Cruising the EV super highway

We set out to discover if driving an EV from Coolangatta to Cairns on the Electric Super Highway is really all that super.

The recent Federal election brought the subject of electric vehicles, or EVs, out of the fringes and into mainstream political debate. While they represent only a tiny percentage of new cars sold in Australia, EVs are poised to become a much larger part of that mix.

But are they something the average Queenslander could contemplate using?

Certainly not without appropriate infrastructure and in this regard the State Government has stolen a march on its interstate counterparts by establishing the “Electric Super Highway”.

This network of EV fast charging stations, stretching from Coolangatta to Cairns and inland from Brisbane to Toowoomba, was completed in February 2018. But until now there simply haven’t been many EVs capable of tackling the coastal journey with any degree of practicality.

Enter Hyundai’s Kona EV, a new compact SUV with a claimed fully-electric range of 400km highway or 450km urban range. The Kona’s impressive credentials emboldened us to tackle the trip, to see if an EV can be trusted to cover such distances in an efficient and reliable way.

After starting in Coolangatta, our first stop was at the headquarters of Tritium, in the Brisbane suburb of Murrarie, whose 50kWh DC fast chargers we’d be using to travel north. Tritium’s units are capable of recharging the Kona’s 64kWh lithium ion polymer battery to 90 percent capacity in 60 to 90 minutes, which is about as long as anyone wants to be waiting.

Out on the Bruce Highway, the Kona impressed with its quietness and performance, cruising effortlessly at 100km/h with strong reserves for overtaking. Nevertheless, it was almost dark by the time we entered the quaint, frangipani and mango-tree lined streets of Childers, having bypassed charge points at Cooroy and Maryborough.

We found the town’s Yurika charge point just off the main drag and connected to the car via a small flap on the grille before wandering up town to find some food. In a ‘normal’ car we might have topped up in 10 minutes and pushed on but such enforced delays are part of life with an EV.

After coffee and breakfast the next day at the gorgeous heritage-listed Paragon Theatre, we trekked through waving sugar cane and rich red-soil paddocks. A charge point beckoned at Miriam Vale but, with 223km of available range and only 170km to Rockhampton, we could make it with ease to the city that famously sits astride the Tropic of Capricorn.

EV SuperHWY

It was almost dark by the time we unplugged there, with enough range to make Mackay, 350km to the north. The combination of rain, trucks and ‘roos made that seem a folly, though, so we opted instead to stop halfway.

It was another slate-grey dawn at Marlborough the next day and the radio told us torrential overnight rain had closed the highway north of Ingham. It’s obviously been a good wet season, since even Bowen – which is usually parched and arid-looking – seemed lush and verdant. The sand flies were friendly, too, as we discovered while waiting for the Kona to charge down by the beach front.

The glittering nightscape of Townsville, Queensland’s northern capital, finally beckoned at 8.30pm, the car’s satnav leading us to a charge point occupied by a distinctly non-electric looking 4x4. We were forced to find another option
20 minutes away.

At least the next day dawned bright and clear with news the road north was open. We were soon whizzing up and over the Cardwell Range, past dense rainforest that plunged down to meet the croc-infested mangrove swamps of the Hinchinbrook Channel.

Crocs were on the agenda in nearby Cardwell, too, where a stop at Rob Jesse’s distinctive yellow pie cart is a must. Dressed head to toe in NQ Cowboys paraphernalia, Rob explained the latest scandal to split the town was the mystery of who shot Bismarck, a five-metre salty once a regular sighting cruising the shallows nearby.

Cairns was only 140km away, right on the limit of our available range, so we opted to top-up in Tully, famously Australia’s wettest town. Unfortunately, all that rain seemed to have frizzed the town’s DC charger and we weighed up waiting hours to charge via the slower AC charger, or chancing our hand.

We bit the bullet and headed off, the car’s trip computer warning us to turn back. Switching to Eco+ in the Kona’s drive modes cut the air-con and limited speed to 80km/h as we crept along, the cabin a funk of nerves and sweat in the 34-degree heat.

As we edged closer to Cairns the Hyundai slowly hauled back the deficit via its regenerative braking and we eventually made the charge point with five percent of battery and just 15km in reserve.

Mission accomplished, we looked back on a 2122km journey during which we’d recharged six times, for a total of about seven hours. The electricity hadn’t cost us a cent, thanks to the State Government’s extended free-charging period, meaning we’d saved roughly $240 in equivalent fuel costs, or $105 were we paying for the recharges.

There’s also the CO2 saving of circa 288kg to take into account.

The Kona is an impressive car and offers a first-rate driving experience, but life with an EV definitely requires some compromises.

Nonetheless, our adventure has shown that such a journey in an EV is perfectly feasible, provided the infrastructure is in place to support it. In this regard, Queensland is ahead of the game, while the rest of Australia still has a long way to go.

EV SuperHWY

Story by Ged Bulmer, Photos by Thomas Wielecki.