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A 'petrolhead' warms up to electric cars

Posted by Eric Thorkelsson

My first-ever trip in a car, just days after coming into this world, was in a classic MG roadster. My teenage years saw me poring over British motorsport magazines and spending more than a few weekends at Coquitlam's former sportscar track, Westwood.

I like my cars the way I like my rock 'n' roll: fast and loud. And the more horsepower, the better. So you might say I'm a bit of a petrolhead. And maybe, one day, part of a dying breed.

Thankfully, for most of us, cars aren't going anywhere soon. But the industry, and the market that drives it, is certainly changing. Not long from now we'll be seeing a new and more efficient variety of cars travelling our roads: clean diesels, hybrids, plug-in electric hybrids, as well as pure electric cars.

There's a fair chance that between now and September 16, Vancouverites on their daily commute will run into a few more than the usual number of these energy-efficient electric cars. The city, and BC Hydro, are hosts to the EV 2010 VÉ Conference and Trade Show.

My chance to drive electric

Given my history of gleefully consuming excess hydrocarbons with a flex of my right foot, I was naturally the right choice for heading down to a Media Ride & Drive to get a taste of what the future might hold.

Present at the event were the upcoming 2011 Chevrolet Volt, Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid. I chose the cute, little i-MiEV for my introduction to the world of electrified motoring, and am pleasantly surprised to report that the whole "EV thing" is now making a lot more sense to me.

From the outside, the i-MiEV may appear diminutive, but there's a surprising amount of space inside. That makes sense given that the gasoline-powered version, the Mitsubishi i, is a very popular, kei class family hatchback in Japan. Importantly, the i and its all-electric brother pass all of the same, rigorous safety testing that any other car needs to go through before they come to market.

So it's not just eco-friendly, it's safe to say it's safe too.

What's the i-MiEV like?

Step inside, sit down, buckle up, turn the key. Normally I'd be hearing four turbocharged and tuned cylinders breathing through a free-flowing and oversized exhaust. But here, I get relative silence. Little more than a slight whirring sound from the electric motor.

Pull away and the low volume is retained. The whir is slightly more pronounced, but you're more likely to hear tire or wind noise than anything else. Luckily for pedestrians and cyclists, the car is equipped with a noise-making device to warn them of its presence on the road.

Apart from the near absence of noise, the drive for most urban commuters wouldn't feel alien at all. The i-MiEV certainly wasn't anything like the golf carts a lot of people would use as a point of reference. The drive was solid, mature and never once did I feel there wasn't enough get-up-and-go to feel unsafe, or that the car simply didn't have the power to get out of its own way.

Commuting to the office, driving to the shopping mall, picking the kids up from hockey practice? Electric cars and plug-in hybrids certainly make a strong economic and environmental argument for themselves and definitely have their place – especially in a city like Vancouver where 90% of our electricity comes from clean and renewable hydroelectric sources.

For those about to rock

Of course, green commuter cars aren't where it all ends. For those of us who still like a bit of oomph, there's always the Tesla Roadster... and the 528 hp Mercedes SLS AMG E-Cell will be the dream car in posters on the bedroom walls (and PC desktops) of teenage boys the world over in no time.

And although it may be powered by electrons instead of fossilized dinosaurs, I can't end this without mentioning Plasmaboy EV Racing's 1972 Datsun 1200 based White Zombie electric dragster. If crushing the likes of Japan's legendary "Godzilla", the powerful Nissan GT-R, is what you can do with an electric car, sign me up.

Maybe the future is electric after all.

Eric Thorkelsson is a member of BC Hydro's Digital Communications team and drives his tuned Golf GTI 5,000 kilometres per year.