Powering into the future - A look at electric and hybrid cars in South Africa

12 June 2015



Words: Sam Bradley | Photos: Various photographers


A good friend of mine recently returned from a holiday in California with wide eyes and embellished stories of fun-filled parties, great beaches and Tesla electric sports cars on every street corner. While it was easy to dismiss the idea of hybrid and electric vehicles as a first-world concept, the reality is that South Africa isn’t too far behind these first-world nations and pretty soon we will also have the choice of how our vehicles are powered.

Telstra S

BMW i3

Electric cars are loosely defined as automobiles that are propelled by an electric motor, using electrical energy stored in a rechargeable battery. They have sprung into favour over the last ten years, mainly due to technological advances, higher fuel prices and an increase in global awareness around environmental matters. Technically, electric and hybrid cars are already available in South Africa, but not yet on quite such a widespread scale as overseas. The best selling electric vehicle is currently the Nissan Leaf (global sales of over 150,000 units as at end of 2014), followed by vehicles such as the Tesla Model S, Mitsubishi-MiEV family, Renault Zoe and BMW i3.

Hybrid vehicles are different in that they use two or more power sources to move the vehicle (most commonly an engine and electric motor) and can switch between the two sources as required. Popular models include the Toyota Camry Hybrid, Ford Escape Hybrid and Honda Civic Hybrid. Regardless of whether your next vehicle purchase is going to be a conventional fuel car, an electric car or hybrid vehicle, there are a few key factors that are well worth considering.


In terms of space, the electrics and hybrids measure up to conventional cars just fine – newer and larger models mean that soccer moms and families can still own electrics and hybrids. The drawback to an electric car is range; most electric vehicles can travel around 150 km before they need a charge. This can be a problem both because a full recharge takes about seven hours and because South Africa doesn’t yet have a large infrastructure of charging stations. Load shedding contributes an additional challenge to this task. Hybrids don’t share this problem, as they can switch between an electric motor and engine as needed.


This one’s complicated, so make sure you have your calculator handy if you need to work out the most cost-effective option. Electric and hybrid vehicles have newer and more expensive technology (especially the battery), so their up-front retail price is higher than that of a conventional car. Overseas owners are often helped on the purchase price by government incentives and tax breaks, but there are currently no such programmes in place in South Africa. Another disadvantage is that having more expensive technology under the hood means drivers can anticipate that it may affect insurance premiums and incur higher service and maintenance costs. The major cost saving for electric and hybrid cars is in the running costs, as electricity is cheaper than petrol and diesel. It’s best to shop around and ensure you get the maximum car insurance coverage to avoid having to cough up additional funds, in the event you’re not adequately covered.

Toyota Camry hybrid

Nissan Leafs recharging


Electric cars are seen as the greener option, but there is more to this than meets the eye. An electric car has zero tailpipe emissions, but there are still emissions created in the generation of electricity (Eskom burns a lot of coal to produce our power). However, even after taking that into account, electric cars still emit less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than conventional cars.

This is a debate with plenty of opinions and no definitive answer, and with the rise in popularity of electric and hybrid cars overseas set to continue (mainly led by former South African Elon Musk and his Tesla company), it’s one that won’t be going away anytime soon. The costs of electric and hybrid vehicles are still higher than that of conventional cars, mainly due to the cutting-edge technology involved. However, as production volumes increase and electric and hybrid cars become commonplace, the costs should decrease to a more comparable level.

In addition, should the green awareness movement, which has flourished over the last decade, continue its rapid advance into the public conscience, there will be many more buyers willing to pay a premium to have a vehicle that’s friendly to the planet. What is for sure is that interesting times lie ahead. What sort of vehicle you’ll be driving into the future is up to you, and having that choice is something I’m certainly looking forward to.

More information
For more information on the running costs of hybrid vs. electric cars, have a read through Phys Org’s report for a more in depth review of the savings and expenditure that may be associated with these niche vehicle offerings.