Electric cars – the ultimate guide

Electric cars are nothing new. Thomas Parker built the first in London in 1884 – a full year before Karl Benz revealed his Benz Patent-Motorwagen, widely regarded as the first car.

But electric cars have lived in the shadow of the internal combustion engine ever since, with most buyers previously deeming them unsuitable because of their limited range and long charging times.

That's not the case any more. Going electric now has mainstream appeal with more than 10,000 UK drivers buying electric cars in 2016, but the question is: is an electric car right for you?

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Electric versus petrol or diesel

More than a century of petrol and diesel dominance won’t disappear overnight. But dwindling natural resources, environmental concerns and tax incentives mean electric car sales will continue to grow.

Electric cars - making the right choice

Most major car manufacturers are investing heavily in electric technology, but what are the 'real-world' factors that might affect your decision to buy?

We break them down for you.

Cost

Some early adopters buy electric cars because they’re fascinated by the tech (we’re looking at you, Tesla owners). Others base their decision on an ethical desire to ‘go green’.

For most of us, though, an electric car needs to make financial sense, which means considering costs.

Generally speaking, electric cars are relatively expensive to buy, but cheaper than a petrol or diesel car to run. Any cost savings are therefore dependant on a number of factors, outlined below.

  • 1 Upfront costs

    Electric cars are an initially expensive outlay. They typically range from entry level prices at around £15K, to £30K for a mid-range car and anything up to and above £100K for a top of the range sports electric car.

    The list price of electric cars, however, isn’t necessarily what you’ll pay.

    The government offers a Plug-In Car Grant to incentivise buyers of low-emissions cars. Currently, vehicles that emit less than 50g/km CO2 and have an electric-only range of at least 70 miles (i.e. most fully-electric cars) attract a £4,500 subsidy.

    Those with less than 70 miles’ range, or CO2 emissions of 50-75g/km, receive £2,500 off list price. The £4,500 grant is awarded regardless of price, but cars costing over £60,000 aren’t eligible for the £2,500 option.

    As with conventional cars, buying second-hand is a much cheaper option, but then you have the added consideration of a potentially deteriorated battery life to consider and as we explain later, buying a new battery is nearly tantamount to a write off.

  • 2 Servicing and repairs

    Electric cars have far fewer moving parts than petrols or diesels, so there is less to maintain and repair.

    Regenerative ‘engine’ braking means brake discs and pads last longer, too. Nissan says servicing a Leaf costs just £11 a month.

    Unsurprisingly, having less to fix equates to lower costs. Tesla even boasts that it can perform many servicing functions remotely. These take the form of software updates, just like you’d have for your computer or mobile phone.

    This does mean you are effectively tied-in to the main dealer network, but reduced wear-and-tear on consumables should compensate for this.

    On the minus side, servicing an electric car requires specific expertise. You’ll need a main dealer rather than a – potentially much cheaper – independent garages.

    This should change over time, however, as electric cars become more popular.

    If you buy a Renault Zoe or Kangoo ZE van, you will need to pay a monthly fee for battery hire – around £59 a month for the Zoe. However, this does keep list prices down, and Renault will guarantee battery performance to at least 75% of its original charge capacity, or pay for repair/replacement.

  • 3 Fuel

    According to Pod Point, charging an electric car overnight at home will cost around £3. If we assume a typical range of 100 miles, that equates to 3p per mile – around a third as much as a very economical petrol or diesel car.

    Many public charging points are still free, although you may have to pay for rapid chargers – such as those found at motorway service stations.

  • 4 Insurance

    Insurance ratings – and thus costs – for electric cars tend to be slightly higher than for petrol or diesel equivalents.

    This may, in part, be due to the more limited options when it comes to repairing them. That said, you may be able to negotiate a limited-mileage policy to keep costs down.

    We’ll cover battery leasing later, but it’s important to bear this in mind. If you lease a battery, it remains the property of the car manufacturer, so your insurance company should be informed.

Driving

The ‘milk float’ image of electric vehicles (EVs) is long forgotten.

Indeed, most of the latest hypercars use electric motors to boost performance, while the two fastest accelerating production cars in the world are both electric, enter the Tesla Model S P100D and Faraday Future FF 91.

Back in the real world, electric cars offer performance that’s at least on par with regular rivals. Just go easy on the right pedal if you want to preserve driving range.

  • 1 How does the feel of an electric car differ?

    The first thing you’ll notice when driving an electric car is the silence.

    Apart from a faint hum when accelerating, the only noises come from the wind and tyres – and then only at speed. Even a typical electric hatchback is as quiet as a Rolls-Royce.

    Electric cars are also very easy to drive. Gears are invariably automatic, while regenerative brakes slow the car when you lift off the accelerator to top-up the batteries. The result can be ‘one-pedal’ driving around town.

  • 2 How does the performance of an electric car differ?

    Electric motors produce their peak pulling power from a standstill.

    That means there’s no need to rev the motor for swift acceleration, unlike a petrol or (to a lesser extent) diesel car. It’s also why cars like the Tesla Model S P100D are regularly breaking 0-62mph records.

    EVs often handle well, too. Manufacturers have more flexibility when it comes to packaging electric drivetrains – mounting battery-packs close to the floor to lower the centre of gravity, for example.

Maintenance

Keeping your electric car in tip-top condition will reduce the risk of unexpected bills and boost its value when the time comes to sell. It will also ensure you stay on the right side of the law.

  • 1 Are they more or less reliable than petrol or diesel cars?

    Electric cars have only sold in significant numbers since about 2013, but evidence so far suggests they are very dependable.

    A survey, for example, found that the Nissan Leaf’s electric drivetrain was 25 times more reliable than an average internal combustion engine.

  • 2 Does all that tech mean more services?

    Electric cars still need regular servicing according to the manufacturer’s schedule, although there are fewer parts to fix. And in terms of ‘more tech’ a lot of these issues would likely be software related and can be fixed remotely by some EV manufacturers.

    They use no oil or filters, for example, and have no conventional clutch. Until the battery needs replacement, your biggest outlay is likely to be new tyres.

  • 3 What’s the battery life like for an electric car? Are they expensive to replace?

    You can expect electric car batteries to last for around 10 years. However, battery capacity will decline with age and use, potentially to around 60% of its original figure after a decade of typical use.

    That means an EV with a 100-mile range would only be capable of 60 miles on a full charge.

    The cost of replacing batteries probably won’t prove economical as the car gets older – which could mean that an EV’s life-span is shorter than that of a combustion engine vehicle.

Environment

With no emissions out of the exhaust – and no exhaust at that – electric cars are brilliant for reducing pollution in cities.

Forget the nasty particulates belched out by diesels, EVs are as emissions-free as walking.

Detractors will point to the pollution created by producing electricity

Detractors will point to the pollution created by producing electricity, but this varies widely depending on the type of power generation used.

A wind farm is vastly cleaner than a coal-fired power station, for example.

However, even the ‘dirtiest’ electricity is still less damaging to the environment than hundreds of individual petrol or diesel engines.

Also, if environmental-friendliness is high on your agenda, certain energy companies offer ‘green’ tariffs, using electricity produced from sustainable sources.

Safety

There are no significant safety issues with electric cars. Indeed, the lack of flammable fuel is a tangible safety benefit.

At present, many electric cars are based on conventional petrol/diesel models. But the number of purpose-built EVs is growing, and the ability to package components more creatively (such as fitting batteries beneath the floor) potentially allows for more effective crash structures.

Are electric cars future-proofed?

In a word, yes. At some point, fossil fuel resources will start to dwindle and alternatively-fuelled cars, including EVs, will offer a viable alternative.

More immediately, many cities such as Paris are already imposing restrictions on polluting cars and lorries.

Driving an electric car future-proofs you against such legislation – and saves you the cost of city-centre congestion charges (as in London, for example) in the meantime.

READ MORE: How to future-proof yourself against the London T-Charge

Driving needs - does an electric car suit your situation?

If you live in the Highlands of Scotland, an electric car probably isn’t right for you.

Limited range means they are best suited to city-dwellers or suburbanites who commute less than 100 miles a day. The charging infrastructure is far more developed in cities, too.

That said, it may not be easy to own an electric car if – like many city drivers – you don’t have a dedicated parking space.

Ideally, you need a driveway in order to park and charge the car overnight.

The Government offers grants for a free on-street charging point to be installed near your home, although that doesn’t guarantee that other residents won’t park and plug-in there.

Budget is also a consideration. If you have less than £7,000 to spend, an electric car isn’t really an option. Indeed, you’ll struggle to find many for sale at that price.

Technology - should I wait until it develops more?

That depends on whether you meet the criteria above. If an electric car suits your needs, go for it. These vehicles have a loyal following and their popularity is set to grow.

For most people, a conventional car is still a better choice – particularly if you only have one car. But for how long? In the words of Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changin' – and changin’ fast.

Summary

In short, the best things about electric cars are low running costs, ease of driving and the clean conscience that comes from going green.

On the down side, they are expensive to buy and longer-term reliability is unproven. They also have a comparatively limited range – and even using a fast charger takes a lot longer than filling up with fuel.


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Electric cars - pricing, grants and warranties

Electric cars - buying info

So, you’ve taken the plunge and decided to go electric. Here are a few points you need to bear in mind.

How much do electric cars cost?

Purchase prices for electric cars vary widely, from less than £7,000 for a Renault Twizy to £120,000+ for a top-spec Tesla Model S.

Below we have outlined rough prices (correct at the point of writing) for new electric cars within three budget levels:

Top end

Tesla Model S: from 

Tesla Model X: from

BMW i8 ~ from £100,000

Medium level

Tesla Model 3 (expected mid 2018): The only released price as of yet is $35,000

BMW i3: from ~ £28,000 (after incentives) 

Hyundai Ionq: from ~ £25,000 (after incentives)

Volkswagen e-up: from ~ £25,000 (after incentives)

Entry level

Nissan Leaf: from ~ £21,000 (after incentives)

Renault Zoe: from ~ £14,000 (after incentives) 

Smart ForTwo ED (expected autumn 2017): from ~ £16,500 (after a Government grant) 

If you’re buying used, choice can be limited – and you won’t find electric for banger money. Used Nissan Leafs – the UK’s best-selling electric car – start from around £7,000, for example.

What is the cheapest electric car available?

If we ignore the two-seat Twizy (technically a quadricycle, rather than a car), the cheapest electric car currently on sale is the Renault Zoe. It costs £13,995 after the £4,500 Plug-In Car Grant has been deducted, but you’ll need to factor in £59 a month for battery hire. Read more about the fantastic Renault Zoe on our best electric cars of 2017 page.

Where can I buy one?

Not all franchised car dealers sell their chosen marque’s electric models – and those that do tend to be in cities. So you may need to travel further afield to buy one.

Used electric cars are widely for sale in the classifieds, although the majority are offered at dealers, rather than private sales.

What’s the warranty like?

EVs typically have between five and eight years’ warranty on the electric motor and battery components.

For the rest of the car, the length of warranty depends on the manufacturer – ranging from three years and 60,000 miles to seven years and 100,000 miles.


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Electric cars - charging, maintenance and performance

Electric cars - an owner's guide

Now you are the proud owner of an electric vehicle, but what next, how do you charge it? Where do you charge it? And how do you get the best out of it?

Read on for the answers.

Charging an electric car - your questions answered

Charging your electric car can be done at home, at work or at a public charging point. The latter are still few and far-between outside major cities and motorway service areas, though.

  • 1 How do you charge an electric car?

    The same way you’d charge a phone – you simply plug it in.

    Unfortunately, the electric car industry hasn’t yet standardised the type of connector used, so while some can use a conventional three-pin plug, other require you to fit a wall-box for charging at home.

    Equally, some public charge points won’t be compatible with some electric cars. This can prove frustrating for owners but, again, we expect such issues to be ironed-out as electric cars enter the mainstream

  • 2 How long does it take to charge an electric car?

    Using a fast-charger, many electric cars can be topped up to 80% capacity in around 30 minutes. More usually, a full charge takes anything between four and 12 hours. The best option is to plug the car in overnight, when electricity is cheapest.

  • 3 How many miles do you get from one charge?

    Again, this varies – anything from around 100 miles for a budget electric car to 300 miles for a Tesla. Range drops significantly in colder weather, however – and, of course if you drive aggressively.

  • 4 Where are the electric car charging points?

    Zap Map is a useful online tool showing the location of charging points across the UK. Many electric cars also have sat nav that recognises these locations and can direct you those within range.

Does an electric car need a regular MOT?

You don’t escape the MOT test simply by choosing an EV. Like all cars, electric cars have to pass an annual road-worthiness inspection after they are three years old. The main difference is that there is no emissions test, so that’s one less area to potentially fail on.

At the time of writing, the maximum car MOT test fee is £54.85. However, there are many garages that will undercut this.

Electric car maintenance video - charging tips, preserving the battery life and vehicle health checks

How to get the best mileage out of your electric car

Exactly the same way you’d eek the most miles per gallon from a conventional car. Accelerate gently, steer smoothly and look well ahead to avoid sudden braking.

Creature comforts such as air conditioning and heated seats are power-hungry, so use them sparingly. Some electric cars allow you to pre-heat or pre-cool the cabin before you set off, using mains electricity rather than the car batteries.

'Hypermiling' driving styles are just as effective with EVs - read our top fuel saving tips for advice on this.

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