Honda Insight, Tesla Model S and BMW i8 prevail over the Mini, Daimler Double Six, Ferrari 308GTB?
Can electric cars ever be more than white goods? We drive the first wave of enthusiast-pleasing pioneers to find out if they can challenge the classic establishment.
Words JJ VOLLANS
Photography JONATHAN FLEETWOOD
Can the classic car establishment (front row: Mini, Daimler Double Six and Ferrari 308GTSi) fend off neoclassic electrics and hybrids (Honda Insight, Tesla Model S and BMW i8)? Brave new world? EVs make their case, petrol fights back
Back To The Future Classic icons take on their electric and hybrid equivalents – can theHonda Insight ,Tesla Model S andBMW i8 prevail over theMini ,Daimler Double Six and. Ferrari 308GTB. ?
PLUS – a Lotus insider on the cross-Atlantic creation of the Tesla Roadster
Electric propulsion been around for about as long as the car itself – by the turn of the century batteries powered nearly 40% of cars on America’s roads – but it’s taken rather longer for them to become a viable alternative to the modern fossil-fuelled cars we love. VW starting selling an electric Golf in 1992 while Peugeot offered a plug-in 106 just a year later – going on to shift 3542 of them. Hybrids took off around the new millennium with Toyota’s Prius. Yet it took Tesla’s lithium-ion battery breakthrough in 2008 to really give the EV market a jump start.
‘Can these sparky young upstarts possibly capture our hearts?’
The general acceptance that mankind has accelerated climate change has made these vehicles suddenly popular, but do they offer anything beyond green credentials? How do they drive, what are they like to live with and crucially, how do they compare to their internal-combustion forebears? We test hybrid, electric and plug-in takes on the city car, supercar and luxury saloon, pitting them against the four-, eight- and twelve-cylinder establishment. Do the sparky young upstarts have what it takes to capture our hearts? In the Nineties, tech was arguably most prevalent in the automotive industry, as many of the gadgets we now take for granted arrived. Satellite navigation and radar cruise control joined the party – but some were looking further ahead. Toyota launched the Prius, the world’s first mass-produced consumer hybrid vehicle. A newly climate-change-savvy public loved its low-polluting image, but were truly seduced by its running costs. It might have been as much fun behind the wheel as a milk float but thankfully Honda was working on its own hybrid…
Here I am, lover of everything from cammy straight fours to thundering V8s, advocating hybrid and electric cars as appealing alternatives. Have I lost the plot?
Tell me, is the question posed by our lead cover story as palatable as suggesting that Stock, Aitken and Waterman should rekindle the old magic and write the next Foo Fighters album, or are we all cool about the way cars are going? Setting aside the debate about how environmentally friendly electric cars really are once you take everything into account, are they simply an acceptable evolutionary step in motoring or the end of the world as we enjoy knowing it? I must confess that until governments announced the end of petrol and diesel vehicle production, I didn’t expect to see electric cars become a viable and popular solution in my lifetime. There was surely too much vested interest from users, the car and petroleum industries, along with the governments that rely on their tax revenues, to make any significant shift likely. No, electric cars seemed like so many of those futuristic inventions optimistically presented by Michael Rodd on BBC’s Tomorrow’s World, though pocket calculators, digital watches, even mobile phones seemed feasible and attractive. But cars with the aural and dynamic appeal of a milk float? Surely the planet wasn’t in that much danger. But here we are in 2022 and even hybrid cars are running out of road, while the sight of a Tesla has long-since lost its novelty value. Hybrid and electric car appeal is no longer driven just by environmental conscience and cravings for economy, the likes of the Honda Insight, Tesla Model S and BMW i8 are attractive for the same reasons we love internal combustion-propelled classics – technical intrigue, thrilling performance and seductive style, though admittedly not always in the same package. So, do they have what it takes to break through the barriers around the classic car establishment? I’d certainly be tempted by the BMW for looks alone. And – I can scarcely believe that I’m writing this out loud – even more so if it had evolved to dispense with the three-cylinder petrol engine and synthetic soundtrack in favour of a 600kW induction motor. Enjoy thinking about it.
Phil could go for a BMW i8, if it were even more electric
‘Just look at it. There was nothing on the road quite like it then and there still isn’t today’
So, volts or volatile organics? The city is perhaps where our modern contenders are most likely to score highly. Where air quality is paramount, these low-polluting machines are as welcome as a triple venti, half-sweet, non-fat caramel macchiato. Sadly, the tide of opinion in many of the UK’s urban environments seems to be turning against old cars – helped in no small part by often short-sighted and contradictory ULEZ regulation. The Insight meets Euro 4 and 5 emission standards but, because of its age, owners in London are still charged – go figure…
Beyond our ring roads, the Insight’s clever tech and great drive goes a long way toward securing its future classic credentials – it was a true pioneer, and its niche suggests great things lie ahead. But I’d still take a classic Mini every day of the week. It’s such a style icon and it never fails to provide a grininducing drive. Plus it hardly prompts eco-guilt.
In the classic luxury sports saloon segment, there’s so much choice, you can tailor a purchase to your requirements. Despite this, there’s still something special about the Daimler Double Six. It’s a masterpiece of ride, presence and power that’s rarely matched, yet time and technology has moved on. The Tesla Model S is an enormously impressive machine – especially considering it came essentially out of nowhere.
Impressive technology can be a distraction if it’s not implemented well, but underneath all that, the Tesla’s driving experience is excellent. It won me over, in spite of initial reservations. Will the Model S ever be a classic? That’s harder to ascertain because its current following lives for the next cuttingedge gadget, not yesterday’s technology. There’s also the current ubiquity to consider. Time will tell…
That just leaves us with the pinnacle of enthusiast motoring, the sports/supercar arena. Ferrari has always dominated here, understandably. The old tropes about passion and soul exist for a reason – every Ferrari is an imperfect creation, but one that’s loved because of what it gets right and how it makes its driver feel. The 308 was Ferrari’s best-seller in the classic era because it combined the firm’s greatest hits into one loud, beautiful and tremendously engaging machine. It has to bow to the BMW on both usability and ergonomics but when the mood takes you, the experience behind the 308’s wheel is transformative.
As a technical exercise, the BMW is a masterpiece, yet it builds on this with incisive handling and easily attainable performance. It’s a junior supercar that you can legitimately use daily and still take to your favourite back road or track at the weekend to explore its abilities. Finally, and we know it’s subjective, just look at it. There’s was nothing on the road quite like it then and there still isn’t today. That alone already makes it a classic, one I’d be thrilled to add to the stable.
Six very different propositions, all with their own compelling driving experiences to enjoy