Contrasting Experiences of Driving Electric in Portugal

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The EV driving experience is not uniform across European countries that have electric vehicle charging infrastructure. When traveling to another country, it is therefore important to know your options and ensure your journey goes as planned. This story is about using an EV in Portugal on a daily basis. It includes two scenarios with different vehicles, and therefore it becomes a comparison of private versus public charging infrastructure in Portugal from the eyes of a visitor.

The first experience started by entering the country using the highway system through France and Spain. These trips are easy when you drive a Tesla. You just need to start the day with a reasonably high state of charge and the car will calculate the rest perfectly. At every Supercharger, the navigation system knows where I will charge next and it displays how much charge will remain upon arrival if I depart now. Therefore, there is no calculation or guessing involved, you feel very certain and relaxed about your journey. With the spacing of the chargers and the range of the vehicle, I never felt the need to drive below the speed limit either. Every Supercharger location, even the very remote ones (places like Guarda or Tordesillas look quite remote to me) has at least 8 stalls, so I never waited to charge. Charging speeds were between 130 kW and 150 kW, which meant that stops varied between 15 and 30 minutes. It is also very nice to book hotels with destination charging. It eliminates one Supercharger stop. While staying in Lisbon, the parking owner very kindly allowed me to use their electricity for a fee. The included mobile charger kit allows you to charge anywhere in Western Europe. The Tesla experience is very predictable and is very familiar by now, which I will therefore skip and get to comparing my experience with different infrastructure.

Given that COVID-19 closed down many borders and made long road trips impossible, it meant that for my next trip I had to fly into Lisbon and rent a car locally. As someone who is not used to fossil-fuel cars, I searched and found that almost no rental companies had any EVs. There is a company called Watts on Wheels, but when I tried to reserve a car for two months, the prices were far too high for that type of vehicle. … If you need a car for a couple of months, it is not financially sound to spend over €8000 to rent a Model 3. One of the legacy rental companies had a Renault Zoe ZE50, which I took because it “only” cost €900 per month to rent and came equipped with the CCS charging system.

Image courtesy of Renault.

The Renault has a decent WLTP range of 395 km, which in reality is more like 300 km. The rental company provided a universal Prio charge card that seems to work everywhere. It is very convenient indeed. On the other hand, the Renault did not come with a mobile charger. It is brand new and I checked with the desk if they forgot to include it, but they explained that the car was delivered without a mobile charger. This is somewhat unusual to me, as both Volkswagen and Tesla delivered cars with mobile chargers. Fortunately, there is a 3.6 kW public charger a 30 minute walk from my place where I can charge the car using the type 2 cable that is included.

In practice, the car never shows more than 320 km of range, which is not a big issue due to having a number of CCS chargers along the route I travel (the A2 highway to the south). The bigger issue is that you should not be in a hurry, as charging is slow. The car can charge at around 40–45 kW apparently — sometimes it needs 1½ hours to fully charge. Worse yet, you may decide to walk to a nearby restaurant and come back to find out someone interrupted your charging and started their own charging. (It was an angry Leaf driver in my case who did not understand how I could use the charger for 30 minutes. I did not understand that person, but avoided arguing even though I was quite annoyed.) Note that there is no time limit on those chargers. The only requirement is that you actually charge a car. I really needed to charge more to get to the destination. I also saw that the car had barely gained 3% before he interrupted my charging with the red emergency button. It is very strange to me as someone used to Supercharging that there are these massive red buttons on third party chargers they can just use to stop your charging and start their own charging session. I understand you need an emergency shutoff, but perhaps it could be installed in a less obvious place. I have not noticed those on Superchargers. Lesson learned: stay in your car while you charge.

All locations I’ve visited have had only one stall. Every time, I have encountered the same equipment — a station with one 11 kW AC charger, one 50 kW CCS, and a 50 kW CHAdeMO cable. The problem with these systems, which I recognize from 5 years ago when I borrowed an e-Golf, is that the CCS and CHAdeMO do not work simultaneously. They do not share the power. That is why the Leaf driver had to cancel my charging session to start his, using the big red emergency button. Besides this sharing problem, there can be others. I noticed there was another fast charger nearby, but when I arrived, it was wrapped in plastic ribbon and looked broken. The gas station attendant told me it had been broken for ages. In many locations, the public 3.6 kW AC chargers are also out of order. Therefore, to be certain to get a charge, it is better to use the mobile charger at home if you have that possibility. In rural areas, houses usually have outside outlets, so charging is not an issue in my experience. Fast charging is clearly a problem. I cannot see the current infrastructure handling more legacy brands with new EVs. The one charger per location is a serious limitation, and the speed is unacceptably low. The conclusion is quite clear in my experience — the private Tesla charging network is far superior to the public networks. This is probably also why there are far more Teslas on the road today in Portugal.

As for the car itself, Renault makes acceptable small EVs that are designed to be more urban in their use. This is apparent in the range you get for such a small car. There is no car in this micro hatchback category that has more range. It is fairly easy to operate, but some things could improve. It is a bit strange at first that the car does not have a “P” for park on its gear selector. Instead, you must put it in neutral and use the parking brake, then turn it off. Still, the gear selector is simple to use and you can choose “B” mode, which is what I use at all times. The regenerative power seems rather weak and friction brakes are used quite often. Regarding the car handling, I like the direct steering it has. Power is okay, but suspension feels too soft and the body rolls noticeably in corners. The interior is small (I could only put one suitcase in the trunk) and all interior plastics are hard. I had to remove both wheels of my MTB to be able to transport it with this car. This is clearly a more urban vehicle, but I had no other options besides spending a lot of money to rent a Porsche Taycan.

Even though the car was brand new when I picked it up, there are some strange cabin and suspension noises. I am not sure this is normal, but the vehicle operates fine, so I am not too concerned. The quality of manufacturing could be better. Overall, as a rental vehicle, I would still choose this car over its fossil-fuel counterparts because it is a clean option compared to fossil-fuel rental cars. It would be great to have in-between options that may have more space and range.

As a final conclusion, it is nice that you can rent EVs in Portugal. Though, you should be prepared for surprises with public charging, unless you drive a Tesla. What I struggle to understand with the legacy brands is why do they not have serious charging infrastructure everywhere like Tesla? It causes a lot of anxiety to only have one charger per location. Perhaps more than flashy advertising and expensive marketing campaigns, they could develop more charging locations with more stalls to help boost the confidence of potential EV buyers.

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