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Road trip in an electric car in South Africa – Preparation is key

A road trip in an electric vehicle (EV) is possible in South Africa, but it requires more preparation than usual.

This past weekend the battery-electric Volvo XC40 P6 Recharge took us from Pretoria to Sun City, a 160km trip in one direction.

While just over 300km of highway driving can hardly be called a road trip, it’s enough to provide more insight into the current benefits and limitations of EVs in our country.

What happened

In a perfect world, you’ll always start each lengthy trip with 100% in the battery and a network of plugs along your route, ensuring effortless driving with only the occasional charge while you grab a bite to eat.

This might be possible over the holidays and if you take one of the main arteries that run either East or South of Gauteng where charging points are, relatively, abundant.

When going North or West, proper planning is in order, and if you have a busy day, even more so.

It just so happened that this was the situation I was placed in.

A trip to one of the many car events around the country meant that on Thursday morning the Volvo was my main mode of transportation to the airport.

This would not have been a problem had it been possible to charge the EV there, but leaving it on a plug for over 24 hours is not only inadvisable, but I doubt OR Tambo security would’ve looked kindly on this.

After a delayed flight on Friday afternoon I was back in the Volvo at 16h00 sharp, and we now had to get back to the outskirts of Pretoria East, find a place to charge for at least 30 minutes, and still reach Sun City before it gets too late.

Needless to say, traffic at this time on a Friday afternoon was abhorrent and a good hour and a half later, I reached home with no charging station visited as I now had to make up for lost time.

I left the Volvo for 30 minutes on a standard three-pin wall outlet adding a near-negligible amount of power, and the trip eventually started with 70% in the tank.

There were two locations to charge at on the way to our destination, one in the Hartbeespoort area and another in Rustenburg, but both were out of the way by at least 30km in one direction and we were already behind schedule, so a two-hour detour for any meaningful range replenishment was not on the cards.

As we all know by now, a battery-electric car’s maximum range is also rarely the actual distance it will go, and it’s even more diminished on the open road as this is where an EV is at its least efficient.

As such, the 260km available range displayed on the screen was, in reality, far less, and I would be lying if I said it wasn’t slightly unnerving.

We hit the road and in terms of the actual driving experience it was easy to overtake with the electric torque, the boot swallowed two passengers’ luggage effortlessly, and the Volvo’s many assistance features did some of the concentration for me, so there were no issues here.

We arrived at Sun City just over two hours later with 12% and 45km remaining, and no knowledge of any nearby charging stations.

Since the resort did not list its charging points on GridCars’ live map (I later found out you can find them on Volvo’s built-in PlugShare app) I took the emergency charging cable to the front desk to find out where the EV could possibly be plugged into a wall as the closest GridCars charger is in Rustenburg, over 50km away.

Luckily, the employee pointed me to the parking garage right outside where four 11kW plugs had recently been installed. On this cable, the P6 with its 69kWh module took nine hours to get to full again.

On the way back, the journey started at 100% and with no prior responsibilities.

With a fresh sense of optimism, the range optimizer switched on, and a maximum range of 320km on tap, we tackled the open road with cruise control and climate control active nearly all the way.

At home, the battery level read 41% and it still had approximately 110km inside it, suggesting that the airconditioning and consistently high speeds of the freeway consumed about 50km by themselves.

The good and the bad

This short road trip in the battery-powered Volvo highlighted the shortcomings EVs are still subject to in South Africa.

The 320km route would not have been possible with one “tank” even though the XC40 boasts a maximum range of 423km, as it used 58% on the way there and 59% on the way back.

In the event that the destination did not have chargers, it would also have been roughly 60km to get to the next closest plug, while there were multiple filling stations in between.

This means for any trip, say, above 250km and not on a main route, you’ll need to do robust route planning to ensure that you do have a place to charge.

One advantage to this adventure, though, is that the electric Volvo was far cheaper to travel with than an ICE one.

To add at least the 60% that’s needed for one direction at domestic rates of around R2/kWh would have cost roughly R83, and charging at Sun City was free – something you won’t get at any fuel station.

Therefore, in my unique experience, the amount spent on “fuel” for the entire trip was cheaper than the Steers I got on the way.

In the event that I did end up using a GridCars station that asks on average R5.88/kWh, putting in another 60% to get back would have been R243, resulting in a hypothetical trip cost of approximately R326.

Assuming you were in a petrol XC40 with equivalent performance at a consumption rating of 7.7l/100km, doing 320km at inland petrol 95 prices of R22.36 per litre would have totaled at least R551 – R225 more than in the EV.

For city driving where EVs perform best, I would personally prefer to swap my petrol-burning hatchback for an emissions-free XC40 any day of the week; but for the long road it’s still the other way around, at least for now.

Volvo XC40 P6 Recharge

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