Fuel for thought: is now the time for electric cars?

  • Should you be considering a switch to electric motoring?
  • Find out what the current lay of the land is in our guide
  • We set out three of our favourite EVs available to buy now

It’s becoming impossible to ignore electric vehicles (EVs) these days. Whether it’s the quirky Renault Twizy – a vehicle that looks like nothing else on the road – or Nissan’s fairly normal-looking Leaf, there’s something out there for most budgets and tastes.

You can even pick up models crammed with the latest technology or seriously impressive performance (or both, such as the Tesla Model S), and car-spotters will confirm we’ve got more EVs on our highways than ever before.

But does that mean they’ve finally become a viable proposition? Read on as we dissect the facts and fashions to see if now’s the right time for you to switch to electric power.

Range anxiety: the big question

Let’s cut to the chase: most peoples’ lifestyles would suit an electric car perfectly. Based on statistics from 2014, the average daily mileage for a UK driver was 21.4 miles source: National Travel Survey 2014, but even if we ramp it up to 30 or even 40 miles per day, clearly that’s well within the realistic limits of any production electric car's maximum range. The Twizy has the smallest range of any mainstream car, and that’s 60 miles. Some car companies (such as Tesla with that Model S) claim a range of at least 260 miles depending on spec – a few are even higher.

The issue here isn’t with the vehicles, then. It’s more to do with people. Many folk think that without a range of at least 300 miles a electric car's simply not a viable option. That’s because they’re used to conventionally fuelled cars, where you have to go through the rigmarole of visiting a dreary filling station every time your tank gets close to empty.

What if you shifted perspectives a little, though? Think of your car like your smartphone instead. When you’ve got a chance, simply top it up and away you go. Visiting the supermarket? Plug your car in. Stopping for a lunch break at a motorway services? Hook up to a fast-charge point for 30 minutes. You might not ‘fill your car up’ completely, but you’ll add valuable extra range until you can give it a full charge, perhaps at home overnight using a low-cost energy tariff.

It’s worth noting too that there are many cars and charging points that make an 80-percent charge in 30 minutes possible. Think how much further your range would get if you made use of a couple of these. They’re cropping up all over the place, and we expect they’ll continue to proliferate.

Do EVs drive differently?

Yes, but perhaps not in the way you’re expecting. Forget notions of milkfloats struggling up kerbsides: modern electric cars boast startling torque delivery, often providing the full beans from the second you push the accelerator. This makes for a very quick-feeling machine, if only up to 30mph for some of the cheaper cars.

You’ll notice a difference when braking too, because most (if not all) EVs have regenerative braking to recoup energy traditionally lost while slowing down. This is similar to how KERS works in Formula 1 racing cars.

Finally, electric cars are very quiet. Their engines don’t make much noise at all, and usually the most noticeable feature of the drivetrain is the braking system mentioned above. Low rolling-resistance tyres help here too, however.

The latest developments in electric vehicles

In response to concerns over range anxiety, recently the big news has been about battery-boosting. We’ve driven the upgraded 30kWh Leaf already, extending its ‘theoretical’ range from 124 miles to 155 per charge. BMW just announced a 33kWh battery for the i3 too, pushing its ‘everyday’ driving range up to 195 miles.

It isn’t just range, though. Tesla – a company famous for high-tech innovation – automatically downloads new software to your car to unlock extra features. For example, the firm’s 7.0 update included an ‘autopilot’ function that effectively drives the car for you on the motorway, keeping you in your lane, changing lanes when requested and matching the car’s speed to the vehicle in front. The same software upgrade installed an automatic parallel parking system too.

Read more about the Tesla 7.0 update in our road test here. 

Work in London? Combat the Congestion Charge with an EV!

If you have to drive in the Congestion Charge zone in London, an electric car could save you up to £2,500 per year in these fees alone. At time of publication if your car emits less than 75g/km of CO2, you get a 100 percent exemption on the £11.50-per-day charge.

That means all electric cars qualify along with a number of plug-in hybrid models too. 

The elephant in the room: the cost of EVs

Electric cars are – in general – significantly more expensive than the equivalent conventionally fuelled model. That’s despite Government assistance in the form of the Plug-in Car Grant.

Whether you can make this work with your particular personal circumstances isn’t something we can really tell you, but in order to calculate whether it’ll make sense we suggest you factor in the following:

Cost of car - List price for a cash sale or monthly payment

Cost of charge at home - Can you factor in a low-cost energy tariff? How long does a charge take?

Cost of topping up – Will you need to buy chargecards or a subscription to a charging network? How often will you need to use them, and will you need multiple firms’ services or just the one?

Tax – Company car drivers will have to pay tax on electric cars. Not much relative to conventionally fuelled models, but some. For private drivers, at present there’s no VED car tax to pay

Service intervals – How often, and how much will it cost? Can you buy fixed-price service plans to spread the cost?

Our three favourite electric cars:

1. Tesla Model S

Easily the most interesting and remarkable EV on sale right now is the Tesla Model S. It blends supercar performance with luxury saloon practicality (and even the option of seven seats) along with impressively advanced tech all wrapped up in a stylish package.

Priced from: £55,935

Claimed range: 260+ miles

Click here for the full Tesla Model S review.

2. BMW i3

BMW claims the i3 was the first premium car designed from the ground up as an electric vehicle. One look inside and that shows, because the cabin is cleverly designed to make the most of a very different architecture to that of a car with a conventional internal combustion engine. With this car there’s the added bonus of a range-extender version – a small petrol engine designed to whir away creating extra energy to feed into the batteries if they look like they’re running out. This costs extra, but extends the maximum range between charges significantly.

Priced from: £30,980

Claimed range: 195 miles (non-range-extender)

Click here for the full BMW i3 review.

3. Nissan Leaf

If letting all your neighbours know you’re driving an EV isn’t towards the top of your priority list, take a look at the Leaf. It’s a subtler design on the outside but still enjoys lots of tech in the cabin.

Priced from: £21,030

Claimed range: 155 miles (30kWh version)

Click here for the full Nissan Leaf review.

Find loads of electric cars for sale here. 

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