Petrol and diesel cars are on the way out and in just over a couple of decades, you’ll be charging around in a plug-in vehicle. Read our guide to government incentives, models available and whether you’ll be quids in if you switch.
Electric cars are officially the future according to the government, which has recently repeated its pledge to end the sales of pure petrol or diesels cars after 2040.
Sales are inching up to the point they now represent 1.5% of all cars bought new in the UK. Not a lot, but enough to make them visible and get people thinking: "Should I be joining them?" Here’s what you need to consider.
Will the government chip in?
In the first half of 2017, sales of grant-qualifying, plug-in vehicles rose 15% compared to the same period in 2016 to just over 21,500. That is split between roughly a third pure electric cars and two-thirds plug-in hybrids, which use a regular non-electric engine to extend the range when electric battery power is exhausted.
The government remains pro EVs (electric vehicles) and PHEVs (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles), but has reduced the grant it gives motorists towards buying what remains an expensive purchase compared to regular combustion engine cars.
Electric cars capable of travelling 70 miles on one charge (which is all of them) now come with a £4,500 government discount (reduced from £5,000). While plug-in hybrids capable of travelling 10 miles or more on electricity only and rated as emitting 75 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre or less attract a £2,500 discount, compared to £5,000 previously.
And if your tastes run to pricier plug-in hybrids, such as the BMW i8 supercar costing over £60,000, then sorry, no more grants for you – they’re only available for vehicles costing under £60,000.
An additional grant of up to £500 is also available to install a charger, if the manufacturer doesn’t include it in the price of a new car.
You don’t even need to apply for these grants; they’re automatically taken off the price by the car dealer – although you can only get the discount on new cars, and not on second-hand models.
What’s the choice like?
Five years ago, your choice of electric car was limited to a handful of geeky machines in strange sizes, but now you can zap about in electric-powered cars to suit all tastes, including ordinary, practical models such as the Volkswagen Golf GTE and BMW 225Xe plug-in hybrids.
You can even lord it in the outside lane in the pure electric Tesla Model S, a phenomenally quick (and pricey) limo, or head off-road in the Volvo XC90 Twin Engine.
There are superminis, plug-in hybrid SUVs, people-carriers and even a minibus. Find out more about the choice available on GoUltraLow.com – a government and industry campaign to promote electric vehicles (Goultralow.com).
Plus, more are coming. Next year Audi and Jaguar will launch pure electric SUVs, Tesla is slowing rolling out its Model 3, an all-electric rival to the BMW 3-series, and Mini has just unveiled a plug-in hybrid version of its Countryman small SUV. The buzz growing around electric cars is such that VW reckons by 2025 a third of its sales globally will be electric-powered cars.
For that to happen, the price of electric cars will have to come down. It's not so much the motors, chargers or other gadgetry that make them expensive but the lithium-ion battery cells. The price of these cells is reducing, but car makers are packing more in to increase the range so the cost is still high. For example, the Renault Zoe supermini starts from £19,845 and that's with the government grant in place. A standard Renault Clio supermini costs from £12,225.
One upside is that because electric motors are simple, maintenance should be less of a worry.
Is distance still a concern?
The distance you can travel on one charge is getting longer for pure electric cars. The Renault Zoe, for example, now has the option of a larger battery that will let you travel a predicted 186 miles on one charge compared to 96 miles for the standard battery. It does, however, cost another £10 a month if you’re leasing the battery (see below for more information on battery leasing).
The Renault Zoe
Expect the new version of the Nissan Leaf, the UK’s best-selling pure electric car, to offer a similar or greater range when it goes on sale early next year.
The Nissan Leaf
If you’re away from home, you can charge at one of 13,198 charge points at 4,594 locations across the UK, according to the latest Zap Map figures (Zap-map.com/statistics/). Some are free, while others require membership to a scheme, such as the Polar Plus subscription, which is £7.85 a month with the chargeable electricity on top at 9p per kilowatt hour.
Charging away from home can be easy or frustrating, depending on whether the chargepoint is working or whether it’s busy (or whether a non-plug-in vehicle has pinched the bay). One owner said that after buying her electric car, her fuel bills plummeted but her coffee bills soared.
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, thus cutting the entry list price (£19,845) of that Renault Zoe, for example, to £14,425. Then you pay from between £49 and £110 a month for the battery, depending on the number of miles you do and whether you go for the longer-range battery. If the battery drops below 75% of the original charge capacity, Renault will repair or replace it.
Renault's Zoe also comes with a free wall-mounted 7kW home charger station fitted by Chargemaster.
How much will my electricity bill go up by?
Your electricity bills will rise by between a third and two thirds for a pure electric car depending on how much you use it. Plug-in hybrids use a lot less due to their smaller batteries.
It will be cheaper than fueling a petrol or diesel car though. Using 2p a mile as a starting point, as estimated by Go Ultra Low, that’s £200 for 10,000 miles. By comparison, a Ford Focus TDCI diesel achieving 74.5mpg will cost £670 in fuel over the same distance.
It’s tricky to work out the increase in electricity bills more precisely, given the shameful lack of transparency from electricity companies on tariffs, but we’ll try. Nissan quotes the Leaf as using 150 watt hours per kilometre, or 0.24kWh per mile. So over 10,000 miles, that's 2,400kWh used. An average household uses 3,100kWh of electricity a year, so that means your electricity bill would go up by 77%. Assuming an electric price of 14p per kWh, the Nissan Leaf would cost £336 a year to charge.
That figure may 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 cheaper version of the Leaf). Electricity consumption could increase perhaps by as much as double in winter when the car uses more energy.
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.
Other than cheaper fuel, what other savings will I make?
Cars classified as ultra-low emission, which means all electric cars and plug-in hybrids emitting under 75g/km of CO2, are exempt from London’s £11.50 congestion charge. Pure electric cars are also exempt from vehicle excise duty (road tax), and company car drivers also get a reduction in their benefit-in-kind taxation bills if the company is buying the car.
Free parking is also available from some councils, for example in Milton Keynes. Other councils offer free residents’ parking for street-parked zero emission cars, and some councils are now installing charge points in lampposts.
Do I need a charger?
For home charging, car companies recommend a dedicated wall-box rated at 3kW or the faster 7kW. Up to £500 is available from the government to install a charger, if the car company doesn’t include it in the price of a new car. But that still leaves £279 to pay for Chargemaster’s 3kW charger or £354 for its 7kW version. A fast 22kW home charge point is also available for £1,200, but that requires an upgrade your electricity supply to a three-phase system, commonly found in offices or blocks of flats.
For the smaller batteries used by plug-in hybrids, you can just use your standard plug if the car’s charging cable will reach. Mitsubishi’s Outlander PHEV comes with a 5m long cable, for example (extension cords aren’t recommended), and says it’ll take five hours to charge from empty.
Rapid chargers can drop the time to fill a pure electric car to 60 minutes for a 22kW rapid charge, or 30 minutes for the 43kW (both up to 80% only), although not all cars can use these fast chargers.
Tesla owners can access the company's 120kW Supercharger network, although these aren’t free any more. Buyers of new Teslas get an annual freebie of 400kWh, which the company reckons equates to 1,000 miles a year. Zap Map says there are 234 Supercharger locations in the UK, with some near motorways, meaning you can string together longer journeys with 20-minute breaks to recharge.
Lots of rapid charging can damage the battery though, 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. The two most popular are the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV and the VW Golf GTE.
However, consumption climbs rapidly on longer journeys, to the point they use far more fuel than diesel 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 an inefficient petrol SUV.
Electric and plug-in hybrid cars eligible for government grants
Category 1 cars: CO2 emissions of less than 50g/km and can travel at least 70 miles zero emissions. Grant is £4,500.
Ford Focus Electric
Hyundai Ioniq Electric
Kia Soul EV
Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive
Nissan e-NV200 (5-seater and 7-seater)
Smart Fortwo electric drive
Smart Forfour electric drive
Tesla Model S
Tesla Model X
Category 2 cars: CO2 emissions of less than 50g/km and can travel at least 10 miles with zero emissions. Grant is £2,500.
Audi A3 e-tron
Hyundai Ioniq PHEV
Kia Optima Saloon PHEV
Mercedes-Benz C350e (with 17-inch rear wheels)
Mercedes-Benz E350e SE
MINI Countryman PHEV
Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV
Toyota Prius Plug-in
Volkswagen Golf GTE
Volkswagen Passat GTE
Volvo V60 D5 Twin Engine
Volvo V60 D6 Twin Engine
Volvo XC90 T8 Twin Engine Momentum
Category 3 cars: CO2 emissions of between 50 to 75g/km and can travel 20 miles emissions free. Grant: £2,500.
Mercedes-Benz E350 e AMG Line
Plug-in Vehicles costing over £60,000 are not eligible. This category includes:
Audi Q7 (category 2)
BMW i8 (category 2)
Mercedes-Benz S500 Hybrid (category 3)
Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid (category 3)