If you listen to some of the old boys out there, you could be forgiven for thinking that the only things that matter in a car are that it goes fast, handles well and looks good. More power, is the cry. You’d think that, of course, until you got in one of the powerful vehicles in question and filled it up with petrol. Every 10 miles. At £150 a tank.
The point is, the modern car is a completely different animal from its predecessor. Economy and environmental impact are just as much in the minds of a car buyer, or a car user, as the badge on the bonnet.
When you’re sitting in a Heath row taxi on the way to the world’s busiest airport (or what feels like it, anyway), have a look around. Look at the car you’re sitting in, and the badges on the backs of the cars you can see out of the window. Plenty of those vehicles sitting in the inevitable M4/M25 traffic jam are hybrids – that is, they can use electricity to power them as well as fuel. Or they may have some kind of economy drive, which aims to reduce fuel consumption in specified driving conditions.
Electric power works surprisingly well, for small cars – allowing vehicles to develop normal top speeds and run without emission for a round trip of roughly – well, a lot less than a trip around the M25. So this is the rub. When you run on electricity, you can only make very short trips – to the shops and back, or over to see a friend in the next travel zone – before you have to recharge.
Which takes all night.
Obviously, hybrid vehicles run on petrol or diesel as well. So as long as you have juice in the tank, you aren’t stuck in the middle of nowhere. But the point is, you can never really go on electric alone for much of a drive outside a 50 mile radius of your house, because you have to come back and recharge at your own personal charging station.
Oh yes, that’s the other thing. You need to get a charging station fitted in order to recharge an electric car. That costs money of course – as does all the power you use when you actually charge it up again.
The actual environmental cost of a hybrid car is very hard to calculate. What you have to look at is where the electricity with which the car is charged is actually coming from. For example, if you get your electricity from a coal fired power station, and you put that electricity into a hybrid car, the amount of emissions you haven’t made by using the battery instead of the combustion engine are probably offset by the emissions the power station made when it created the juice in the first place.
Miles per gallon is a big deal at the moment, and rightly so with petrol prices going up apparently indefinitely. Volkswagen has just announced the creation of a concept car capable of doing more than 200 miles to one gallon of petrol. What it has yet to announce is when the car will go into production and how much it will cost.
This is the thing, of course. Saving energy and improving fuel consumption are great things. But we still have to pay for it.
Manchester Tate is a car journalist. Click here for more information.