The Jaguar I-Pace made it from Joburg to Durban and back on electric power only. Picture: DENIS DROPPA
The Jaguar I-Pace made it from Joburg to Durban and back on electric power only. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

A few days before the SA Fuel Economy Tour took place last week to find the country’s most fuel-efficient cars, we undertook an economy tour of a different kind by driving an electric car from Joburg to Durban and back, without using a drop of fuel.

The fact that Electric Vehicles (EVs) are the future is being bombarded at us from almost every automotive quarter, and while many people might see this as some far-off eventuality for our grandchildren, for early adopters that future has already arrived.

The Jaguar I-Pace luxury SUV recently became the third fully-electric vehicle to go on sale in SA after the Nissan Leaf and BMW i3. The handful of early adopters who bought the Leaf and i3 were content to use them as short-hop city commuters but Jaguar changed the game, first by the I-Pace having a much longer range than those cars, and second by installing a nationwide charging network.

Jaguar Land Rover SA, in conjunction with a company called Grid Cars, has set up the Powerway, a series of charging stations along the N3 between Gauteng and Durban and the N1 between Gauteng and Cape Town. The majority are 60kWh DC fast chargers, which take about 20 minutes to charge an EV with 100km of range.

I-Pace owners use an RFID card to activate the charging station and manage electricity billing to the cars. Cards can be credited with EFT payments, much like cellphone airtime top-ups.

From its 400km-plus urban range it’s clear that the Jaguar I-Pace can be comfortably used as a daily commuter. People with a daily round trip of less than 80km can drive it all week without recharging it. When it does need Eskom, it takes about 12 hours to fully charge at a R25,000 wall box that you can optionally have installed at your home, or about 48 hours at a regular wall socket.

It took between 90 minutes and two hours to charge the vehicle to full at the Harrismith DC charging station. Picture: DENIS DROPPA
It took between 90 minutes and two hours to charge the vehicle to full at the Harrismith DC charging station. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

For urban driving and longer weekend jaunts, range anxiety is truly a non-issue for those who choose this R1.7m electric Jaguar as their daily vehicle.

We undertook the Jozi-Durban journey to test whether the I-Pace also makes the grade as a long-distance holiday car, and to test the newly installed charging network.

Along the Johannesburg-Durban N3 route there are just two charging stations, and our mission was to try to make the trip by only using the Harrismith one without having to make an additional stop at the Pietermaritzburg station. And we wanted to drive at a realistic pace, sticking to the speed limit.

It was with some trepidation that we left Gauteng’s urban confines and headed south, keeping an eagle eye on the range meter. Though the 270km trip was a lot shorter than the Jaguar’s quoted range, open-road driving drains an EV’s battery a lot quicker than stop-start town driving. This is because energy is regenerated to charge the batteries as soon as you touch the brake or lift off the throttle, which happens a lot more in urban commuting than on the freeway.

We needn’t have worried. Driving in Economy mode (which gives a longer range than the Comfort and Dynamic settings) and mostly at the 120km/h speed limit (though I chickened out a few times and slowed down to about 100km/h), the Jaguar reached Harrismith’s Bergview One Stop with a comfortable 79km of range remaining.

We found the Jaguar charging box in the parking lot, plugged in the car and tapped the RFID card on the box to get it started. The car’s display showed it would take just under 90 minutes to charge to full. We had a leisurely breakfast and, as promised, the car was fully charged in an hour and a half.

It cost R400 to top up the car at the fast charger, which is about the same amount it would cost to fill a diesel SUV for a similar range, and slightly cheaper than filling a petrol SUV. Charging the vehicle at home is where you’ll save money on running costs, as normal Eskom rates apply at an electricity price of about R40 per 100km. That’s about a quarter of the price of a petrol-powered SUV.

You tend to spend a lot of time glancing at the digital readout on a long trip. Picture: DENIS DROPPA
You tend to spend a lot of time glancing at the digital readout on a long trip. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

Next came the more challenging part of the journey, as the leg from Harrismith to Umdloti just north of Durban was 320km. We wanted to make it in one go as we felt that many people won’t mind a single 90-minute stop on their Jozi-Durban trip, but a second stop in Pietermaritzburg would be more of a deal-breaker in terms of using the I-Pace as a holiday car.

Gravity was our friend on this leg, as the long descents of Van Reenen’s Pass and the steep downhills just before Pietermaritzburg allowed a lot of off-throttle driving that regenerated the battery. We arrived in Umdloti with 80km of range remaining, easy peasy.

We plugged the car into the wall socket at the guest house we stayed in, and it was fully charged “for free” when we left two days later. There was a fast charger at Umhlanga’s Gateway shopping centre close by had we needed it.

The uphill trip back to Jozi was more of a battery-draining affair than the drive down. Early into the journey it was obvious that we needed to stop in Pietermaritzburg for a quick charge or we wouldn’t make it to Harrismith — only to find that the charging station at the Pietermaritzburg Jaguar dealer wasn’t working.

We tried the charging point at the nearby BMW dealer — guided there by the Grid Cars website which shows where all the country’s charging stations are — but to no avail. Though the cable sockets at the BMW charger were compatible with the Jaguar, you need a BMW card to activate it.

With no other charging stations along the way (Grid Cars subsequently told us the Pietermaritzburg charger would be back online soon, with additional stations to be set up in Villiers and Mooi River before the festive season), our only option was to try to make it to Harrismith by driving slowly.

Here followed the most nerve-racking part of the journey as we climbed the seemingly endless hills out of KwaZulu-Natal, our spirits draining in step with the batteries as the dreaded digital display showed the car’s range dropping below that of the remaining distance to Harrismith.

I dropped the speed to 70km/h at times in a bid to swing the equation back in our favour. After a nervous few hours of light-footed driving, sweating, and a bit of praying, we limped into Harrismith with 6km of remaining range.

This time it took two hours to fully charge the car, by which time our nerves were calmed with the help of a long lunch, and the last 270km leg to Jozi was a breeze as it was mostly flat roads.

Conclusion: You can use the Jaguar I-Pace as a holiday car, but you wouldn’t necessarily want to. I enjoyed the trip down because of the more relaxed, stop-and-smell-the-flowers frame of mind the mandatory 90 minute stop put me into — instead of the usual just-get-there-asap mindset.

But the return journey with its uphills is a downer, if you excuse the oxymoron.

Even if the Pietermaritzburg charger had been working, a two-stop trip from Durban to Joburg might test anyone’s patience, and you really don’t want to try the slow-driving, will-we-make-it-or-not nail-biter.

EVs are the future, and the I-Pace is a terrific daily driver with heaps of silent power and low running costs. But for now, until they squeeze a bit more range out of EVs, using them as holiday vehicles remains a challenge.