After years of promising to save the planet from climate change and other ills, electric cars are finally coming to the market backed by an advertising campaign. Mathew Dearnaley investigates what the future holds.

After years of hype about electric cars saving the planet from global warming - and more than a century since the first models were produced - there are still only about 60 on New Zealand roads.

But Holden's multi-media advertising campaign for its extended-range electric-petrol Volt sedan, which went on sale for $85,000 on Thursday, reflects a growing commitment by the motor industry to technology it was once accused of trying to kill off.

The Government's Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority believes prices for electric cars will not stay so astronomically high for long, and has started offering public agencies loans to cover their excess over conventional vehicles if fuel savings from high usage can justify the investment.

Regardless of potential ambiguity in a marketing message from Holden, which is more commonly associated with large petrol guzzlers such as the Commodore V8, the Australian car-maker is at least pouring substantial resources into a campaign which has extended to television advertising and billboards.


It also plans a whistle-stop tour of the Volt around 22 dealerships through the country.

Yet a slogan on its billboards describing the Volt as "finally, an electric car that doesn't drive like one" has some champions of a zero-carbon motoring future fuming about what Holden is trying to say about its competitors' efforts.

"It really makes me angry," said one industry source, noting that the Volt still had a tailpipe for old-fashioned petrol emissions, for extended trips of more than 500km beyond its electric range of 56km to 87 km.

That compares with more than 100km expected in normal traffic conditions from its all-electric rivals, Mitsubishi's i-MiEV and Nissan's Leaf, which was said to have had 105km of battery charge left after leading runners around the 42.2km Auckland Marathon course without choking them with fumes.

Vehicle charging point supplier and Leaf owner Mark Yates was also taken aback by Holden's claim, saying: "It's bizarre because an electric car has lots of oomph and zip."

But he welcomed the Volt's entry to the local market - after last year's arrival of the $59,990 i-MiEV followed in July by the $69,600 Leaf - for helping to lift the public profile of electric cars.

"Having another vehicle will raise awareness among people that there are alternatives to internal combustion engine vehicles," said Mr Yates, who has driven about 12,000km in his new Leaf, one of 10 sold here in recent months out of more than 22,000 internationally.

Holden NZ corporate affairs manager Neil Waka said the billboard wording was to draw attention to the fact that the Volt had a number of attributes "that set it apart from any other electric vehicle".


"One is the ability for Volt to be driven more than 600km without stopping to recharge - no other electric vehicle has been able to achieve this long-range capability - so there is no more range anxiety [that is] associated with many electric vehicles."

Another was being able to plug the car into normal 10-amp plugs found in New Zealand homes, meaning it did not require special connections needed for charging other electric cars, although at faster rates.

Those include connections supplied by Mr Yates's company, JuicePoint, which provide power at between 13 and 16 amps to i-MiEVs and Leafs but have a charging capacity of up to 32 amps and a price of about $1500.

Although installation costs are extra, and vary with each property, the dedicated connections enable Mercury Energy to measure how much power is being drawn off its grid to qualify for a 30 per cent discount deal it is offering electric car owners for off-peak night-time charging.

Electricity suppliers see nocturnal charging through "smart" meters, reinforced by more wind-power generation, as the key to coping with large future increases in the electric vehicle fleet.

The Government has a target of increasing the 77 per cent of electricity generated from renewable sources to 90 per cent by 2025, potentially making this country's vehicle fleet among the world's cleanest-burning.

Meanwhile, Mercury is reinforcing its commitment to electric cars by ordering three Leafs for its staff pool, says a spokesman.

Mr Waka denied there was any risk of over-heating the wiring in older homes through normal plugs from the Holden Volt, an assurance accepted by the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority, and said Holden's new star would never draw off more power than could be safely obtained.

Despite the prohibitive prices of electric cars for the average driver, reflected in most sales being to companies and agencies wanting to show a commitment to sustainable practices, the authority expects them to become economically attractive to the public by about 2018 to 2020.

Transport partnerships manager Elizabeth Yeaman says that although much depends on rising oil prices against relatively static electricity tariffs, the new technology is already starting to become viable for vehicles covering long distances.

She said the authority had calculated that fuel savings on electric cars justified paying a premium of about $10,000 above the price of petrol vehicles for every 10,000 kilometres travelled a year.

Although the average distance travelled in New Zealand was 14,000km, many fleet cars clocked up more than 20,000km, meaning they were already approaching the tipping point for achieving a positive economic return.

Nissan NZ managing director John Manley acknowledged a slow sales start due to "the sheer price of the vehicles", and said he understood New Zealand and Australia were the only countries where the Leaf was sold without assistance from state subsidies or tax credits for low or zero emission cars.

The Government's only direct incentive to electric car buyers is an extension until 2020 to an exemption from road user charges.

But he was confident that as with all other new-technology products, such as mobile phones, it would not take long for costs to fall as people became more attuned to them and their customer base grew.

Mr Manley said most Leaf customers so far had been companies committed to energy and environmental sustainability as part of their corporate philosophies.

"I guess it is almost part of their marketing budget, showing they are walking the talk," he said. New Zealand's "clean, green" image was a compelling incentive for some.

"We've had inquiries from export food-producing businesses, trying to show they are protecting the environment - trying to reduce their carbon footprint."

Slow going

- 60 registered electric cars in NZ*
- 20 Mitsubishi i-MiEV (electric)
- 10 Nissan Leaf (electric)
- 3 Plug-in Toyota Prius (electric-petrol demonstration models only)
- 2 Tesla Roadsters (electric special imports)
- 25 assorted petrol cars converted to electric
* Excludes at least five Holden Volts yet to be sold
Electric car has spark

Former "petrol-head" Mark Yates wants to assure fellow motoring enthusiasts they have nothing to lose in performance by going electric.

For he has found his new Nissan Leaf all-electric car holding its own with a Holden Commodore V8 from a standing start to between 35km/h and 40km/h before the larger car pulled away.

And he says the immediate straight-line acceleration of the Leaf - compared with the curved path torque of even the most powerful petrol vehicles - lets it stay neck-in-neck with the Commodore V6 to at least 80km/h.

But he has yet to test the Leaf against Holden's own contribution to the new age of reduced emissions motoring, the $85,000 electric-petrol Volt, which had its New Zealand launch on Thursday.

The authoritative United States website has timed the Volt's acceleration at zero to 60 miles per hour (96km/h) in 9.4 seconds compared with the Leaf's 10.3 seconds.

Although those times should suffice for most drivers, neither can hold a candle to 3.7s reputedly achieved by the cream of the electric crop, the Tesla Roadster, two of which have been imported to New Zealand for around $200,000.

Mr Yates, an Auckland businessman supplying electric-car charging points to households and businesses, accepts the silence of an accelerating electric car can unnerve old-school motoring fans.

But he has a simple solution for them, courtesy of a smart-phone application which replicates the roar of a gas-guzzler and can be plugged into an electric car's internal sound system.

"I love the the silence, but if you want noise you can download an app that gives you noise," he says.

Mr Yates says he drives about 80 kilometres a day in his Leaf - well within a practical range of about 130km - for an overnight charging cost of $2.60 to $2.70 at a 30 per cent off-peak discount deal Mercury Energy intends extending to all electric car owners equipped with special meters. The cost is about five times less than running an equivalent-size petrol car.

And despite the Leaf's not insignificant price of $69,600, he is thrilled by advice from the Government's Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority that the fuel economy of electric cars should justify a $10,000 premium above that of petrol vehicles for every 10,000km travelled annually.

"That's brilliant, because I've done 12,000km in mine in about six months."