factors counting against it. What we need is a democratisation of the electric car. A game-changer from a mainstream brand to make the technology more accessible.

The Volkswagen ID. 3 looks like a good candidate to lead such a charge, but with Covid-19 having thrown the brakes on most launch timelines, it might be a while before the electric revolt kicks off again. Stay tuned.