Should you join the electric car revolution?

It's becoming clear to anyone monitoring the UK's roads that electric cars are here to stay. The numbers are increasing to the point that they now represent over 1% of new UK car sales - not a lot but enough to make them visible and get people thinking: "Should I be joining them?" That's what we'll attempt to answer here.

Sales are increasing - to the end of July this year, they rose an impressive 211% over the year to 16,170 registered. That's split between roughly a third pure electric cars and two-thirds plug-in hybrids, which keep a regular engine to extend the range when battery power is exhausted.

The government so far remains pro EVs (electric vehicles) and PHEVs (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles). It has extended a generous purchase grant to "at least" February 2016 after it looked like the previous allocation was about to run out and has said that it wants every new vehicle sold in the UK from 2040 onward to be an ULEV (ultra-low emission vehicle - you'd better get used to the acronyms if you want to join the ranks of buyers).

The list of cars that qualify for this grant of upwards of £5,000 off the list price are growing all the time (see box for the current list). Whereas two or three years ago your choice was limited to a handful of geeky machines in strange sizes, now you can zap about in electric-powered cars to suit all tastes, including versions of ordinary, practical models such as the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus. You can wow neighbours in a PHEV supercar (the BMW i8) or lord it in the outside lane in the pure electric Tesla Model S, a phenomenally quick (and pricey) limo, which is surprisingly long-legged for an electric car. There are superminis, PHEV SUVs, people-carriers and even a minibus.

The grant is welcome because electric cars are expensive. It's not so much the motors, chargers or other gadgetry that's the problem but the batteries themselves. The lithium-ion cells that manufacturers favour are pricey - even the range is increasing as makers look to tackle the problem. The raw materials are expensive and cells tricky to assemble. At Nissan's battery factory in Sunderland, the air has to be so clean that workers aren't allowed to use retractable ball-point pens lest the clicking action releases microscopic shards of plastic into the atmosphere.

This is seen in the price of the cars - the Renault Zoe supermini starts from £18,445 and that's with the government grant in place. A standard Renault Clio supermini costs from £11,145.

However, although these batteries are tricky to assemble, the electric motor is a lot simpler compared to combustion engines and that results in lower maintenance bills.

Should I lease the battery?

Renault and Nissan have come up with a novel solution to both make the list price look less frightening and allay customer fears that the very expensive battery might fail at some point, landing them with a hefty bill. The two firms have split the battery from the price of the car, should customers want to, thus cutting the entry list price of that Zoe to £13,444. Then you pay from between £45 and £103 a month for the battery, depending on length of lease and the amount of miles you do. If the battery drops below 75% of the original charge capacity, Renault will repair or replace it.

If the list prices still look frightening, then Renault's deals on the Zoe right now really aren't. This likeable little electric car is currently available on a PCP deal (where you pay monthly instalments with the option to buy outright at the end) for just £89 a month with a deposit of £599. You have to hire the battery on top of that for £45 or more a month but that's still a cracking deal - made possible by a discount from Renault of £5,060. Even better, Renault's Zoe deals come with a free wall-mounted 7kW home charger station.

How much will my electricity bill go up by?

This is a simple question made difficult by the lack of pricing transparency from the electricity companies. It's pertinent because if you're like the bulk of the UK's electric car drivers, you will charge at home rather than use external charge points - a recent document put out by the Department for Transport on ultra-low emission vehicle take-up in the UK quoted a study saying 97% of all plug-in vehicles are charged at home. The government should know - to qualify for a grant to fit a home-charge point, you need to agree to the government remotely monitoring its usage.

So what's the answer?

Go Ultra Low, a government-funded body tasked with promoting plug-in vehicles, puts a simplistic 2p a mile figure on electric driving, so £200 for 10,000 miles. By comparison, a Ford Focus TDCI diesel achieving its official economy figure of 74.5mpg will cost £670 over the same distance.

Car companies have to quote an electricity consumption figure just as they do for normal combustion engine models. For example, the Nissan Leaf is quoted as using 150 watt hours per kilometre, or to make it easier to figure out based on electricity prices, 0.24kWh per mile. So over 10,000 miles, that's 2,400kWh used. To put that into perspective, an average household uses 3,100kWh of electricity a year. That means your electricity bill would go up by 77%.

Assuming a relatively high electric price of 14p per kWh, the Leaf would cost £336 a year to charge. Or on an Economy 7 cheap night-time electricity tariff (using here Southern Electric's 7.7p night-time Economy 7 tariff), the Leaf would cost £185 over the same distance.

That figure might increase because a small amount of electricity is wasted in charging losses and electric cars rarely achieve their claimed mileage range (124 miles on the Leaf). Electricity consumption could increase perhaps by as much as double in winter when the car uses more juice.    

However, combustion engine cars don't achieve their claimed economy figure either, so in the very worst case you'd still be halving your fuel costs by going electric.

What's the deal with charging?

As we've seen, charging is mostly done at home. There the recommendation is that you get a dedicated wall-box that will either charge at 3kW or the faster 7kW. Wall boxes from the likes of Chargemaster or British Gas are heavily subsided by the government but Chargemaster still wants £195 to fit the the 3kW box or £290 for the 7kW. Renault says the difference between the two is eight to nine hours from empty using a 3kW, or three to four hours on the 7kW version. 

External chargers can drop the time to 60 minutes for a 22kW rapid charge, or 30 minutes for the 43kW (both up to 80% only), although you need a special version of the Zoe to use the really fast one. 

Tesla owners get to use the company's Supercharger network for free, which consists of 68 chargers in 22 stations located at strategic points near motorways across the UK, meaning you can string together proper journeys with a 20-minute break all that's needed to charge the battery half full, and that's with battery sizes rated 70kW rather than the smaller 24-22kWh packs in cars such as the E-Golf, the Leaf and Zoe. Tesla claims a range of 275 miles for the Model S.

Lots of rapid charging can damage the battery because of the heat involved. Small print in the E-Golf brochure cautions that "frequent and consecutive high-voltage charging can permanently decrease the capacity of the high-voltage battery".

Would a plug-in hybrid be better?

Plug-in hybrids are cars that have both a regular engine and an electric motor. The beauty of them is that you can drive the normal short distances most of us cover daily and never use any fuel - an electric range of 20 to 30 miles is common. Then, when longer journeys are required, the petrol or diesel engine seamlessly kicks in. They're very tax-efficient - you can buy a powerful car, such as a Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid or Mercedes S500 Hybrid, claim your £5,000 grant, pay much less company car tax, zero Vehicle Excise Duty and stay relatively efficient. The two most popular are the more attainable Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV and the VW Golf GTE. 

Detractors wonder why you'd want to drag two engines, heavy batteries and all the technical gubbins. Despite the bold claims made for the economy (largely a fault with the way official regulations say cars have to be tested), in reality consumption climbs rapidly on longer journeys, making them little better than normal cars. Mitsubishi steers customers away from the Outlander PHEV and towards the diesel version if they regularly do journeys of more than 100 miles, when the hybrid becomes inefficient petrol SUV.  

List of electric cars eligible for the £5,000 government plug-in car grant:


  • Audi A3 e-tron
  • BMW i3
  • BMW i8
  • BYD e6
  • Citroen CZero
  • Ford Focus Electric
  • Kia Soul EV
  • Mercedes-Benz B-Class
  • Electric Drive
  • Mercedes-Benz C350 e
  • Mercedes-Benz S500 Hybrid
  • Mitsubishi iMiEV
  • Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV
  • Nissan e-NV200 Combi fi veseater
  • and seven-seater
  • Nissan LEAF
  • Peugeot iON
  • Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid
  • Renault Fluence
  • Renault ZOE
  • Smart Fortwo electric drive
  • Tesla Model S
  • Toyota Prius Plug-in
  • Vauxhall Ampera
  • Volkswagen e-up!
  • Volkswagen e-Golf
  • Volkswagen
  • Golf GTE
  • Volvo V60 D6 twin engine
  • Volvo XC90 T8 twin engine


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