Prepare for the electric charge through New Zealand
Prepare for the electric charge through New Zealand

They gather, as always, at crack of day at Bluff then convoy north ... a near-on three-week banner-waving and fact-flinging crusade all the way to the top, Cape Reinga.

The aim, as before, is conversion and, though it’s not a secular occasion, there is certainly an element of religious fervour to it.

For my sins, I will be there for part of the journey. Wellington to Palmerston North, to Napier, to Taupo and on to Tauranga.

Not so far, but nonetheless still accounting for five days of my life. Did I mention this epic will take almost three weeks to complete?

Leading the Charge is an electric car promo drive. You’ll surely have heard of it, given that the 2017 run kicking off on April 19 is the third crusade.

This 2000km odyssey will also be the biggest – more cars, more brands (BMW, Mitsubishi are back for a second run and this time Hyundai has joined in and possibly Renault, too) though curiously, still not the Big One. At least, not in an official capacity.

Though now officially selling new cars in New Zealand, a pop-up shop in Auckland now being in its second month of operation, Tesla has chosen not to take part. No-one from the brand’s regional office in Melbourne was prepared to comment why.

Don’t worry, you’ll still see Elon Musk’s wonder brand: Teslas, after all, have been the core attraction of both previous national outings, plus all the other events Leading the Charge and its creators involve in.

But that’s because the core supporters of this effort are all hard-out American Ohm drive acolytes. They’re the people who, for the past four years, were importing their own cars (mainly out of Australia, but sometimes from the US) to drive the dream.

Their faith remains as strong as ever so, even though the very latest version, which stands out as result of some obvious styling amendments, of the Model S might not make this party, the type will still be very much in evidence.

And doubtless, as in the past, it will likely be the centre of attention, though conceivably this year those who are thinking about converting to electric driving should really be paying closer attention to the Hyundai Ioniq EV.

At $60,000 and with a range of around 200km, this neatly-styled and impeccably-built five-door medium hatchback presents a much closure realization of the ‘affordable EV’ that everyone says they are hankering for.

The big name of Leading the Charge is Steve West, the multimillionaire founder of the electric-spruiking Better NZ Trust that is now, despite the inconvenience of the Kaikoura earthquake having knocked out a significant section of State Highway One, well into developing a national grid of fast-charging stations that will give us the much vaunted and desired Electric Highway.

I admire his dedication. A fortnight of motel life, fast food and – this is the reason the journey takes so long - umpteen daily stops for EV ra-ra sessions in town squares, shopping precincts and anywhere else this promo can go to draw a crowd and gain access to electricity is a big ask of anyone, but he and his team lap up the challenge and, of course, the attention.

Last year the route went North-South and I chose to run the single-longest leg, the 350km stretch from Picton to Christchurch along the route that, of course, was utterly smashed by the November 14 shake-up and remains out of commission.

I drove it in a BMW i3, the original range-extender version that conceivably allows for 170kms’ full electric running before having to rely on the wee petrol engine in reserve to generate more zap. I say conceivably in reality the petrol engine chimed in more frequently than I imagined it would. Those big hills, I guess. Anyway, we had to undertake three refuels – Picton, Kaikoura, Christchurch – as the motorcycle-derived 660cc two-cylinder generator engine only has a minibike-sized fuel tank.

I’ll be driving the i3 again this year, and because this time it is for a shorter section – the 177km Palmerston North to Napier leg – and it is the updated car, with a stronger battery and thus a better electric range, it will be interesting to see if it even needs a drink.

Before reacquainting with the BMW, I’m also spending a day with Mitsubishi – the new, again, improved Outlander PHEV, which will be driven from Wellington to Palmy. After Napier, I’m with Hyundai; in the wholly battery-driven Ioniq.

Basically, then, by the end of the week, I’ll have experienced, back-to-back, the three most popular NZ-new EVs available.

Many people will consider Leading the Charge so some of sort of strange circus of wacky cars and weirdos. I can understand why.

Yet it’s undeniable that, while EVs are very much still niche choices here and globally (just 0.6 percent of the world fleet), their popularity is growing.

On the first Leading the Charge, fewer than 1000 EVs were being driven in NZ. This year, there are now more than 3000 officially registered, with 517 of them plugging into the traffic stream since January 1.

All sorts of factors are in play. The Government’s determination to include EVs into departmental fleets has been salient; so too, the determination by big corporates to follow suit. There’s been a big increase in the models and quantity of used EVs being brought here.

And, of course, there is more choice in the new sector – the Ioniq, which released in February, will soon be joined by fully and partially electric versions of the Volkswagen Golf.

The number of charging stations, including about 50 fast chargers available throughout the length of the country, with more coming, is also a big fillip, giving drivers greater confidence on longer journeys.

Also key is that there is to be continuity, at last, with the charging arrangement.

West’s ChargeNet NZ determination to alter its DC fast charging network from a Type 1 CCS charging plug to the Type 2 CCS charging plug – which the most modern technology from Europe requires - is effectively an establishment of a national standard.

This move, incidentally, is entirely due to private enterprise, being result of an agreement between BMW Group New Zealand and ChargeNet to support the installation of over 100 DC rapid chargers across the length of the country.

Another talking point on the drive will doubtless be the positive outcomes announced this week of a report, commissioned by the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA), into EV batteries.

This suggests the warranties of up to 10 years’ that some batteries now come with is no particular risk to the makers, as the units are so reliable and robust that, EECA says, they “may well last the life of the vehicle” and will certainly continue to perform well beyond the warranty period.

“Sudden electric vehicle battery failure is very rare, and more likely is that owners may notice slight degradation over time.”

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