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Editor’s Letter: the silent flaw of EV performance cars

By Alex Inwood, 25 Aug 2018 Features

EV performance cars

Electric performance cars are here, but they’re missing one crucial ingredient: sound. Can they still be exciting?

Few events are as capable of working me into a green lather of envy as the Goodwood Festival of Speed. I’m yet to attend Lord March’s driveway orgy of rollicking metal, but from afar it’s a petrolhead’s nirvana; a heady gathering of machinery that doesn’t just sit still and glint in the sun, but roars up the narrow course in a flurry of tortured rubber and fumes. fumes.

Missing this year’s event had a particular sting. Not only had Wheels negotiated its way into the passenger seat of the Brabham BT62, which was making its global dynamic debut (Ben Oliver, lucky bugger, took my spot), but the scuttlebutt was Goodwood would finally deliver our first proper look at the fifth-gen Toyota Supra; a car that, along with the all-new Corolla, shows Australia’s largest car brand is committed to dialling up the excitement, and driver appeal, throughout its model range.

EV performance cars desert

Then there was the intrigue of Volkswagen’s ID R prototype; the bewinged and fiendishly complicated electric racer that arrived at Goodwood hoping to obliterate the record for the fastest run up the hill, just as it had done at Pikes Peak a few weeks earlier.

Read next: Burnouts to burn-downs – Goodwood 2018 was vehicular carnage

Those familiar with this column will know I’m open-minded about embracing the performance potential of our rapidly approaching EV overlords, which is what made watching the ID R’s run all the more confusing. It looked fantastic (like a Le Mans car, with more wing), and was devastatingly fast, but set against the cacophony of Goodwood’s star-studded, petrol-gurgling field, it felt a little… flat.

The most exciting moment was delivered in one of its early runs when driver Romain Dumas caught a nasty snap of oversteer and flew onto the grass at high speed. But even inches from disaster, the VW lacked the drama and theatre of a Brabham or McLaren Senna.

It seems so obvious now that the missing ingredient was sound, but it didn’t fully twig until I watched another piece of on-board footage, this time from Porsche’s stunning record run at the Nurburgring in the 919 EVO.

 

EV performance cars crew

If you haven’t seen it yet, head to YouTube now. It’s truly captivating, not only for its mind-bending display of grip and speed, but for the bravery, commitment and skill of Porsche factory driver Timo Bernhard.

Would the 919’s run be as enthralling and as spectacular without the howl of its (electrically assisted) 535kW 2.0-litre V4? Re-watching the VW’s near-silent runs at Pikes Peak and Goodwood suggest that no, it wouldn’t.

None of this belittles the achievements or the engineering prowess of the ID R. As a glimpse into the future, and into the potential of EV powertrains, it’s exciting. But to have the pitfalls of zero engine noise in a performance car hammered home with such clarity was confronting.

This isn’t a new issue, of course. Wheels has been asking car company execs about overcoming the lack of an engaging soundtrack in performance EVs for years, but until now, it’s largely been a hypothetical.

Yes we have Teslas, and more eco-focused EVs, but excluding a few low-volume curiosities, we’re yet to see a fully electric car where driver engagement and enjoyment are the top priorities. Porsche’s Taycan (formerly the Mission E) is likely to be one of the first and Mark Webber, who has helped develop it, has some words of reassurance.

“People are going to be absolutely blown away by that car,” he told me, before adding that it feels like a “proper Porsche”. It just won’t sound like one.