Electric cars: the complete guide

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

BuyaCar team
Jan 19, 2017

An electric car is powered by one or more electric motors, which get their energy from rechargeable batteries.

The basic technology has been used in cars for more than a century, but it’s only now that electric vehicles (often known as EVs) have become a genuine alternative to petrol or diesel cars.

That’s thanks to technology that’s improving quickly, allowing cars to go further on a single charge, but it’s also down to incentives that are designed to cut down inner city pollution and carbon dioxide emissions. From April 2017, for example, only electric cars (and a handful of hydrogen-powered ones) will be exempt from car tax.

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Government grants have also encouraged manufacturers to develop more electric cars. You can buy some with supercar-like acceleration, some with seven seats, and some with just as much practicality as conventional vehicles.

You’ve also got a choice of power: as well as fully electric cars, which are only powered by electric motors and batteries, there are those that also include a petrol or diesel engine, which can help boost power, or step in when the batteries run low.


Electric cars: what's to like

For the local environment, the principal advantage of EVs is that they don’t generate toxic emissions of any kind when operating in electric mode. How green your EV is, though, will depend on how the electricity you use is generated – coal and oil, not so good. But unlike petrol, electricity can be produced with renewable, clean sources such as solar, hydro and wind turbine.

From a driver/owner perspective, a modern EV is amazingly smooth (there are no gears) and quiet to drive. They can be quite good fun, too – as they generate maximum torque instantly (that’s the twisting power that gets your wheels going), many modern EVs are extremely quick off the mark.

And depending on the sort of driving routine you have, you could potentially save a fortune by not spending on petrol.

See our pick of the best electric cars on sale


Government grants for electric cars

Only cars with zero exhaust emissions - like electric cars - will be exempt from tax under the new 2017 car tax rules, which are introduced in April.

If you;re buying a brand new electric car, then you could benefit from a grant of up to £4,500 towards the purchase price.


Electric cars: the downsides

While the industry is working toward affordable EVs, the fact remains that they are still more expensive than their petrol-powered equivalents. That’s mainly due to the high cost of batteries, a cost that will inevitably come down as manufacturers innovate and the sheer volume of batteries brings economy of scale.

And for those who opt for pure electric EVs, there is also the spectre of ‘range anxiety’. This is the fear of running out of battery power before you can plug in and charge up – with a petrol engine, you’re never far from a place to fuel up, but that’s not yet the case with electric charging points. It can also be difficult to gauge what range you have on a full charge – using an EV in the dead of winter, at night and with the heater blasting will dramatically reduce your range compared with a sunny, warm afternoon.

Finally, if you don’t have a safe, convenient place to plug an EV in at home or work – unless it’s a conventional hybrid like the Prius – its not going to be a viable option.


Types of electric cars

There are a few categories of EVs to be aware of; not all of them are exclusively powered by electricity. A range-extender EV, for example, will use a small petrol engine to recharge the batteries when they get depleted – this eliminates ‘range anxiety’, where motorists fear running out of electric charge.

And then there are hybrid EVs such as the Toyota Prius, which pioneered the breed nearly 20 years ago. A typical hybrid like the Prius uses electric motor power to augment a conventional petrol engine, which makes for a much more efficient powertrain. During acceleration, for example, the electric motor helps the petrol engine power the wheels, meaning a smaller, more efficient petrol engine can be used to deliver the performance drivers expect. A hybrid can also travel a small distance just using electric power. However, a plug-in hybrid, which enables owners to charge up its larger batteries on a household electricity supply, can travel 25 miles or more just using its electric motors.


Electric cars: the practicalities

Electric car charging stations

If you opt for a pure electric car such as the Leaf, the ideal solution is to install a charging point at home if you have off street parking. Most suppliers offer either standard or fast power ratings. The standard (3kW) option would take about 8 hours to fully charge a Leaf, with the fast (7kW) option cutting that to about 4 hours. In any event, it’s important to have 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 charging to rapid DC charging that can offer up to an 80% charge in just 30 minutes (providing your EV is engineered for such charging). If you visit the appropriately named zap-map website, you’ll be offered over 4200 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 electric cars is the range they offer on a full charge. Mainstream EVs such as the Nissan Leaf can provide about 100 miles of travel on a single charge, whilst range extender EVs such as the BMW i3 will keep going as long as you have petrol for the motor that charges the batteries.

And if you’re worried about having to replace expensive batteries should they fail, manufacturers like Renault and Nissan offer the option of leasing the batteries rather than owning them outright. In that event, if battery efficiency drops dramatically, the batteries would be replaced. Leasing the batteries for a Nissan Leaf for a five-year period, for example, would cost £70 per month with an annual mileage limit of 7500 miles. Alternatively, for those doing a very small mileage, Renault will lease you the batteries for its pure electric Zoe for £59 per month with a 4500 mile annual limit.


How much does an electric car cost to charge?

a full charge overnight at your home would cost about £3.00 and give you around 100 miles of range. That’s just a fraction of what the petrol would cost for that distance.


Is an electric car right for me?

The first step to working out whether an EV is right for you is to review the number and kind of miles you drive in a year. 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 EVs aren’t best suited to those kind of miles. However, if you’ve got a city commute of, say, 30 or so miles with an occasional journey under 100 miles, an EV could be ideal, particularly if you’ve got off street parking and a charge point.

Then there are the savings on fuel. And while electric cars are still more expensive than their petrol counterparts, the government still offers a grant of up to £4500 to EV buyers.

London commuters with EVs will also enjoy exemption from the £11.50 daily congestion charge and many London boroughs offer free or discounted parking for EVs. Pure electric cars – and hybrids emitting less than 100g of CO2/km – are also exempt from Vehicle Excise Duty (VED). And with rumours of a huge tax coming for diesel cars to cut city air pollution, going EV could be the best bet.

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