Electric cars 2018: the guide

Find out if an electric car is right for you with our full guide to choosing, buying, owning and charging one

Chris Knapman
May 5, 2018

Given the government's plans to ban petrol, diesel and many hybrid cars in 2040, there's little doubt that you'll find yourself in an electric car at some point in the future.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, as electric vehicles (also known as EVs) have become a genuine alternative to conventional cars.

Improving technology means that they can go further on a single charge; prices are coming down; and there are tax benefits (for now). In many ways, EVs are better than the alternatives: quieter, cleaner and surprisingly quick to accelerate too.

Your choice is only increasing: a new Nissan Leaf has recently been launched and there are updated versions of the BMW i3, Renault Zoe and Volkswagen e-Golf. In the coming months, the Jaguar I-Pace (above), Tesla Model 3 and Audi e-tron will also arrive, to be followed by a flood of new models in 2019.

But how do you know when the time is right to make the switch - if it all? In this guide we’ve laid out the pros and cons of electric motoring to help you decide.

  

What is an electric car?

A pure electric car (known as an EV or electric vehicle) is powered by one or more electric motors, which get their energy from rechargeable batteries. One of their primary benefits compared with a petrol or diesel car is that there are no exhaust emissions, which is good news for local air quality.

There's a lot of talk about electrified cars. These aren't quite the same thing, as they have a petrol or diesel engine combined with an electric motor of some kind. These include hybrid vehicles. The result is that emissions are lower, but you still have the convenience of a long range and being able to quickly fill up with fuel when needed. 

For more detail on these different types of electric vehicle click on the links below:

   

Grants and Incentives

Both full EVs and electrified cars are seen as an important way to meet inner city pollution and carbon dioxide targets, which is why the Government offers a subsidy called the plug-in car grant to encourage their uptake, as detailed in the table below. In either scenario the dealer will reduce the price of the car by the necessary amount, so there’s no additional paperwork for you to do.

If CO2 emissions are less than 50g/km and...

Level of plug-in car grant

...the purely electric range is more than 70 miles

£4,500

...the purely electric range is between 10 and 69 miles

£2,500

 

Zero emissions cars costing less than £40,000 are also exempt from paying road tax. Opt for a hybrid or plug-in hybrid however and the savings are much smaller, and non-existent after the first year.

If you live in London it’s worth noting that any car that emits less than 75g/km of CO2 qualifies for exemption from paying the daily Congestion Charge (subject to initial registration), and many London boroughs offer free or discounted parking for EVs too.

Some manufacturers also offer generous scrappage discounts for anybody who trades in an older petrol or diesel car for an EV.

Electric cars: the good

The combination of Government grants and tough environmental legislation has encouraged manufacturers to develop more electric cars. As a result, you can buy some with supercar-like acceleration, some with seven seats, and some with just as much practicality as conventional vehicles. The table below indicates how much the market has grown in just a four-year period.

2013

2017

EVs available to buy

9

59

Range from a single charge (based on Renault Zoe)

130 miles

250 miles

Number of European charging stations

30,000

120,000

Alternative fuel vehicle (EV & hybrid) UK registrations*

32,371

119,821

Source: Sophus3/SMMT

From a driver's perspective, a modern electric car is also amazingly smooth (there are no gears) and quiet to drive. They can be quite good fun, too, because electric motors give an instant response when you touch the accelerator, making many modern EVs are extremely quick off the mark.

What’s more, although range anxiety (that is, the fear of running out of battery charge) is often cited as a major factor in people not wanting to own an electric car, the reality is that even the most basic models are able to cover several times the average UK journey distance which, according to the National Travel Survey, is just 8.9 miles.

With the cost of battery technology coming down so too have EV prices, meaning there’s an increasing number on offer that can be bought for little more - if any - than their petrol or diesel equivalents. Running costs are significantly cheaper too, both in terms of servicing and the price of electricity compared with petrol or diesel.

  

Electric cars: the downsides

While electric cars might be good for improving local air quality, their environmental credentials still depend very much on how the electricity for the batteries is generated in the first place - because if it’s not from a renewable energy such as solar, hydro or wind turbines, you’re still looking at sources such as coal or oil.

If you tend to travel longer distances range might still be a problem too, as well as the fact that there still aren’t as many charging points as there are petrol stations, and that charging a battery takes significantly longer than filling a fuel tank.

Then there’s the fact that the range of an EV can vary dramatically according to conditions – you will not, for example, get as far in the dead of winter as you would on a warm and sunny day, as the battery holds less charge in cold weather.

Finally, if you don’t have a safe, convenient place to plug an EV in at home or work it’s unlikely to be a viable option: running an extension lead down the pavement outside your flat won't make you popular when the neighbours trip over it.

  

 

Electric cars: the practicalities

Electric car charging stations

If you opt for a pure EV and have off-street parking the ideal solution is to install a charging point at home. These are offered in either slow (3kW) or fast (7kW) power ratings, which will take approximately 8-12 hours or 4-8 hours respectively to fully charge a mainstream EV such as a Nissan Leaf or Renault Zoe.

Whatever option you choose you're best off having a qualified electrician conduct a survey to make sure your wiring can handle the load.

There are also public charging points that allow you to top up when you’re on the road. These range from slow chargers to rapid chargers, the latter able to offer up to an 80% charge in just 30 minutes, as long as your EV is compatible. If you visit the appropriately named Zap-Map website, you’ll be offered more than 5200 locations for charging – you can search for the nearest site with a charger compatible with your EV, too.

Electric car range

Unsurprisingly, the most talked about aspect of pure EVs is the range they offer on a full charge. This is improving all the time, to the extent that a premium EV like a Tesla Model S can cover more than 300 miles on a single charge.

Better still, even mainstream EVs are becoming much more viable with models such as the Nissan Leaf and Renault Zoe Z.E. 40 now able to provide a realistic 150 miles of travel between charges.

You may see higher range estimates. That's because all of these cars must undergo an official laboratory test to calculate their range, which is so unrealistically high that most manufacturer supply a separate "real-world" figure, which is much closer to the distance you'll be able to travel between charges.

Meanwhile hybrid cars such as a Toyota Prius or Hyundai Ioniq Plug-in Hybrid have smaller batteries but can keep going as long as you can keep their petrol or diesel engines suppied with fuel.

How much does an electric car cost to charge?

A full charge overnight at your home will cost about £3.00 and give you around 100-150 miles of range. That’s just a fraction of what the petrol would cost for that distance. Research carried out by the AA, for example, shows that EV owners who charge at home using off-peak electricity can cut the running costs of their car to about 2.5p per mile compared with around 16p per mile for a petrol car.

Fast public chargers can seem expensive. For example, Ecotricity charges £6 to plug in for 45 minutes. In fairness, it's a high-speed connection, which can charge the battery of most compatible to more than 80% of its capacity in the time.

Fastest of all are Teslas Superchargers, which are free to use for most owners of its Model X and Model S vehicles.

  

Is an electric car right for me?

The fast improving capabilities of electric cars means they are becoming an increasingly viable option for many motorists. However, that is still not to say they will suit everybody.

Andrew Mee, senior forecasting editor at car valuation firm cap hpi, says the ideal EV driver is “someone whose normal daily mileage fits within the battery range of the car, and also has access to convenient charging points when they need them, for example at work and/or at home. Also, a motorist who is prepared to plan ahead when driving occasional longer distances that will require battery charging mid-route and will not mind the time taken to carry out this charging.”

If that doesn’t sound like you it’s not to say an EV still can’t make sense, says Edmund King, President of the AA: “For many people an EV can make a huge amount of sense as a second car. They aren’t affected by cold running unlike a conventional engine which needs to warm up for maximum efficiency, so are ideal for short trips to the station, to work and to the shops.”

London residents can also factor in exemption from the £11.50 daily congestion charge and potentially more savings too, as some London boroughs offer free or discounted parking for EVs.

In short, if you’re bashing up and down a motorway and doing 20,000 miles a year, you’ll be better off with an efficient diesel as electric cars aren’t best suited to those kind of miles. However, if your commute involves, say, 30 or so miles with an occasional journey of around 150 miles, an EV could be ideal, particularly if you’ve got space for off-street parking and a home charger.

  

Read more about:

Latest advice

  1. BuyaCar.co.uk reviews

  2. 2018 Car scrappage deals

  3. Best cars under £300 a month

What our customers say