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Should i buy an electric car? The pros and cons of owning an EV today

According to the experts, the UK's EV revolution is just around the corner. But can an electric car fit into your life today?

If the experts and the Government are to be believed, the UK looks set to be getting ready for a full-blown electric vehicle (EV) revolution. Improvements in the battery range of electric cars, lower list prices and the expansion of the charging network mean that 2020 is the best year yet to buy an EV. However, there are still plenty of obstacles to running a pure EV. So we've compiled this guide to see if an EV is the right choice for you.

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The history of the EV dates back to the creation of the motor car at the start of the 20th Century. However, the internal combustion engine soon took a lead in powering personal transport, and the EV became a niche choice for many decades, seen powering a few oddball city car concepts over the years, and of course the good old milk float.

Fast forward to the 21st Century, and electricity is gaining momentum as a mainstream power source for cars, vans and trucks of all sizes. That's because regional legislation is making it harder for car makers to meet ever-stricter emissions targets with pure petrol or diesel models alone. As a result, manufacturers are looking at alternative fuel sources, with the aim to reduce harmful exhaust emissions while still delivering the kind of all-round performance and range capability that car buyers have become accustomed to from internal combustion engines.

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Pure electric cars still only make up a small percentage of vehicles sold in the UK - although uptake is rising quickly. The even more dramatic rise in plug-in cars can partly be attributed to the increased number of plug-in hybrids that are now on sale. These models feature electric drive and an internal combustion engine, so can't claim to deliver zero emissions like a pure EV, but they are a useful interim solution that deliver the kind of driving range buyers expect, but with the chance to drive in zero emissions electric mode when the battery is fully charged.

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What is a hybrid?

Another addition to the market - but an even more niche one than an EV - is a hydrogen-powered vehicle. These models are nearly as clean as EVs, because they use a hydrogen fuel cell to power an electric motor, and the only byproduct is water. Hydrogen cars are as quick to fill as conventional cars, and they have a range that's similar, too, but the sheer lack of refuelling stations and expensive cost of these cars means they have very limited appeal.

But the question we're trying to answer here is: can an EV fit into your life? We weigh up the pros and cons of zero emissions driving so you can decide if an electric car is the right car for you.

Electric cars: the benefits

Zero emissions

The big attraction of an EV is the fact you are doing mile after mile of emissions-free driving. When you're on the move, the EV system is a 'closed loop', meaning that the battery drives the electric motor and powers all of the on-board electrics, but doesn't produce any waste material.

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The only time an EV pollutes other than when you finally scrap it is when it's being charged, and even then the emissions are traced back through the National Grid to the power source. If that happens to be a renewable source (solar panels/wind farm/wave power), then you could genuinely be contributing to lower harmful emissions into the environment. Even if power is sourced from nuclear, gas or coal sources, the levels produced for charging your car will be a mere fraction of the power station's overall pollution output.

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Buying incentives

While electric cars are comparatively expensive when compared to similarly sized petrol and diesel cars, there are plenty of incentives to get you behind the wheel. Chief among these is the Government's Plug-In Car Grant (PICG). The PICG used to be £5,000 for every low-emissions vehicle, but today it only applies to pure electric cars.

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For pure electric cars, the grant is £3,000 but only cars with a list price of under £50,000 qualify. In theory, plug-in hybrids could also get the grant because it applies to any vehicle rated with CO2 emissions below 50g/km that can travel at least 70 miles in zero emissions mode, but no current plug-in hybrid can meet these criteria. If you're looking at a plug-in hybrid, there are no discounts available and there are no models that would qualify for the grant currently planned.

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Electric motorcycles and scooters have a £1,500 discount, while vans and commercial vehicles with emissions below 75g/km can have up to £8,000 discounted from their list price.

On top of this, many car makers offer favourable finance rates on EVs to encourage you to take the plunge. Zero per cent finance and free wallbox charger installations are all available to help you on your way to the electric driving experience. There is also a grant available to help with the cost of fitting a charging point to your home.

Low running costs

Once you've bought an EV, the day-to-day running costs are significantly lower than they are for a petrol or diesel model. It's common for an EV to be charged overnight ready for a day's use, so you will be using electricity at a lower unit rate than you would during the day. It's estimated that to fully charge an EV at home will cost just a few Pounds, which is significantly less than it will cost to fill a car to cover a similar mileage. This cost will vary depending on how, when and where you charge, just like filling a petrol car at different fuel stations, but it will still be over a tenth of what you would pay for petrol or diesel.

Tax benefits

If you're buying privately, then an EV costing less than £40,000 qualifies for free road tax. Cars over that price cost £340 a year in road tax for the first five years, but after that they are also road tax exempt.

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From April 6th 2020, business users can also pay zero Benefit In Kind (BIK) company car tax on pure electric cars and the PICG still applies to company cars. In comparison, a petrol car that emits 100g/km of CO2 will have a BIK tax rate of 23 per cent, while diesels are 4 per cent higher than petrol across the board.

Cheapest electric cars on sale

It’s also worth remembering that pure EVs are exempt from the London Congestion Charge and it’s likely that other cities may introduce similar schemes in years to come.

Comfort

As an electric motor only makes a faint whirring noise, cabin comfort is a major EV forte. You only really have to contend with tyre, wind and road noise on the move, and if you're around town all three of these will be pretty minimal. In fact, EVs are so quiet that some makers are fitting sound generators to ensure pedestrians and other road users are aware of their presence when driving.

Many EVs are designed to be comfortable around town, so while the suspension needs to be firm to carry the weight of the batteries, there's a degree of comfort to the ride that complements the lack of noise. And because the batteries are normally mounted low in the car, and the electric motor takes up less space than an engine, the passenger compartment will offer more space than a similarly sized petrol car.

Acceleration

Thanks to the instant torque delivery of an electric motor, most EVs feel surprisingly quick away from the lights. Simply press the accelerator, and the car will sprint forward on a wave of torque. Most EVs will run out of steam once you're up to the speed limit - and the driving range will take a hit, too - but cars like the Tesla Model S can deliver sub-3 second 0-60 times in their most powerful guises.

Electric cars: the drawbacks

Charging points

The biggest drawback to owning an electric car is having to charge it up. Every EV on sale is available with a three-pin domestic plug so that you can charge it via the mains, while many firms offer a fast-charging wallbox for free when you buy an EV. The wallbox will be connected directly to your mains power supply, so it can charge an EV at a higher rate than the supply that's fed to your home.

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Of course, to do this you need somewhere to park your car that's close to an electrical supply. Research shows that the majority of domestic garages are hardly ever used to park a car, while many people won't have off-street parking as part of their property, especially in built-up areas. Add in the fact that around 40 per cent of people live in rented accommodation - limiting the ability to fit fast-charging points - while around 20 per cent of the population live in flats, making it even tougher to fit a domestic charging point - and you have a big EV issue.

UK electric car charging points: everything you need to know

Car makers are doing their bit to help with EV charging. Tesla now has a network of Supercharger stations across the UK that offers fast-charging, although it's only for Tesla models. Elsewhere, Nissan and Renault EV dealerships offer fast-charging for EV owners on-site, although that only really helps if you happen to be near one of these sites, which are usually on industrial estates on the outskirts of major cities.

The other option is to sign up to a charging scheme, such as Polar EV Network, Ecotricity or Pod Point. For a monthly fee, this gives you access to charging points and dedicated parking bays - on-street and multi-storey - across the UK. Contactless payments are also becoming much more widely available on all the major networks.

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You'll find a lot of these chargers located in major cities - London nearly has lots of charging points, but there are plenty to be found in Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Bristol - while firms have branched out to add charging points at pubs, supermarkets and at motorway service stations. The network is growing all the time.

Charging time

Drivers have become used to the habit of simply filling a car up with fuel as and when needed. However, you can't apply the same regime to an EV. If you do, you'll be suffering from extra-long journeys as you stop to charge your EV up over a prolonged period. In this regard it's more the perception of EVs that people have that needs to change, rather than the cars themselves.

As an EV is a new experience, it requires you to get into a new habit, and it's one that you might be familiar with if you own a smartphone. Basically, it involves some forward planning, and as long as you keep your EV plugged in every time you're parked, especially overnight, it should have enough battery life to get you to your destination.

Battery range

Another limiting factor that will stop many people from driving a pure EV is range anxiety - the fear that you either won't get to your destination without having to charge your car up, or that you won't be able to charge your car when you get there.

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Current form means that a modern EV has a workable range of around 150-200 miles, but car makers are pinning hopes on the next-generation of EVs being able to cover 300 miles between charges.

Used electric cars: should you buy one?

In reality, if you're able to plug an EV in every time you park, then range anxiety shouldn't be an issue. The average driving commute in the UK is around 10-15 miles, so any EV is more than capable of covering the journey to work and back without needing to be charged up. Of course, the bigger issue is if you're doing longer journeys, although some makers such as BMW offer schemes that allow you to hire a conventional petrol-powered model if you need one for a big trip. And if you are concerned about electric range, then the latest plug-in hybrids may be worth looking at instead.

Purchase price

Electric cars are still relatively expensive, carrying a premium of around £10k over an equivalently sized petrol or diesel powered car. At least the PICG helps cut costs a bit, especially for the cheaper models on sale, but they're still relatively expensive when you consider their more limited range.

Depreciation has been an issue in the past too, with many EV models losing significant chunks of value when the time came to sell on. This is less of a problem today with limited supply of some desirable electric car models helping to prop-up used prices. 

Driving fun

There's no escaping that the heavy batteries of an EV do dull the driving experience somewhat. In addition, the lack of engine noise from the electric motor takes away some of the driving thrill for people who like to get involved in what they're driving. In addition, the direct drive and lack of gearbox also detracts from the driving fun, so enthusiasts still feel rather numb at the thought of EV driving.

 

Electric cars: pros and cons

ProsCons
• Zero emissions• Charging points
• Buying incentives• Charging time
• Low running costs• Battery range
• Tax benefits• Purchase price
• Comfort• Driving fun
• Acceleration 

Vist our sister site DrivingElectric for information on electric car battery life, then click on to page 2 for our electric car owner case studies...

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Senior test editor

Dean has been part of the Auto Express team for more than 20 years, and has worked across nearly all departments, starting on magazine production, then moving to road tests and reviews. He's our resident van expert, but covers everything from scooters and motorbikes to supercars and consumer products.

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