My electric love is going nowhere

I was an early adopter with the G-Wiz. I know its limits

John-Paul Flintoff with his G-Wiz, photo copyright Dwayne Senior

Photo: Dwayne Senior

Even before I bought my Reva G-Wiz at the end of 2005 — before the little electric car became a byword for everything that many petrolheads find awful and ridiculous — I knew that owning and running it would be like nothing I had experienced before.

For instance, I knew that the little electric car would not go very fast — perhaps 40mph down very steep hills if I had eaten a big lunch. Nor does my G-Wiz DC go very far. When I bought it, the best I could hope for from a single charge of the batteries was 40 miles. And that was fine, because I had no plans to use it outside London.

Actually, that’s not true. I planned to make a film about driving it from John o’Groats to Land’s End, charging up on the way only after persuading complete strangers to convert to a “green” energy supply.

Alas, the television stations ultimately considered that the public was not ready for this thrilling eco-extravaganza — and every day I give thanks, because if the film had been commissioned I would probably still be trying to complete the journey today.

Though initially sceptical, my wife has more or less taken over the G-Wiz. She treats it like a skip, but she did that with all our other cars and insists she loves it. What particularly thrills her is the licence an electric car gives her to drive into Mayfair without paying London’s congestion charge, and with free parking (we also pay no road tax).

Unfortunately, though it gains points with the household budget, it loses them when it comes to comfort. Believe it or not, the tiny G-Wiz has four seats. All the same, our young daughter sits in the front, where there is more room for her legs.

Having longer legs, I’m more likely to lose them in the event of a crash (the Department for Transport found “serious safety concerns” after carrying out crash tests on a G-Wiz in 2007); even with the seat as far back as possible, my knees touch the dashboard and knock the radio off.

What’s more, being tall, I can’t see traffic lights change without craning my head forward and up in a way that might cause ergonomists to tut. When the three of us travel together, I have to fold myself up across the back seat, like Houdini preparing to astonish and amaze. I forget why my wife never has to do this, and only wish that she could feel, just once, how effectively the G-Wiz transmits the percussive force of speed bumps along my spine and through my cranium into the roof.

At the recent Bridgestone Eco-Rally, people gaped in horror when I told them I had been getting around, for the past four years, in a G-Wiz. They had driven in convoy from Brighton to London in an assortment of electric vehicles: sleek racing cars with eerily silent engines, urban runarounds in shapes and colours that marked them out as just a teeny bit peculiar, electric taxis, electric people carriers, electric vans.

The drivers included individuals with a significant stake in the future of motoring such as Chris Huhne, the energy secretary, celebrity environmentalists and an up-and-coming driver from the Williams Formula One team.

Quentin Willson, the former Top Gear presenter, has been driving an electric car for some months as part of a government-led scheme. He told me he’s been very impressed. But when I mentioned my G-Wiz, Willson’s eyes dimmed and he gave me the sorrowful smile we reserve for any early adopter whose prized possession is now outmoded. “The G-Wiz has not been the greatest advertisement for electric cars,” Willson said carefully at the pit stop in Westminster. “They should be applauded for raising people’s awareness, but the world has moved on.”

The arguments for moving to electric cars are compelling: it’s not just about reducing emissions, as Huhne told me moments later, but preparing drivers for the price shocks that will come as global oil production peaks and enters terminal decline. Electric cars are also vastly more efficient than internal combustion engines, which waste energy making useless heat.

One of the great champions of electric motoring is Dale Vince, the hippie turned zillionaire founder of Ecotricity, the wind-energy company. He has built his own electric supercar for a mere £400,000, to help reduce the research and development costs for others.

“We wanted this to be the antidote to the G-Wiz,” he told me last week rather brutally, “to the idea that electric cars are the kind of thing Noddy might turn up in.”

Vince is a powerful advocate for electric motoring, and fully possessed of facts and statistics. “In the UK we drive 150 billion miles a year,” he says, “using 24m tons of oil, or about a third of our oil imports.” He points out that most journeys are less than 15 miles, well within the range of electric cars currently available, and that 70% of British homes have access to off-street parking, making it easy to charge the batteries.

Alas, we don’t have a parking space and must charge the batteries by parking on the quiet road at the back of our house and running the lead through our garden gate. Parking there is restricted by a yellow line, so we can only do this at night, and even then only if nobody else has parked in that spot. I find a full charge takes six hours, using an ordinary domestic socket, though the official figure is eight. The lead-acid batteries need watering occasionally, using distilled water, which isn’t as easy to buy as you might think. The new version of the car — the L-ion — uses lithium-ion batteries, which require less upkeep.

As the years have passed, so the distance we can drive on a single charge of the batteries has shortened dramatically. (It also fluctuates with the seasons, because batteries perform less well in the cold.) These days, we rarely drive more than six or seven miles from home lest we run out of charge to get back. Which is fine — most of the time. The G-Wiz is made in India and imported by GoinGreen, a company that has its workshop in Southall, a suburb near Heathrow. The long drive to Southall from north London every time something needs fixing has become increasingly nerve-racking over the years — a bit like the French film The Wages of Fear, in which brave men drive lorries laden with nitroglycerine, though the danger is not so much that my G-Wiz will explode as that it will grind to a halt, in heavy traffic, miles away from a charging point.

After nearly five years it can only be a matter of time before we will have to replace the batteries. If we do it this month we can take advantage of a “special offer” that means new batteries will cost a mere £2,499. Ouch.

At the GoinGreen offices, I once saw a map of greater London with pins indicating the location of G-Wiz owners. The pins were densely clustered in prosperous zones such as Islington, Hampstead, Kensington and Clapham. Still today, if I drive into less fashionable suburbs, people stop and stare. (If they are teenagers, they laugh.)

When I park, passers-by sometimes stop to ask if I would recommend a G-Wiz. I tell the truth: that I prefer, these days, to get around on my bicycle, but that I am fond of my G-Wiz. On behalf of the electric motoring movement, I add that the G-Wiz models on sale today are better than mine — and other manufacturers claim their electric cars are better still — but that some people might not be, ahem, absolutely and entirely satisfied.