Electric car range: how far will they really go on a single charge?

We test out an electric car to measure its range

Murray Scullion
May 1, 2018

Range anxiety - it’s a relatively new expression to describe a phenomenon only associated with the terror of running out of electricity.

Emptying your battery isn’t like running out of petrol either. You can’t get a friend and a jerry can full of fuel to help you out, if you drain your electricity reserve, you need to be recovered to your nearest supply.

With that in mind, we’ve set out to find how far an electric car will really go on a single charge, in the real world, on UK roads.

We’ve chosen the new Nissan Leaf as a test car, as it’s new for this year, and it’s the best-selling electric car in Europe.

The official mileage range of the car is 258 miles on a combined driving cycle (that’s city and motorway), or 168 miles at motorway speeds.

But the main reason that we conducted this test is because official ranges are notoriously untrustworthy - they don’t take into account real world applications.

Our test is meant to measure what the range of an electric car is in real world application. It isn't meant to reflect how an electric car would be used for most of its time, but how it would perform on a long-distance journey that might only be occasional, but is still a big concern of people, and one of main reasons more people aren’t purchasing electric vehicles.

Pros of electric cars

  • Zero emissions from the car
  • Nearly silent
  • Zero tax, no congestion fee
  • Surprisingly fast

Cons of electric cars

  • Range anxiety
  • Time it takes to charge
  • Lack of range 
  • Requires much more planning than a petrol/diesel car

    

          

Electric car range: So, how far did it go?

138 miles. But let us explain...

For our (admittedly unscientific) purposes, we drove from South Mimms Services, to inner city Birmingham, then to Corley Services in order to refill. Travelling from (just outside of) England’s first city to second is roughly around what Nissan says the Leaf will travel at mixed speeds, plus, Birmingham is the spiritual home of the car in the UK, as the first (all) British four-wheeled car, the Wolseley, was made here.

How far you can travel in a car depends on how you use it - and this is especially true for electric cars. Heating systems, radio, sat nav, lights...pretty much everything that can be switched on draws from electric power, and can therefore reduce your range.

The test journey from South Mimms Services on the M25, to the central Birmingham location was 108 miles. It was an additional 22 miles from Birmingham to the next charging spot at the Corley services on the M6.

From 100% at the South Mimms Services, we arrived at Birmingham with around 30 miles left. We arrived at Corley services with 8 miles indicated left in the metaphorical tank.

This means that we travelled 130 miles on a single charge, with a theoretical range of 138 miles.

The Leaf was used in real world conditions - driven on the A1 at rush hour, and at speeds varying between inner-city and 70mph. Apple CarPlay, the radio, heater, heated seats, and lights were all used intermittently, and used just as a regular person travelling would.

Nissan’s real world figure of 168 miles at motorway speeds is probably achievable at relatively low speeds and with minimal power being sapped by electronic items in the car - but using it in an everyday way, it’s not capable of completing 168 miles.

Our test routes included travelling on the A1 and the M6 at speeds of 50mph, 60mph, and 70mph. The car uses much more power at 70mph and can have a dramatic effect on mileage range.

At a steady 70mph throughout the trip, the range would be less still. And if the average speed was closer to 80mph, we may have found ourselves approaching Birmingham with a virtually empty battery and our hands clasped in prayer.

Electric car range: How long?

South Mimms to Central Birmingham was despatched in just under four hours. The time it took to actually travel between the two destinations is almost academic because the Nissan Leaf, and every other new electric car for sale in the UK, is capable of 70mph. Essentially, it wouldn’t take any longer than in a conventional car if you didn’t have to charge.

But you do have to take into account charging times. On fast chargers, the Leaf can get to 80% charge in around 30 minutes. This is impressive - but you won’t be getting those speeds from your three-pin or home charger.

Read our guide on charging an electric car

When we arrived at South Mimms there was a lorry parked in the way of one of the electric charging bays, and one electric charging bay was out of action.

Of course this is no one’s fault, the lorry was moved and we only had to wait around 10 minutes for the other charging bay to become free, and these things can happen to conventionally powered vehicles at filling stations.

It is something that creeps into the back of your mind when travelling long distances in electric cars though. Even big services only have a few (generally 2-6, excluding Tesla-only) charging plugs - so if they’re in use, or out of action, you have to wait around for a pump to become free - and then the time it takes to charge.

Then there’s the matter of planning the journey. You need to spend time thinking about when and where to stop in an electric car, whereas in a conventionally powered car, it wouldn’t have even crossed your mind.

As we’ve said, 80 per cent charge can be achieved in as little as 30 minutes at a fast charger, but it will take another 20-35 minutes to charge it fully.

Electric car range: costs

£5.04 - that’s all it cost to travel from South Mimms Services to Central Birmingham to Corley Services. The charge lengths, times, prices, and even power can change depending on car/range/power sources, but for us Ecotricity cost 30p per kWh.

At 138 miles that works out at 27p per mile.

Of course, because you have to wait around at service stations you inevitably end up buying a coffee which you mightn’t have if you were just filling up with petrol, but still it’s pretty cheap.

To put that into context, Britain’s best selling car, the Ford Fiesta, will have roughly cost £16.55 to travel the same distance.

(Assuming that it’s a 2018 Ford Fiesta Active 1 1.0-litre driving 138 miles at a real world economy figure of 46.7mpg, with fuel costing 123.2p per litre, the UK average.)

Read more about the cost of running an electric car 

Electric car range: conclusion

Electric cars have come a long way in the short space of time that they’ve been on sale in the UK.

As a method of getting to and from work, the electric car is perfectly acceptable for most people - as the average commute in the UK is only 9.32 miles. This means that for most cars, you’d only have to charge once a week - even when taking into accounts other errands.

Electric vehicles, for now, can be used to replace conventional cars for most people if they have somewhere to charge it. However, for people who travel any longer distances, electric vehicles are still not as usable as petrol or diesel powered cars.

The additional planning, the time it takes to charge, and the frequency of charging needed, makes long-distance journeys in electric cars much more time consuming.

And it’s not just the Nissan Leaf we’re talking about. Official figures for claimed mileage is pretty misleading on all fronts as they’re tested in laboratory settings. Not many electric cars, barring expensive Teslas, will complete much more than 130 miles on a single charge in real-world conditions.

How far will an electric car go on a charge? Not long enough yet.

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