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

We test out the electric car range of three vehicles to see how far they'll go

Murray Scullion Craig Thomas
Jan 23, 2019

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 electric cars will really go on a single charge, in the real world, on UK roads.

We’ve chosen the Nissan Leaf, Hyundai Kona Electric, and Volkswagen e-Golf as test cars.

The official mileage range of the the Leaf is 258 miles on a combined driving cycle (that’s city and motorway), or 168 miles at motorway speeds.The Kona Electric has a bigger battery, and an official rating of 300 miles per charges, and the e-Golf, officially, should be capable of 186 miles.

The main reason that we conducted these tests is because official ranges are notoriously untrustworthy - they don’t take into account real world applications.

Our tests are meant to measure what the range of an electric car is in real world application. They aren't meant to reflect how electric cars are used for most of its time, but how well they would perform on long-distance journeys that might only be occasional, but are 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
✔  Near silent
✔  Zero tax, no congestion fee

Cons of electric cars

Range anxiety
Charging times
Requires much more planning that a petrol/diesel car     

          

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

For our (admittedly unscientific) purposes, we drove a Nissan Leaf 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 its second is roughly 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.

The Volkswagen e-Golf officially has a range of 186 miles, but the company accepts publicly that in real-world driving conditions, that figure is closer to 120 miles. Of course, like any discussion of range and/or economy – whether in an EV or a car powered by an internal combustion engine – that all comes down to the driver.

So, for example, motorway journeys don’t necessarily have to induce range anxiety in electric vehicle drivers, as maintaining a steady pace using cruise control can certainly see that 120 miles exceeded. On one trip, we drove the e-Golf from the Cotswolds to London – a distance of around 110 miles – mostly using the M4. Maintaining a constant 65mph, along with a section of slower speed when congestion struck, enabled us to get home with 40 miles of range remaining, meaning a theoretical 150 miles. Driving at 65mph on a British motorway is certainly an unusual experience – almost the only other vehicles you overtake are lorries – but the silence of an EV somehow enables you to attain a calm, almost zen-like state. If you can maintain this kind of speed, however, you should be able to attain somewhere in the region of five miles per kilowatt/hour.

Driving at 60-65mph on the motorway might maximise your range, but sometimes you want to feel that you’re making progress, if you have an appointment (the reality is that driving faster doesn’t necessarily save you a great deal of time, but human psychology is a powerful thing). The e-Golf can certainly cope with driving at more usual motorways speeds – which, despite the law, are certainly greater than 70mph on UK motorways – and unlike internal combustion engine cars, the faster you go, the car doesn’t make a louder noise. But if you do opt to drive at a ‘normal’ motorway speed, the range does fall pretty quickly (you’ll be going at below four miles per kilowatt/hour) and you can expect to get somewhere in the region of 80 miles before the warning light comes on, telling you that comfort functions are restricted.

We’ve also driven the new Hyundai Kona electric a couple of times, with one longer run undertaken as part of a challenge that the carmaker set motoring journalists. Set with the task of reaching a choice of various checkpoints around the country, at which we could earn additional points, before heading back after 14 hours to our original starting point and earning more points for the amount of range we had left, the Kona performed incredibly well.

Hyundai says that the official range is 300 miles and the early hours of our drive, without being overly careful about our range, we were on course to get close to that. Speeding up on motorways reduced the range at a faster rate (between 4.3 and 4.6 kW/h), but it was still an impressive range that should eliminate range anxiety among owners: 250 miles should be attainable reasonably easily and many journeys that are impossible in a Leaf or e-Golf without stopping to recharge will be possible.

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.

A recent revelation has been unearthed about the Nissan's powertrain though. It turns out that you can’t rapid-charge the Leaf’s batteries more than once on a single journey.

Nissan says that this is to ‘safeguard’ the battery, in order to maintain battery life over an extended time period. While this won’t affect the range, it is something to bear in mind if you regularly travel long distances. While fast chargers will generally let you charge from empty to 80 per cent in around 30 minutes, on the trickle charge, it might take you more like two hours.

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.

The e-Golf uses a different charger than the Leaf: instead of the Nissan’s CHAdeMO charger, the e-Golf has a Type 2 charger that uses AC power. In most regular fast 7kW chargers (which aren’t that fast), that means it takes about five hours for a full charge. There are also 43kW rapid chargers on the motorway, but the e-Golf can’t take advantage of those and still only charge at 7kW. This is something that you’ll only discover in the small print, which could catch you out if you turn up at one of Ecotricity’s Electric Highway chargers at a motorway service station. Instead of an 80% charge in 45 minutes, you’ll receive less than 20%.

In order to get an 80% charge in 45 minutes or so, the e-Golf needs a 50kW DC CCS (Combined Charging System) rapid charger. Ecotricity offers these, as do other public charging suppliers such as Polar, Instavolt and Charge Your Car.

Which brings us on to having a wallet full of cards, or a collection of apps on your smartphone, to pay for all these different services.

Currently, there is no single way of paying for public charging, so you need to sign up to a subscription service or open an account with the charging services you’re most likely to use. If you live in London, for example, and have no off-street parking, you’ll need a subscription with Source London, which has 7kW chargers (both Type 1 and Type 2), as that’s the cheapest way to charge (without a subscription, the cost of a minute’s electricity is almost double).

Chargemaster’s Polar network has the most chargers around the country – in the region of 6,000 – which can be accessed using a smartphone app (which you have to pre-load with at least £20 of credit) or you can pay £7.85 a month to join the Polar Plus scheme, with around 80% of its chargers then free to use.

One network that doesn’t require membership or an app is Instavolt, which accepts payment using a contactless card. This is probably (and hopefuly) the future – it's the model found in many European countries – but until all the providers agree to accept payments this way, Instavolt is almost alone.

Charging shouldn’t take too long, as most chargers are underused at the moment. However, you can be unlucky and either find a non-EV parked by a charger, or another EV using it. The Ecotricity chargers are also experiencing software issues, so their reliability is not to be taken for granted until the company sorts out its issues. This is extremely inconvenient when attempting to charge on the UK’s motorway network and might require a detour in order to plug in. The other drawback is that the units have two charging cables – one for CHAdeMO, one for 43kW AC or 50kW CCS – but only one can be used at any one time, effectively halving the number of available chargers.

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 3.6p 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 £17.61 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 131.3p per litre, the UK average.)

For day-to-day off-street charging on the Source London network, those with a membership (which costs £4 a month) will pay 29.1p per kWh, with a full charge for the e-Golf costing in the region of £10 and taking around five hours.

On the Kona drive we charged twice (Ecotricity and Charge Your Car), taking on a total of 72.8kWh, which cost £20.11. The Kona variant we drove has a 64kWh battery, which is larger than the Leaf’s 40kWh and the e-Golf’s 35.8kWh – and which accounts for its greater range. But as a larger battery, it will take longer to charge and cost more: but it will get you further. When a new generation of 150kW chargers starts taking root in the next few years – at BP filling stations, for example – charging times will start to come down considerably (but costs might not: they will be expensive to build, so the driver will have to pay more for the quicker service).

It’s also worth noting that for those electric vehicle owners with off-street parking, who can install a charging unit in their garage or drive at home, the cost of charging can work out to be considerably cheaper. Other journalists testing the e-Golf at the same time as us, who have home chargers are spending anywhere between a quarter and a half of the cost of public chargers: one quoted 7.2p per kWh at night or 15.7 per kWh during the day. It's an inexact science – there will be variations in electricity tariffs, for example – but it does demonstrate that running an EV off a domestic supply will work out a lot cheaper than having to rely on public infrastructure.

That said, even using public chargers is cheaper than paying out for petrol or diesel – especially as prices are on the rise. If you can manage 4.2 miles per kW/h – and that’s perfectly achievable – your range is 150 miles and cost of charging is around £10 (around 6.6p a mile). Even if you only manage 120 miles, the cost is still just 8.3p per mile. Compare that to the example of the Fiesta above, which would cost £19.14 in petrol to go 150 miles (12.76p a mile).

However, EV drivers charge, the costs are considerably lower than filling up with petrol or diesel. And when all EVs have Kona-like ranges, and there’s no anxiety required, drivers are going to find their motoring lives not only cleaner, but also considerably cheaper.

Electric car range: verdict

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, Hyundai Kona, and Volkswagen e-Golf 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.

    

Electric car range: cars with the longest range

Electric cars have two distinct official ways of measuring how far they will go on a single charge.

The new test that is now used to determine a car’s range is called WLTP. It’s more representative than the old test, called NEDC which is still quoted by some car makers, like Tesla.

Below, we state whether the car’s quoted range is NEDC or WLTP. We also quote each car’s real-world range. This figure is drawn from our own experience, reviews by our sister publication AutoExpress and other reputable sources.

Car

Range

Real-world range

Tesla Model S

393 miles (NEDC)

320 miles

Tesla Model X

351 miles (NEDC)

233 miles

Jaguar I-Pace

292 miles (WLTP)

253 miles

Kia eNiro

282 miles (WLTP)

253 miles

Mercedes EQ C

280 miles (WLTP)

TBC

Hyundai Kona Electric

279 miles (WLTP)

259 miles

Audi e-tron

249 miles (WLTP)

220 miles

BMW i3

188 miles (WLTP)

170 miles

Renault Zoe

186 miles (WLTP)

146 miles

Hyundai Ioniq

174 miles (WLTP)

117 miles

    

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