What would make us switch to electric 4x4s?

If you’ve spent even a single minute on the roads of the UAE, you’ll notice that large SUVs and 4x4s dominate them. These enormous vehicles can navigate the roads and deserts of the emirates – the perfect all-purpose vehicle for Emiratis and the millions of expats that call the UAE home.

You’ll see a Nissan Patrol, Mitsubishi Pajero or Ford F-150 everywhere you look. In fact, the UAE and broader region are so passionate about 4x4s that Toyota and Nissan prolonged the life of their FJ Cruiser and Super Safari, respectively, even after sales stalled worldwide. 

Though you’re more likely to see them on the school run or parked in the maze-like multi-storey car parks at the malls, these 4x4s can technically take you anywhere. It’s easy to see their appeal.

The Ford F-150 Lightning could be popular in the UAE, but it’s currently not sold here.

If there’s a place on Earth perfectly on the precipice of the tipping point for EV 4x4s, then surely it’s the UAE. Strangely, barely any of them are on the roads here. One major issue is supply. For example, the Ford F-150 Lightning – a vehicle that seems to be made for the UAE demographic – isn’t currently available. We’ve spotted one GMC Hummer Pickup charging outside a shopping centre, but sightings are rare. 

No doubt the supply chain will right itself in the near future, but is the demand there for EV alternatives? We spoke with some 4×4 petrolheads to find out what it would take for them to make the switch. 

Motaz Ben Saoud with his VW ID4.

Business owner and family man Motaz Ben Saoud is ready to convert and is already in the EV ecosystem. He owns a VW ID.4, which has become his daily car to get from A to B, and now has his eye on replacing his petrol-powered Range Rover Sport with an EV version. “I would definitely buy an electric Range Rover, but it all depends on the range and charging speeds.” Ben Saoud says. “The new EV version needs to be able to travel long distances between emirates and charge within 20 minutes. I hope the 2024 Range Rover can do this. If it does, I’m in,” he concludes.

Dubai resident and former Fast Car magazine editor Steve Chalmers owns a Jeep Wrangler and isn’t convinced about trading it for an EV right now. Chalmers points to the aesthetics of the vehicles that put him off.

“It’s the lack of “real” noise with EVs. I’m old school, so I like the sound of air being sucked into the engine through a sports air filter and the noise of it coming out of an antisocial exhaust system.” Chalmers laughs. “I’ve got a lifted suspension Jeep with massive tyres and no doors or roof. An electric Jeep would have to make a lot of noise to match the Wrangler’s looks and EVs can’t match this.”

Beyond the noise issue, Chalmers also points out an issue that may hold many UAE residents from making the switch – apartment building living. High-rise housing means that cars are stuffed into underground or shaded parking areas. 

Unlike those living in villas and townhouses, there’s no easy way to directly attach a power supply to charge overnight. Chalmers adds, “Apartment blocks need a charge point for each parking bay – and we’re not there yet.” Although tenants can apply for charging stations in their buildings, it’s ultimately down to the owner of the building to allow installation. However, new residential buildings are incentivised by the UAE government to include charge points in parking as part of the green initiative. It will take time for the majority of apartment blocks across the country to receive charge points for tenants, but the UAE is actively encouraging these measures with property developers and owners.

Off-road expert Tareq El Awji actually ditched his hobby to embrace the world of EVs. “I had two Teslas and stopped off-roading for around 18 months, but I became depressed.” El Awji confirms. He still uses the Tesla as it saves him a lot of money in fuel prices and it’s environmentally friendly, but the call of the petrol-powered 4x4s was too much, and he repurchased one.

His conditions for switching to an electric 4×4 are fairly simple. “I’m willing [to get a 4×4 EV], but only if you could disengage all electronic interference. ABS, traction control and any other aids that hinder performance.” El Awji explains. “[In off-roading] These could put you in unwanted situations where you’re not in full control.” Driving aids such as traction and stability control are currently two issues that are causing problems with off-roaders. But it’s the regenerative braking that feeds energy back into the battery that is a major concern. On steep slopes, this can create an unrealistic feel to gas powered vehicles. EV rally cars get around this with bespoke hacks and upgrades, but just like petrol-powered race cars, these aren’t available to the mass market.

Tareq El Awji

The second condition is based on the battery capacity/range. Although solar panels can be fitted or unfurled if your battery dies on the side of a dune, running out of juice in the great outdoors is scary.  El Awji is convinced the advertised range rarely translates to real-life use. He tells us, “It must be at least 800km. Whatever is stated on paper is usually 80 per cent less than this, especially when you’re pushing hard when out in the desert.” El Awji finishes, “The battery is going to be working to keep itself and the car cool, so more range – something like 900-1000km – is needed.”

Tareq El Awji taking his Tesla offroad. Tareq has a vibrant Instagram channel Offroad_Bug with more than 26,000 followers.

What’s clear from every conversation we had is that UAE residents are clued up about EVs and their current capabilities. The country is ready to embrace the technology and replace its gas-guzzling versions, but specific and valid demands must be met first. The good news is that many of these conditions are likely to be met in the next couple of years.

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24 Oct, 2023