Hybrid vehicles have come a long way since they went mainstream with the very successful Toyota Prius. Now in its fourth generation, featuring an 8.8 kWh battery, the Prius Prime/Plug-In Hybrid is good for an all-electric range of about 40 km. This is a big jump from the earlier generation Priuses that featured a traction battery pack of approximately 1.3 kWh that would give you maybe 4 km of all-electric range at low speeds before the gas engine kicked in.
One of the main stumbling blocks to EV adoption in this part of the world apart from the cost of new electric vehicles (EVs) is the lack of knowledge on EVs. The biggest fear amongst the people who can potentially afford brand new EVs is range anxiety coupled with the fact that, outside South Africa, the public charging infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa is not yet widely developed. The new generation of German luxury plug-in hybrid SUVs with impressive real-world electric range could be perfect to bridge the gap in the transition to full electromobility. The new BMW X5 xDrive45e comes with a 24 kWh battery pack that’s good for a range of about 80 km, impressive for an SUV of its size. To put that into perspective, the first-generation all-electric Nissan Leaf had a 24 kWh battery. Most people’s urban daily round trip commutes are circa 30–40 km. In city driving cycles, it’s quite possible to get about without bothering the 3 litre petrol-based system incorporated in the X5 xDrive45e. Compared with the 3 litre diesel options, the benefits from the fuel savings quite easily justify upgrading from a diesel model to the PHEV.
The X5 xDrive45e’s impressive range is also perfect for some of the popular commutes to satellite towns, such as the 70 km Harare-Marondera (Zimbabwe), the 66 km Pretoria-Johannesburg (South Africa), the 90 km Nairobi-Naivasha, and the 45 km Nairobi to Thika (Kenya).
Commuters can enjoy the electric drive with minimal assistance from the partner gasoline engine for most of the journey, depending on their speed and driving style. For an all-day stay, commuters can even top up the battery again whilst the vehicles are parked and head back later enjoying the electric drive. This will certainly get drivers to familiarize themselves and get comfortable with plug-in EVs without the fear of being stranded on the highway, since they know they have a tank of something they are more familiar with as backup. As they get more comfortable with their PHEV, they will probably drive in electric mode most of the time, leaving the gas engine for occasional long road trips.
The beauty of it is aesthetically the PHEV and the full fossil fuel vehicles look very much alike. This will give comfort to some purists who may not be happy with previous electric vehicles that looked very different from the other models in the lineup. The futuristic BMW i3 comes to mind. It’s been quite successful. Though, some still would have liked an all-electric BMW that looks more like the “normal” 3 Series, 5 Series, or 7 Series.
Mercedes does even better with its GLE PHEV. The GLE 350 de 4Matic has an impressive 31.2 kWh battery pack that’s good for about 100 km and equipped with DC fast charging capability that supports a maximum DC charge rate of 60 kW. The battery can be charged in approximately 20 minutes from a 10–80% state of charge (SoC). It has an impressive top speed of 160 km/h under electric power and 210 km/h overall. The fact that it can go all the way up to 160 km/h under electric propulsion is great given that the speed limit in most of these countries is circa 120 km/h, meaning most of the popular commutes highlighted above can be navigated in 100% electric drive. The GLE 350 de 4Matic’s weighted fuel consumption is listed as 1.1 l/100 km with weighted CO2 emissions of 29 g/km. The weighted power consumption is stated as 25.4 kWh/100 km. The 31.2 kWh battery pack is larger than a lot of full battery electric vehicles on the market and not too far off some popular full battery electric models such as the VW e-Golf at 35.8 kWh. Mercedes really took advantage of the vehicle’s size to fit in a decent battery pack. Under the EQ Power Label, the Mercedes GLE 350 de 4Matic is a PHEV that maybe even some of the purest of EV fans may accept as a good compromise/stepping stone to full electromobility.
Mercedes and BMW already have an existing network of partners and dealerships in many countries in Africa. This presence makes it easier for these models to reach Africa giving them an advantage over many of the other new energy vehicle manufacturers. PHEVs are more likely to be available on the market in large numbers as compared to full EVs, and these two models can be game changers in the African market by helping to change mindsets and play a crucial role in the transition. The GLE 350 de 4Matic and the X5 xDrive45e are already available in South Africa, with some decent sales as of Dec 2019 (12 and 31 sold, respectively). They could help hold the fort whilst South Africa waits for the Mercedes EQC, the BMW iX3, and the Audi e-tron. We certainly hope dealers across the continent such as Inchcape and DT Dobie in Kenya as well as Quest Motor Corporation and Zimoco in Zimbabwe start to actively promote the new generation of hybrids and push hard to bring the full electric models from the German brands to this part of the world.
So, who are some of the potential buyers of these new-generation German PHEVs that could really make a difference and influence EV adoption in Africa? Government departments! Some African governments face a lot of criticism for prioritizing purchases of luxury German vehicles for their ministers and other government departments over more critical issues. Their love for these German brands, however, means they are not about to stop buying these German luxury vehicles anytime soon. So, if they are going to keep buying Mercedes and BMW vehicles, they might as well buy electrified models. As users of electrified vehicles, it may incentivize them to formulate pro-EV policies across the continent to the benefit of their constituents. They will also be jolted into action to install charging stations at government facilities, offices, and other public places, building a charging network that can be opened to the public visiting these facilities. This could also encourage other workers at those facilities as well as other users to also buy electric vehicles. Most of these cars are often replaced after 3 or so years or after a certain mileage, whichever comes first. Some of these vehicles then find themselves on the used vehicle market when the government officials receive their upgrades, which can be a positive in this case since the inventory of electrified vehicles on the market will grow. The vehicles will now be available at a price point more palatable for another tier of potential buyers.
Another potential market would be hotels resorts and their shuttle service providers, including car rental service fleet operators. These usually shuttle their guests from airports to shopping malls and business meetings. They could install destination chargers at their hotels and at airports to charge the vehicles in between trips.
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