x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Zero-emission Liberty E-Range stays punchy

The first pure electric luxury 4x4 is pricey, but Range Rover is confident that the zippy SUV with an impressive 320km range will find its way.

The E-Range, seen here at Tower Bridge in London, looks like any other Range Rover, except it is driven solely by battery power. Stephen Lock for The National
The E-Range, seen here at Tower Bridge in London, looks like any other Range Rover, except it is driven solely by battery power. Stephen Lock for The National

I am sandwiched between two of London's most iconic landmarks.

In front of me lies the near 120-year-old, 800ft-long Tower Bridge, which is awash with pedestrians and traffic on a sunny but cool English afternoon. To my right lies the Tower of London, some of which dates to 1078, after the Norman conquest of England by William the Conqueror.

As backdrops go, there are few better, but the age and history of the two pieces of architecture are in stark contrast to the machinery at my disposal, the world's first pure electric luxury 4x4, the Liberty E-Range.

It's not exactly a head-turner, but that's not to do a disservice to the car. The fact is it looks like any normal Range Rover, bar the Liberty logo adorning the bodywork.

But it sounds nothing like a Range Rover and, lifting up the bonnet, proves it looks nothing like a Range Rover under its shell. Gone is the 5.0L V8 normally housed there; instead, the space is taken up by a block of batteries.

Your typical Range Rover has a punchy audio oomph, a sort of roar that says it is higher on the road than almost every other car and one that serves as a warning to stay out of its way.

But Liberty Electric Car's version is as quiet as a mouse. In fact, as you start it up, the only indication that it is actually working is that the dashboard lights up and there is a gentle vibration when you put your foot on the brake to put the car into neutral.

As the handbrake is removed, drive is selected and the car pulls onto the streets of London; the only sound comes from CEO Barry Shrier, sitting in the passenger seat and talking proudly of his prototype.

The Liberty E-Range handles as well as any other Range Rover, and it is as quick - if not a little quicker - off the blocks than the standard rover, taking seven seconds to get from zero to 98kph.

"You can let it go," are Shrier's first words, and I do just that - well, as much as the speed restrictions in London will allow. The punchiness of a luxury vehicle remains, despite the electric power, and the handling is an equal, despite the fact the electric version is marginally heavier.

The reason for that is simple - the car boasts the biggest batteries ever on an electric car. There are two; one under the bonnet and one unseen running almost the entire length of the car at its base.

But for all that battery weight, the 4x4 neatly zips over Tower Bridge and nips in and out of traffic with relative ease as we cruise past the Tower of London.

Its statistics make for impressive reading. It has a top speed of 160kph and has a range of 320km. It has already competed in the London to Brighton race and is taking part in this year's Gumball Rally.

The one catch is that the vehicle is expensive.

The first five off the production line are expected to cost £250,000 (Dh1.48 million) each, but the price is expected to drop as the orders come in and Shrier is confident the buyers will come for his prototype.

"All new technology is a bit more expensive, just like the first mobile phones," he explains. "Prices will come down in due course and then you have the running costs which are markedly lower. Say you spend £100 a week on petrol, you will spend £20 a week on the Liberty Range Rover for the same distance. On top of that, there are a lot of tax benefits [in the UK] as well."

Shrier has proved that he is not just talk. He has ploughed several million pounds into the project (although he won't reveal exact figures) and already he says there is a lot of global interest.

The company's biggest coup came recently when Icelandic company Northern Lights Energy signed a memorandum of understanding for an order of 150 electric vehicles to be delivered to Scandinavia, Iceland and the Faroe Islands over the next four years - a deal worth something in the region of £20m to Liberty.

The car lends itself to green nations where there is a vast amount of renewable energy available and relatively short journeys between charge-up points. The Liberty, on the day of my half-hour test drive, is plugged into a portable charging point that can just as easily be plugged in to your home. But the company is also working on a method of wireless charging in which owners install a plate in their garages that enables them to simply park over the plate and avoid the hassle of having to plug in every time they need to charge up.

The plan is for this system to be up and running before the end of the year.

As it stands, the current prototype, which has taken just two years to complete from start to finish, is the second generation of electric vehicle from what is a relatively small workforce of 20 people.

The electric motors are put as close to the driven wheels as possible - four motors, one on each wheel, driven through reduction gearboxes.

There are plans afoot for a third-generation EV, which would remove the need for the reduction gearbox and therefore eliminate further weight. It would also, in theory, mean less complexity and hence greater reliability.

Shrier is bullish about the current zero-emissions car and how far his team has progressed. "Car manufacturers said we couldn't do it, but we've proved them wrong," he says, and he's confident regular buyers will dip into their pockets for one.

The plan is for consumers to buy them in ordinary Land Rover dealerships in the UK and around the world, as well as through the company itself.

Shrier is on the lookout for a tie-in with the United Arab Emirates, both with dealerships and with a possible financial partner and backing in the region to the tune of £15m to £20m.

"We are actively seeking backers in the Middle East; it's potentially a very big area for us," he explains.

The plan is to sell something in the region of 1,000 cars globally each year, and Shrier is confident that can easily be achieved.

The 49-year-old is American, originally from California but he has lived in the UK since going there to study in 1986. He set up Liberty Electric Cars in 2007 in the motorsport hub of Oxford, not far from many of the world's leading Formula One teams.

He boasts an interesting CV, which includes working for US Senator Tom Harkin as well as for the former head of Nato, George Robertson. But it was his ambition to be green that inspired his most recent and arguably biggest project.

"I wanted to focus on what appears to be our greatest challenge," he said. "I asked myself, 'Do you want to be the generation that destroyed the planet or the generation that led initiatives to solve the problem?'"

Shrier clearly opted for the latter.