I really, really like the Hyundai Kona EV. It’s one of the most practical electric cars on the market, promising a full-charge range of either 186 or 300 miles depending on which model you pick, as well as the usual hatchback-cum-SUV versatility you’d expect from this amorphous family crossover segment.
The entry-level car, with a smaller 39kWh battery, costs £25,000, while the more expensive 64kWh version costs £30,000, around the same as a Nissan Leaf but with a lot more going for it. All in all, a brilliant product, and one of the first EVs we’ve been able to wholeheartedly recommend.
But it is possible to like something without spending a whole night inside it. And that’s the sentiment I briefly try to convey to Hyundai’s press office which, for reasons unclear, has organised a 13-hour all-night scatter rally for half a dozen teams driving Kona EVs. The checkpoints, each worth a certain number of points, are strewn all over England and Wales, and teams are expected to plot their own routes, leaving at 6.30pm and returning at 8am with a view to accruing the highest score.
It’s a simple principle, or would be in a normal car. Many informal night rallies take place around the UK every week but competitors invariably use petrol or diesel vehicles, which can travel many hundreds of miles on a single tank and which can be fully 'charged' in two minutes from empty. Fuel is a non-issue on road rallies due to the speed and convenience with which it can be obtained.
By contrast, even a cutting-edge electric car like the Kona EV has less than a third of the range of an equivalent diesel model, and charging the battery can take hours. This is obviously inconvenient from a day-to-day perspective, but it poses a very complicated challenge in a competitive scenario.
The most valuable checkpoints are those furthest away, on the peripheries of our vast playing field, so we plan to head west – first to Swansea, where we can earn 75 points for a scoopful of sand from the beach, and then to Portland Bill, where a photograph of the lighthouse will net us a further 100 points. From there, we’ll either head across to Brighton Marina or back to Waddesdon, depending on the time.
This would be a straightforward, almost easy route under internal combustion power. In an electric car, however, the challenge is balancing various factors in order to maximise time spent on the road. It’s something one never has to think about in a fossil fuel car – a town might have three 24-hour petrol stations, each with a dozen fuel pumps that can refill your tank in under two minutes, a product for which you pay with a debit card. But that same town might only have one or two charging points, which could take several hours to fill your EV’s 'tank', and which might require some sort of membership to use.
So it’s with some trepidation that we cross the start/finish line in the grounds of Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, with a loose but optimistic strategy for getting back here with a decent score by sunrise. As well as the high-value destinations, Hyundai has dotted smaller checkpoints around the UK, worth between 15 and 25 points each; not enough to be a destination in their own right, but enough to merit a detour. Our first is the Town Gate of Blenheim Palace, where a silly photograph earns us the full 25 points.
From here on it’s a motorway blast to Wales. Some fag packet maths suggests that we could, maybe, possibly win with this strategy, which nobody else seems to have thought of. On our iPad we can see all the other competitors and the routes they’ve chosen - some have opted to stay local, hoovering up small checkpoints around Aylesbury and the Cotswolds, while others have made a beeline for the outlying big-hitters. Auto Express appear to be on their way to the Trafford Centre for 75 points, while the Carwitter crew seem to be heading to Norfolk. Everybody will need to charge at least once.
We know there’s a 50kW charger in a hotel car park near Swansea. If we stop there for half an hour, then stop for a further half an hour at an Instavolt 50kW near Bristol, we should have enough energy to complete our route. Heading west towards the Severn crossing is a relatively relaxing experience in the quiet, comfy Kona, and we’re glad to be inside a brand new Korean car rather than the clattery old English classics often driven on road rallies.
It’s dark by the time we cross into Wales, and we’re already exhausted. We tiptoe onto the dark beach, scoop some sand into an empty water bottle and retreat to our car, conscious that any casual observers may take a dim view of our antics. There’s a particular feeling of self-doubt that manifests under certain early-morning circumstances, and I’m not sure I’d be comfortable explaining our behaviour to local residents.
We’re using ZapMap to locate charging stations. It’s free and pretty thorough, but because of the user-generated nature of some of the data (ZapMap also includes live information from charging networks themselves, among other sources) we’ve previously found this app to show incomplete or missing results. What’s more, the software itself is frustratingly glitchy and refuses to load when we need it to, compounding our woes. Eventually we find the charging station, and the receptionist in a nearby hotel lets us use their loo.
News from other competitors starts to sound rather maudlin. Some of the cars are running out of electricity and with only some sketchy data to go by, their occupants are struggling to fill them up. Those who do manage to locate charging points are finding them inaccessible at night, or simply broken – our Swansea and Shepton Mallet top-ups go without a hitch, but very much in the minority.
There are rally checkpoints at the Clifton Suspension Bridge and Shepton Mallet, where I think there are some Instavolt rapid chargers. Thankfully the slowness of electric vehicle charging allows us to take some time to plan the route and manually enter the coordinates of our destinations into the Kona’s sat nav. It takes forty minutes to get the car almost three quarters full, at which point we lose patience and head for Bristol.
By the time we reach Clifton, the Carwitter team has tried several non-functional charging locations, effectively putting them out of the competition. And having paid £14.38 for 200 miles of range at the one available charger, they’re spending almost as much as they would in a practical, convenient fossil fuel car. The Hyundai Kona EV is a brilliant machine, but it’s a little ahead of its time in terms of real-world charging infrastructure.
The Instavolt chargers in Shepton Mallet are difficult to find, but after a couple of three-point turns (and a failed attempt to drive quietly on gravel) we hook the Hyundai up to one of four points in the corner of another hotel car park. Instavolt is a relatively new charging network in the UK, and instead of demanding sign-ups or complex payment methods, its charging points are available to anybody with a contactless debit card. This is a breath of fresh air in a market dominated by membership models.
We didn’t take on enough charge in Swansea, and we might not be able to here either. We need to get to Portland Bill if we’re to stand a chance of winning, but if we dilly-dally at this charging point any longer we’ll miss our 8am deadline at Waddesdon. We unplug the car without having purchased as many kWh as we’d have liked and head blearily off into the night.
Portland Bill is, it transpires, a very long way away from Shepton Mallet. Most other teams are on their way back to the finish line by now, and we’re still heading south. When we do reach the lighthouse and turn around, it’s clear we’ve cut it fine; by the car’s calculations, we’ll arrive back at Waddesdon with three minutes to spare and just five miles of electricity still in the tank.
An uncomfortable feeling, but not an unfamiliar one for those of us who’ve been driving electric cars for a few years. “Range anxiety” will, hopefully, cease to be an issue in the future, but for now the combination of charging time, charging point scarcity, charging point unreliability and real-world battery range can make it stressful to run an EV – even one as capable as the Kona.
There’s nothing it can do about physics, however, and almost as soon as we turn onto the A41 - the home stretch - our car begins to falter. At first there’s a barely perceptible droop in the powertrain’s urgency, followed by more tangible reluctance to proceed. We’re two miles away when it switches to limp mode, at which point we are overtaken by an artic. We’ve driven so far, and for so long, but we needed perhaps one more kWh to succeed.
I use what little momentum the car has to mount the verge, where it promptly stops and applies its own parking brake. We’re one and a half miles away from Waddesdon Manor. Might as well be in another country. An AA van is called, and we cross the finish line in a Tuscon, our own batteries as flat as the car's.