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Electric cars take centre stage at Singapore Motorshow

Car makers are launching more electric vehicles here, but are Singapore drivers ready to charge into the future?

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The MG ZS EV, a five-seat crossover with a 141 horsepower motor and a lithium-ion battery that can deliver around 335km on a single charge, is now the most affordable electric car in Singapore.

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The Volvo S60 Recharge can cruise along silently on battery power for around 40km before needing a top-up, but its 2.0-litre turbocharged engine lets it carry on.

Singapore

MOTOR shows are meant to offer a glimpse of the future, and this weekend's Singapore Motorshow suggests that electricity is set to play an increasingly prominent role on local roads.

"Drivers are now more aware of alternative powertrains and are more willing to explore. Many are starting to view buying an energy-efficient vehicle as both a financially and socially-responsible decision," said Glenn Tan, president of the Motor Traders Association.

Several brands launched fully-electric cars or plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) at the Suntec Singapore Convention & Exhibition Centre yesterday, and if buyers fail to take a shine to electric vehicles (EVs), it won't be for a lack of choice.

English brand MG's relaunch here lowers the entry price for full-electric drive to S$131,888 with certificate of entitlement. Its ZS EV, a five-seat crossover with a 141 horsepower motor and a lithium-ion battery that can deliver around 335km on a single charge, is now the most affordable electric car in Singapore.

The brand, which is owned by China's SAIC Motor Corporation, also showcased the Roewe Ei5 at Suntec, an electric station wagon that will be sold as the MG5 SW EV here later this year.

BYD, the battery specialist backed by billionaire investor Warren Buffet, showcased the Song Max, a seven-seat people carrier.

Hyundai launched a revamped version of its Ioniq Electric with a new lithium-ion battery that packs more power than before, allowing it to reach 311km.

At the plusher end of the market, Audi launched its e-tron, a mid-sized SUV that sells for S$367,500 with COE.

While the Motorshow gave car dealers the chance to put their EVs in the spotlight, the rest of the year will see even more battery-powered cars enter the market. Mercedes-Benz intends to launch the EQC, a direct rival to the Audi e-tron, and Eurokars Group is planning to offer the Mazda MX-30 and Mini Electric here this year, along with the Porsche Taycan.

Yet, while car makers seem eager to push EVs here, they may be overlooking one reality of the Singapore market: electric cars are still unpopular here. Figures from the Land Transport Authority show that there were 1,112 EVs on the road here, as at the end of November. That's a sharp increase from 560 electric cars at the end of 2018, but is still a tiny proportion compared to the car population of 630,307.

It implies that EVs account for around 1 per cent of car sales here, compared to just under 2 per cent around the world.

Yet, that hasn't stopped some car dealers from trying. "The future for mobility is zero-emission and that message has become even more critical now. Adoption for electric cars will eventually come, and Hyundai has been at the forefront driving the sustainable motion with full electric and fuel cell electric," said Teo Hock Seng, executive chairman of Komoco Motors, which imports Hyundai's cars here.

At the motor show, Komoco hosted a dialogue session for key industry players to discuss ways to speed up sustainable motoring. "The longstanding bottleneck to EV adoption in Singapore has been the lack of charging infrastructure," Goh Chee Kiong, head of strategic development at electricity grid operator SP Group said at the session.

He reiterated SP Group's goal of building 1,000 charging points for EVs around the island by the end of this year, and announced that the company would give one month's free charging to buyers of EVs during the motor show.

But one possible workaround against driver anxiety about driving range and charging availability is to offer cars that are less reliant on a charging network.

Volvo launched two PHEVs at the Singapore Motorshow, the S60 Recharge and XC60 Recharge. Plug-in hybrids have enough battery range for around a day's worth of electric driving, with a conventional engine for added power and longer distance journeys.

The Volvo S60 Recharge can cruise along silently on battery power for around 40km before needing a top-up, but its 2.0-litre turbocharged engine lets it carry on. Both the motor and engine can work together to drive the car, giving it the ability to dash to 100km/h in a sports car-rivalling 4.4 seconds.

In standard fuel economy tests, it sips just 2 litres of petrol every 100km, half of what even the most efficient combustion cars consume.

Volvo hopes that 20 per cent of the 800,000 cars it plans to sell this year will be plug-in hybrids, said Hans Hygrell, the Swedish brand's market area director, Region Asia Pacific. Like many car makers, Volvo sees plug-ins as a bridge to full electric cars. The PHEV versions of the S60 and XC60 offer drivers the chance to experience some electric drive without fear of getting stuck by the roadside with an empty battery.

"I would say that until the infrastructure for EVs gets broader and more viable, maybe at this current stage it's still a little bit difficult for EVs," said Sabrina Sng, the managing director for Volvo at Wearnes Automotive.

One car brand's novel spin on electric drive removes the need for recharging altogether. Nissan's E-Power system takes the motor of an EV and pairs it with an on-board generator that runs on petrol. The result is cars that feel like EVs to drive but never need to be plugged in because they effectively carry their own charging station around.

Though the E-Power cars still run on petrol, they use less fuel than comparable cars because of electric drive's latent efficiency.

Nissan currently sells the Serena E-Power, a seven-seat people carrier, but announced at the Motorshow that it plans to offer two more E-Power models. The next is a compact crossover, which will be followed by the Note E-Power, a hatchback whose efficiency helped propel it to best-seller status in Japan.

Drivers enjoy the immediate response that the electric motor gives in the Serena E-Power, said Glenn Tan, who is also deputy chairman and managing director of Nissan importer Tan Chong International. ''They like the drivability and the fuel economy,'' he told The Business Times. He said that customers have reported being able to cover more than 1,000km on a single tank of fuel.

Mr Tan personally championed the E-Power system within Tan Chong, but believes the switch to electric cars will be a gradual one in Singapore. ''I think the infrastructure is definitely the challenge,'' he said.

Even the more bullish EV proponents accept that the switch will not be an overnight one. ''It will take time and incentives to convert car owners to adopt electric cars but it is changing, slowly and surely,'' said Komoco's Mr Teo. ''With a bigger network of chargers this year, finding a charger and adapting to charging habits will no longer be the major drawback. The real challenge is mindset.''

He said that Komoco aims to offer a wide range of EVs at different price points with different features, to cater to as many potential buyers as possible. The EVs themselves could do the rest. ''Once people understand and start to reap the benefits of electric cars, they will be your best ambassadors for sustainability,'' he said.