VROOM WITH A VIEW
Mini SE proves that demand for electric vehicles will soon be an African reality
Many major car makers — including those in South Africa — may have miscalculated the demand for electric mobility.
Amid the usual flurry of press releases in my inbox, one caught my eye, from Volvo South Africa. Volvo is a small player in the South African and African industry, so news that it had grown market share in the premium segment from 10.7% to 12% didn’t trouble the eyebrows too much.
While I was vaguely thinking that it’s not too much of a surprise given how good the company’s current range is, I read on. The fact that Volvo attributes this success to its roll-out of electric vehicles (EVs) is interesting, and — while far from being a data point of overwhelming relevance — does suggest that wealthier South African motorists are more than just interested in electric mobility. They’re much like motorists the world over.
Global demand for EVs has completely sideswiped the major legacy manufacturers, with only Volvo and Volkswagen really ramping up production at a serious level as a percentage of output. In Australia this March, Hyundai released the Ioniq 5 EV. According to The Guardian, in six-and-a-half minutes all 109 of the electric SUVs had sold. Some 18,000 Aussies had registered their interest to buy one.
This is far from a unique tale. According to Bloomberg, global EV sales grew 103% last year, making up 13% of all passenger car sales in Q4 last year. While this is dominated by the EU and China, the fastest year-on-year growth in EV sales was recorded in India, where surging two- and three-wheeler electrification grew EV sales 209% from 2020 to 2021.
Some markets are experiencing huge penetration. Says Bloomberg, if you include plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), countries such as Norway (97%), Sweden (60%), the Netherlands (51%) and Denmark (49%) have “reached very high sales penetrations”. In Mexico, 75% of all passenger cars sold in 2021 were PHEVs.
Now, for the EV evangelists, a PHEV doesn’t count (as a petrol motor kicks in and the car runs as a standard hybrid once the battery is depleted), but my view is that people buying PHEVs are expressing an interest in reduced fuel bills and the benefits of electric mobility, without having to take that final step of trust away from petrol stations altogether.
Bloomberg’s EV status report comes at the same time as InfluenceMap – a greeny think tank that provides analysis on how business and finance are affecting climate change – is using IHS Markit data (the “industry bible”) to forecast the big car companies’ EV production planning until the end of the decade, and in many cases it simply doesn’t match the demand we’re seeing.
This has resulted in nasty headlines for Japanese manufacturers, and especially Toyota, which, the report says, is least ready for the EV transition (with plans to have just 13% of production allocated to EVs by the end of the decade), and begs difficult questions about the strategic direction of these large companies.
The InfluenceMap report is particularly interesting because it allows us to see production planning by region and by manufacturer. It’s a cool tool for auto industry geeks.
While in the EU 68% of cars built will be EVs or PHEVs by the end of the decade, here in Africa that number falls to 14%, almost all of which is due to production planning by Mercedes-Benz. I’ve seen no announcements to this effect, but the IHS data seems to suggest that Mercedes-Benz South Africa plans to introduce EV production at its East London plant in 2026. That would mean either IHS Markit or InfluenceMap is wrong, or Mercedes has had its African EV production announcement fanfare stolen by a data release.
Either way, they’re the lone African entity planning to build electric cars, and almost all for export. That means the only logical deduction is that local manufacturers for local consumption are betting that Africans and especially South Africans have no interest in buying EVs.
Well, I’m sorry but I just can’t see that as being true. As I’ve shown, the speed of adoption elsewhere in the world is eye-wateringly fast, and the hackneyed arguments about EVs being rich-world toys for the Tesla Bros just isn’t reflected in the data. The fastest growth in PHEV and EV adoption is happening in India, South America and China. China’s best-selling car of 2021 was a tiny $5,000 electric car called the Wuling Hongguang MiniEV. Electric mobility is totally normalised in China at the most basic entry level of the market.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I’ve got no data on supply and demand for EVs in this country, just anecdotal feedback, which of course is only a reflection of my real-life and digital bubbles, which is to say comparatively wealthy and urban — and in my bubble they’re all saying they want their next car to be an EV.
As much as there is always interest at the charging points at the super-smart stuff from Audi, Porsche and BMW, no EV I have driven has ever attracted as much attention as the new Mini SE I drove recently. That, I think, is because it seems like a more accessible product. At R660,000 that’s an arguable point, but with EVs still taxed like luxury goods at the border by this relentlessly bovine government, it is comparatively affordable.
The Mini SE represents another change coming in the motor industry that has yet to make a mark here. Not only is it an EV, it’s also an EV with a small battery. Its range is officially 215km but, more realistically, it’s around 180km, or even 160km if you have a lead foot and it’s cold.
For some commentators this limited range is a problem, but they’re really not paying attention. In more affordable urban EVs, batteries are likely to continue to get smaller and continue to be offered with limited range. This is because it is the most expensive component in the car and, in cities, charging infrastructure is so ubiquitous that carting about a huge and expensive battery is as silly as expecting a Polo Vivo to come with a 100-litre petrol tank.
I spent 10 days with the Mini SE, and range was categorically not an issue – and I don’t even have a charger at home. On one day my local charger was non-functional and during my time with the car we had constant load shedding and cold, wet weather, limiting the range yet further as the heaters, headlights and windscreen wipers worked away. When I stopped to grab a coffee at my local mall, or do a Pick n Pay run, I just plugged it in. Twenty minutes here; an hour there. It was never even close to being a problem for me and was no more difficult to manage than my iPhone.
Now, of course, it’s not much use for the long road, and the big batteries and diesel tanks exist in cars designed for that kind of thing, but the idea that a Mini hatch should have a giant battery pack and huge range is just absurd.
Along with its limited range, the Mini SE comes with other brand traits — such as a firm ride and go-kart handling, improved in this case by the lack of a large hunk of metal (an engine) up front and a lower centre of gravity (battery packs in the floor), making turn-in sharper and more entertaining than ever. Instant torque makes it feel distinctly quicker than its 0–100km/h sprint time of 7.5 seconds and, in any case, you don’t really need to slow down for corners.
I haven’t fielded more interest from other people for years, and it makes me wonder: have the big local manufacturers grasped that demand for electric mobility will be an African reality soon, like it is in the rest of the developing world?
I suppose time will tell. In the meantime, good luck trying to find an electric Mini. It’s the best urban car I’ve driven in years, an absolute blast to drive, cheap as chips to run and — of course — sold out. I won’t say I told you so. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.
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