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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

BusinessJuly 5, 2022

The great electric car conundrum

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Rising petrol prices have many wondering if now is the time to go electric. But even at $3 a litre, one expert suggests it might be better to hold off.

What’s your tipping point? Is it $3.50 a litre? $4? An unthinkable $5? At some point, New Zealand’s record-breaking petrol prices force each of us to face a future that doesn’t involve petrol. Yet, with rising inflation and grocery prices pushing up the cost of living, upgrading a vehicle isn’t a realistic option for many. “I would love an EV, but I can’t afford one and don’t see that happening anytime soon,” says Stewart Sowman-Lund, The Spinoff’s live updates editor and resident petrol price watchdog. “For now, I’m destined to keep throwing hundreds of dollars at my shitbox petrol car until the government steps in and intervenes further to bring petrol prices back down below the $3 mark.”

That doesn’t look like it’s going to happen anytime soon. Petrol is making people angry. Ridiculous things are happening. A weekend convoy formed as angry drivers drove their cars in protest. A pointless petition has been started by one Dannevirke resident. Log jams of drivers at petrol stations are predicted when the $0.25c tax break ends in August, reports Stuff. Then there’s this: over the weekend, my local West Auckland petrol station didn’t even bother posting the price of 91 to customers. Are prices really so bad they won’t tell us what they are?

Petrol prices in West Auckland: 91 to infinity. (Photo: Arlo Schulz)

By now, you know your options. You can walk or cycle more often. You can grin and bear it. (Some appear to be turning to crime.) Or, if you can afford it, you can upgrade your car. Tesla. Mitsubishi. Nissan. Toyota. Lexus. BMW. All of these brands offer vehicles that can get you from A to B and C using far less petrol, or no petrol at all. We’re talking about electric vehicles, both hybrids (a petrol-powered vehicle with bonus battery power for savings), PHEVs (plug-in EVs that have both petrol and electric options) and full EVs. It’s the future: to cut emissions, the government wants 30% of the country’s light vehicle fleet electrified by 2035. Sooner or later, everyone’s going to have to get one.

Yet, like Stewart says, electric vehicles aren’t cheap. Even with the maximum clean car rebate of $8625, a brand new electric vehicle could set you back $50,000 or more. If you’re looking at second-hand options, electric vehicles hold their value. Another workmate told me she recently purchased a second-hand 2017 Leaf for $17,500 (minus the discount of $3,450). Pro: it gets her around 120km per charge. Con: she’ll never take it out of Auckland because she suffers range anxiety. She’s kept her petrol car that’s more than a decade old and has a one-star safety rating for those trips.

If you’re making yourself a pros and cons list yourself, no one would blame you. But, here in 2022, it probably still looks a little light on the pros, and heavy on the cons.

  • Pros: Big petrol savings, low carbon emissions, cool car, smug factor.
  • Cons: Expensive initial outlay, range anxiety, import wait times can be ridiculous, increased power bills at home, most charging stations suck.

But there’s another factor at play. Is electric vehicle technology good enough yet to warrant getting one? “I’m keeping my vehicle for three years and then I’m moving to some form of electrical,” says Terry Collins. He’s the principal policy advisor for the AA, and as you’d expect, he’s done his own research. In three years time, he believes EV battery power will be greatly improved, even competing with a full tank of petrol for range. “Price parity is going to hit around the middle of this decade … They’ll be a lot better car in three years than what they are today.”

You can see that change happening already in Mitsubishi’s Outlander Phev, a popular family car in Aotearoa that, if you purchased the 2020 or 2021 model, would get you about 50-odd kilometres of electric travel before the engine flipped over to petrol. But those that waited to purchase the 2022 model received a car with upgraded battery power that gets them around 85 kilometres before turning to petrol. That’s a vast improvement in just 12 months.

Even if you want one now, getting your hands on an EV can be difficult, with wait times of a year or more reported by several car brands. “We’re saying to customers, you’re into the first quarter of next year,” says Andrew Davis, Toyota New Zealand’s general manager. He’s got a waitlist of 1,000 people wanting a new Lexus, Toyota’s brand of luxury electric vehicle that comes in a range of models one of which will get you 350 kilometres on a single charge. “We’re having to talk to customers really early. You have to think about your next one now, because we might not be able to supply it for a year.”

So, should you take the plunge? Don Rowe recently toured the country in a high-end BMW EV to file regular reports out on the road. It was a fascinating trip that took in characters from around Aotearoa, so I asked him that question. “I think the technology and charging infrastructure is at a point where EVs are a vastly superior option, but it is far from a panacea for those most vulnerable to high fuel prices,” Don says. “Recommending whānau purchase an EV when they can barely fill their tank is ridiculous. Cheap charging costs are irrelevant if you don’t have the capital to upgrade in the first place.”

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