Electric cars are coming – although it’s fair to say that they’re not for everyone quite yet. The UK plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2030, but ahead of that deadline there remains legitimate concern among buyers about how an electric car might suit their lifestyle.
Chief among these apprehensions are “range anxiety” (how far an electric car can travel before the battery needs recharging) and the state of the UK’s public charging infrastructure, while there’s also a big question mark over how long the batteries will last.
In which case you might be forgiven for thinking that, for various reasons, electric cars (EVs) won’t catch on, but that the 2030 ban on petrol and diesel means they have to be taken seriously.
It won’t be an easy transition, but there are plenty of positives. Electric cars are easy and relaxing to drive, pleasingly swift off the mark and generally emissions-free in use. They are also generally much cheaper to run than petrol or diesel models, especially if you are able to charge them at your home using as yet untaxed electricity.
There’s a lot of misinformation concerning electric cars, much of it spewed by organisations which should really know better. Or at least do some proper research before sounding off.
We’re on your side, so the following advice is designed to help you cut through the confusion and the jargon to make an informed decision about whether the time is right for you to go fully electric, or perhaps wait a few years. It’s your choice.
But, as we usually suggest to EV cynics: try it, you just might like it.
Not so long ago electric cars were seen as oddities but they are inexorably becoming the norm, driven by legislation. By 2030, no new purely petrol or diesel cars will be sold in the UK, meaning that the market will be almost entirely electric.
Should you make the switch yet? The choice expands by the week but there remains a lot of confusion about electric cars, so we’ve demystified the market to help you make an informed choice.
Everything you need to know about buying an electric car
Electric or electrified? Main types explained
Put simply, “electric” means that a car uses solely electric power. “Electrified” is a broader term that encompasses hybrids – cars that use a combination of both conventional internal combustion engine and electric power.
Pure electric cars
⇢ also known as: Electric cars, EVs, battery electric cars, BEVs
These have a large battery pack combined with one, two or even three electric motors. They are powered solely by electricity, so you have to charge them.
Best used for: Short- to medium-length journeys and regular commutes, although long-range EVs (around 250 miles’ range or more) with rapid charging can work well.
⇢ also known as: PHEVs
These have a petrol (or, rarely, diesel) engine along with a medium-sized battery and a small electric motor, which can either power the car for a short distance or act as a boost to the engine. They are only fuel efficient when they’re regularly plugged in, but can run without the battery being charged.
Best used for: A mix of frequent short commutes and semi-regular, medium- to longer-range journeys.
⇢ also known as: Self-charging hybrids, full hybrids, HEVs
The original type of hybrid. The electric motor and small battery are almost always used as a boost to the petrol or diesel engine, though some newer models can run on electric power for a mile or two. They work without needing to be plugged in, though, so are great if charging is a problem.
Best used for: Regular long-distance trips or homes where charging is impossible.
The benefits of electric propulsion
Pure electric cars are usually quiet, smooth, spacious and easy to drive. The gearbox works like an automatic, so there are no gear changes or clutch to worry about, and because there is only one gear, acceleration is seamless. There’s no engine noise either and because the motor is small and the battery is usually hidden away under the floor, there’s usually more room inside for passengers.
Electric cars are cost-effective to run, too, because electricity is far cheaper than fuel per mile, and servicing is simpler (and therefore less expensive).
What about the downsides?
At the moment, electric cars don’t go as far between charges as you might expect a petrol or diesel car to travel on a full tank of fuel.
They also take far longer to charge than you would spend adding fuel and, because there are still relatively few public chargers away from main population centres, that means EV drivers have to worry more about how much charge they have left in their battery (this is called “range anxiety”).
Electric cars still tend to be more expensive to buy than their petrol or diesel alternatives, too.
Expensive? I thought there was a Government grant for electric cars
Despite the ending of this financial encouragement, prices are dropping as battery technology becomes cheaper, and it’s expected that electric cars will soon cost the same as – or maybe even less than – their petrol or diesel counterparts.
What’s more, you might find the money you save on running costs (especially with petrol and diesel at record high prices) makes up for the higher price of the car.
Tell me more about those low running costs
More often than not, running an electric car will be cheaper than a petrol or diesel one, simply because electricity is considerably less expensive per mile, especially if you mainly charge at home. Maintenance costs are usually lower, too.
It depends heavily on whether you have a charger at home. Public chargers can be expensive – sometimes so much so that it can make running an electric car costlier than a petrol or diesel one.
For example, a 100-mile journey with electricity bought at 15p per kWh from your home supply might cost you £3.75 in one of today’s electric cars; that same journey with electricity costing 72p per kWh from one of the more expensive public chargers will set you back a whopping £18.
If you’re going to be charging away from home a lot, then, your electric car’s efficiency will matter.
Efficiency? I thought range was the big concern
It’s true that range is lots of people’s primary concern with an electric car – but don’t forget about efficiency, either. Considering the former without thinking about the latter is like worrying about the size of your car’s petrol tank without thinking about its fuel consumption.
The trouble is, for a manufacturer it is easy to add range to a car by simply fitting it with a bigger battery. But a bigger battery adds weight, and that extra weight can mean these longer-range electric cars are less efficient, and will therefore cost you more to run – especially if you’re using public chargers all the time.
How do I find out an electric car’s efficiency?
Most manufacturers now list efficiency figures in their brochures; if you can’t find the figure, ask the dealer instead.
Different manufacturers use different units to measure energy efficiency, but here at The Telegraph we have decided it is simplest to use miles per kilowatt-hour (mpkWh). This makes it easy to work out how much a journey will cost you in an electric car: just divide the journey distance in miles by the efficiency figure in mpkWh, then multiply by your electricity rate in kWh.
What is a kilowatt-hour?
A kilowatt-hour, or kWh, is a unit of energy: 1kWh is enough energy to run an electrical appliance (in this case a car) with a power rating of 1,000 watts, or 1 kilowatt (kW), for one hour.
It might help to think of a kilowatt-hour as being a bit like a litre of fuel. Your battery (or fuel tank) can only hold so many of them; once they’re depleted, the car will stop.
If you have a bigger battery (ie one with a higher kWh rating), it will hold more charge – or fuel – and your car will travel further.
But equally, if your EV is more efficient, it will travel further on fewer kilowatt-hours, so it will cost you less, and you won’t need as big a battery.
Is charging an EV as complicated as it sounds?
It can be, but it’s getting easier. Nowadays many public chargers will offer instant payment via an app, so you don’t have to have a subscription like you used to, while many are now starting to offer contactless credit and debit card payment, too.
The network still isn’t as reliable as it needs to be, though, with users complaining of a high rate of inoperative chargers, but again this state of affairs is improving and reliability should also improve as newer chargers are rolled out across the country.
You also used to have to worry about which type of charging socket your car used – there were several at one point – but now most manufacturers have standardised around one particular type, called the Type 2/CCS charger. Almost every charging point will be compatible with this type of charger now.
How easy is it to get a charger installed at home?
Very. Again, the Government has withdrawn a grant aimed at helping EV buyers install a home charger, but one will set you back between £800 and £1,000. Most chargers will come with fitment included in the price, and an engineer will install it for you, while most car manufacturers will assist with arranging the installation.
You said it takes a long time to charge an electric car, but how long?
You won’t be in and out as quickly as you would stop for fuel, that’s for sure. But you won’t “refuel” in quite the same way, either. Think of an electric car as being a bit like your smartphone: it’s best if you plug it in to charge overnight so that when you want to use it in the morning the battery is full.
If your car needs more juice during the day, a quick blast at a rapid charger should provide enough to get to your destination. Some of the fastest chargers now being installed can charge at huge speeds – adding about 100 miles to your EV’s range in only 10 minutes.
Sounds great – can any electric car use these faster chargers?
No. An electric car is only capable of receiving charge at a certain rate and that’s limited by its on-board charging equipment. Today, the fastest public chargers in the UK are capable of charging at 150kW.
Charging speeds are measured in kilowatts (kW) – think of these as the number of kilowatt-hours you can add to your car’s battery in an hour. So in that time, a 50kW rapid charger will add 50kWh to the battery.
But if your EV is only capable of receiving charge at 50kW, that’s the fastest it’ll charge at, even if you are hooked up to a 150kW charger. So if you want to charge your car in double-quick time, you need one that is capable of being charged quickly.
How long will the car’s batteries last?
All batteries slowly degrade over time; those of EVs are no different. The latest research from Which? suggests a reduction of about eight per cent in usable range over the course of six years, on average. So an EV that had 300 miles of range when new should still be able to manage 276 miles at six years old.
Battery life depends on how well it is treated. Batteries degrade more quickly if they’re repeatedly charged up to 100 per cent, or if they are rapid-charged frequently. But if you only charge up to 80 per cent (unless you really need a full charge) and keep rapid charging to a minimum, you should find your car’s battery lasts much longer.
Most car makers now offer a separate warranty on their EV batteries. This usually guarantees that its capacity won’t drop below a certain percentage of its capacity when it was new, and usually lasts about eight years and 100,000 miles, whichever comes sooner (although warranty terms vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, so it’s best to double-check).
How much does it cost to replace a battery?
At the moment, it will set you back anywhere from £4,000 upwards, depending on the size of the battery and the type of car it’s going into.
However, as the take-up of electric cars increases, the market for reconditioned batteries will expand also and even this cost is predicted to drop to a level where it would at least be on a par with renewing your current car’s internal combustion engine.
The big question: how environmentally friendly are electric cars, really?
The production of EVs causes a great deal more emissions than the production of conventional cars. However, they usually make up for this by producing relatively few emissions in use.
At the moment, it’s reckoned that the break-even point at which an electric car becomes more environmentally friendly than a petrol or diesel equivalent is anywhere between 20,000 and 50,000 miles, although of course that depends greatly on the cleanliness of the electricity being used to power it.
That’s becoming less of a concern as we move to more sustainable electricity production. More of a worry is the use of precious metals – cobalt, lithium and so on – to produce batteries. There are still some very salient concerns about how sustainable the sources for these metals are – not to mention the ethics of their labour practices, given that some come from developing nations.
As electric cars become more commonplace, sourcing these materials may yet become a sticking point.
‘It does 200 miles between recharges – about six times more than I need’
After four years of rare refills with a hybrid car, Sarah Rodrigues and her family tried an all-electric model to discover if it suits their needs.
If I’m completely honest, I miss my black BMW X5. It was cool, combining power and sleekness with a bit of tinted-window SUV attitude and badness. In short, it bore virtually no resemblance to my actual life, in which I am a middle-aged mother of three with a scruffy rescue dog.
It was also outrageously inefficient, requiring costly diesel injections on a regular basis – annoying, given that it was mainly used to ping, unadventurously, between school, supermarket, sports grounds and innumerable drop-offs at and collections from the houses of friends.
When my husband suggested we switch to a hybrid model (a Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, meaning we could either plug it in to charge the battery or use the conventional petrol engine) I was petulantly disappointed, but could see the logic – not least because of the number of “Clean Air” and “No Idling” and “Walk to School” campaigns launched by schools in our area.
I’ve always liked the fact that you can default to fuel if the battery dies in a hybrid – it’s a win-win aspect – but, in all honesty, that situation rarely arises. In fact, the first time that I had to fill the Mitsubishi – on a drive back from the New Forest, about three months after acquiring it – I was aghast to realise, while sitting in the queue of cars at the service station, that I had no idea where the petrol filler cap was.
So, with government grants for electric cars on the table, it makes perfect sense to investigate the possibility of upgrading to a fully electric vehicle, in this case an all-electric Citroën e-C4 family hatchback.
I can appreciate “range anxiety” is an issue for many drivers contemplating the switch, but if there’s one thing that four years of rare refills has taught me, it’s that “range” was scarcely a part of my life even before the pandemic struck.
Even so, the e-C4 is officially able to travel an impressive 217 miles before needing a recharge – which is about six times more than I tend to need on a daily basis. As for the fact that putting the pedal down has an impact on battery life… well, let’s just say that I live in a 20mph zone, am a (probably annoyingly) careful driver and have never had a ticket in my life. It’s plenty.
The car is compact and easy to handle, although the steering feels oddly light, compared to what I’m used to. When the children were younger, I sought solace in the sensation of driving a heavier car: I suppose I equated sturdiness with safety.
It’s less of a focus now, however, and this vehicle offers plenty of room in the back for the dog – and my rapidly growing children who, despite elbowing and punching each other endlessly on longer journeys, seem relatively content to sit shoulder to shoulder on a short drive.
Cold weather has the potential to reduce battery life by up to a third and I imagine this might be a cause for concern for some in this county’s climate, but again, as someone whose driving tends to be limited to a couple of postcodes, it’s scarcely likely to be an issue.
As cars go, this family Citroën doesn’t look very cool – certainly not as cool as my previous BMW X5. But, who am I kidding?
I’ve got a houseful of city-dwelling youngsters who just need a fully stocked fridge and to get from A to B – and whose lungs will benefit from more people switching to an electric vehicle, even if only for daily, rather than distance, use.
Buying new: the top five affordable family electric cars
Here are our top five affordable family EVs.
Price: from £32,300
Electric range: 216-340 miles (WLTP Combined)
Energy efficiency: 3.8-4.2 mpkWh
Volkswagen’s new electric Golf by another name, and just like a Golf it handles tidily, rides well, and feels fresh and modern inside. Fiddly touch-sensitive controls and central screen are the only flaws.
Price: from £34,995
Electric range: 180-282 miles (WLTP Combined)
Energy efficiency: 3.9-4.1 mpkWh
Getting on a bit now, but still one of our favourite electric cars. Tonnes of space, a long warranty and the option of a long-range variant, while it’s comfortable and quiet too.
Tesla Model 3
Price: from £42,500
Electric range: 278-360 miles (WLTP Combined)
Energy efficiency: 3.7-4.2 mpkWh
Tesla’s BMW 3-Series rival; only really affordable in entry-level form, and mired in a reputation for iffy build quality. But still worth considering, for its rapid performance, a smart, spacious interior, and access to Tesla’s own (and very good) Supercharger network.
Price: from £33,700
Electric range: 206 miles (WLTP Combined)
Energy efficiency: not released
Beautiful interior and classy ride and handling. Range not the best for the price, but the E-2008 is well equipped, and looks and feels just like a normal car.
Price: from £32,785
Electric range: 256-331 miles (WLTP Combined)
Energy efficiency: 3.5-4.0 mpkWh
Big, friendly SUV with a classy interior and an easy-going driving experience, though avoid the top-spec Sportline; it isn’t quite as comfortable as the rest.
Our pick of the used Evs
Can’t afford new? No problem. Here’s our five favourite second-hand plug-ins.
Price: from £5,000
Electric range: 130-245 miles
Energy efficiency: up to 3.6mpkWh (latest models)
Been around for years yet still feels fresh, thanks to frequent updates. Careful of battery-leased examples, which incur a monthly fee.
Price: from £10,000
Electric range: 176-191 miles
Energy efficiency: 3.9-4.1 mpkWh
A concept car made flesh. Looks like nothing else on the road and feels great to drive, too. Lack of a fifth seat and a tiny boot limit practicality, though.
Hyundai Ioniq Electric
Price: from £15,000
Electric range: 194 miles
Energy efficiency: 4.5 mpkWh
Not much here to stir the soul – the Ioniq is a bit bland. But the long warranty and high equipment levels mean it’s great value, and it’s roomy and comfortable inside.
Tesla Model S
Price: from £25,000
Electric range: 248-405 miles
Energy efficiency: 3.1-3.4 mpkWh
Original Tesla is infamous for reliability issues, but if you can live with the glitches there’s plenty else to like here: incredible technology, huge range, fabled performance and the company’s cracking Supercharger network.
MG ZS EV
Price: from £18,000
Electric range: 163 miles
Energy efficiency: 3.3 mpkWh
Cheap, cheerful electric SUV can’t match the best on range. But if all you need is a local runaround, it’s comfortable, decent to drive and a long warranty provides added peace of mind.
This article is kept updated with the latest information.