For many, electric vehicles evoke memories of milk floats, mobility scooters, or even the ill-fated Sinclair C5. This is changing thanks to companies such as Tesla. Nonetheless, they remain a niche product and although mainstream manufacturers have had test vehicles for a number of years they are only just being launched on the regular market.
Take a taxi in Shenzhen, however, and you may get to ride in one of the first. Since May last year, 50 BYD e6 cars have been operating as red and white coloured taxis.
Hot on the heels of their F3DM, BYD is again showing it aims to be at the forefront of alternative energy vehicles in China, if not the world. It may well be for this reason that Warren Buffett owns 10% of the company. Furthermore, Daimler Benz beat a path to BYDâ€™s door last year to cooperate on the development of electric vehicles.
As with most of their more recent designs the e6 moves away in styling from the clones and heavily inspired earlier models. Looks are pretty unique apart from a rear end that is reminiscent of a Range Rover. And when you get up close the car is really almost SUV sized. The body sits high above the wheels, and the body is tall. A glance at the chassis shows the reason to be the bulging battery pack.
As the e6 has yet to launch on the market and what was tested has to be taken as a prototype or pre-production model it is difficult to really judge. Gaps between panels were uneven and on one side of the rear hatch was large enough to fit a whole finger in.
The interior apart from the centrally mounted digital instruments seems Spartan. However, as shown in company pictures of another prototype, the production version is likely to get a GPS system and steering wheel mounted controls. To the left of the steering wheel is the balance control for the headlamps and a hole suitable for a mobile or more likely a pack of cigarettes. In fact the whole car seems to have been designed with smokers in mind, with ashtrays in the doors.
The dash is split into a black upper and beige lower. Below the instruments are the stereo controls and a display for this and the internal temperature. Sprouting between the Power button and the climate controls is a selector for the automatic gearbox.
Between the front seats is an enclosed storage compartment with buttons to open and close the doors. However, the whole unit felt as if it could easily break free. Other plastic covers feel equally flimsy.
In the back there is good legroom and headspace. However, with your legs relatively high the position might become uncomfortable on long drives. The middle passenger has to make do with a lap restraint. For a car of its size the boot space is tiny thanks to the batteries. There are however two small compartments in it which help alleviate the problem and the seats fold down.
When you sit in the beige coloured manually adjusted leather driverâ€™s seat one of the first things youâ€™ll notice is that there are three pedals, the third being the handbrake. Press the power button and the digital instruments light up in the centre. On the right is a display showing how much battery power remains and an estimate of the range.
As can be expected on the move the car is almost silent. There is though a slight perceptible whir from the engine. Acceleration was on the sluggish side with the need to really floor the accelerator to build up speed. This though, was due to only being able to drive in the Eco mode.
Handling on a limited test around BYDâ€™s Shenzhen headquarters seemed adequate. However, due to the largely straight nature of the roads cornering was not very hard. Similarly the car gave a smooth enough ride over speed control lines and humps.
Taxi drivers in China are pretty demanding customers, working long hours. It is commendable that BYD chose them to test the car before putting it on sale. From our test it would appear that the engineering side of the car obviously works. BYD, though, plan to use this vehicle as their first into America and then Europe. Whilst difficult to measure from a car that has to be taken as a prototype it seems that BYD have some way to go.
The Nissan Leaf, which can be seen as a direct competitor, is already on sale in a number of markets. Whilst the Leaf claims only a 160km range – around half of that claimed for the e6â€™s – it appears a much more rounded proposition.
As it stands the e6 is a one trick pony; for foreign customers build quality and equipment levels have to be better. There is also currently a big question mark over the safety level of the vehicle with no official crash tests having been undertaken and only two airbags fitted.