Could an electric car be for you? Nat Barnes looks at advances in the industry and the best new options on the market.
Electricity. We use it to light our homes, cook our food and make a cup of tea, so why not to power our cars?
Last year, sales of alternatively fuelled new cars in the UK – hybrids, electric and fuel cell cars – rose by more than a fifth, which was on top of a 40 per cent rise in 2015. After a somewhat slow start, British drivers are finally beginning to embrace electric powered motoring.
Electric cars have been around a lot longer than you might think. British inventor Thomas Parker built the first production electric car as long ago as 1884, and they enjoyed considerable popularity in the early days of motoring. It was only the arrival of cheap petrol and the greater range and speed of cars powered by internal combustion engines in the early 1900s that would seal the fate for electric-powered motoring.
Until now, that is, because electric motoring is back in all its forms. Those last four words are crucial if you’re considering battery power for your next car. Electric cars come in numerous shapes and sizes, from those that run on electricity alone (EVs), have assistance from a petrol or diesel engine (hybrids or range extended vehicles) or even run on hydrogen.
None of them are without their drawbacks. For all-electric cars, there’s the thorny subject of range. At present, most EVs can cover around 120-150 miles on a full charge (which usually costs £2-2.50), but then can require up to eight hours to recharge after being plugged in. That makes them ideal for urban use if you have easy access to a charging point, but not if you don’t have off-street parking or need to travel further in a hurry.
Away from home, charging points are run by different companies and with different charging rates, meaning you might need to have multiple accounts with multiple firms. Rather illogically, you can’t just turn up and swipe your credit card as you might think. The cost of fitting a charging point at home can vary, too, from £700 to nothing depending on the manufacturer and their offers.
Thackery Davis, a teacher from East Sussex, bought his Renault Zoe in 2015. “We originally planned to use the Zoe as our second car, but we’ve ended up using it far more than we imagined,” he says. “We’d definitely recommend it, although you do have to plan ahead in terms of charging it up for longer journeys. For us, the range anxiety isn’t a problem as we’ve got another car, but it might be limiting if it was our only transport.”
Still, there are multiple answers to that range anxiety. Some electric cars can use rapid-charging points, while Tesla has a network of superchargers that can provide 170 miles of range in 30 minutes. Alternatively, there are models such as BMW’s i3, which is sold either in purely electric form (with a 125-mile range) or with a small range extender petrol engine for an extra £3,000, which provides electricity when your range is low and increases distance to 206 miles.
Then there are the ever-popular hybrids. In standard form, hybrids use their batteries for slow-speed urban driving and recharge them as you brake or slow down. However, the recent fashion, especially at the premium end of the market, is for plug-in hybrids. These have larger batteries and, therefore, a longer electric-only range. They also boast considerably lower emissions, meaning much-reduced company car tax bills.
Ah, yes, the thorny issue of tax and politics. At present, there are three levels of government grant for electric cars, ranging from £2,500 up to £4,500 depending on its price, range and emissions. Purely electric vehicles obviously get the most, but any plug-ins over £60,000, such as Volvo’s XC90, don’t get anything at all.
What’s more, as exposed in our previous feature on fleet cars (“Value driven”, November 2016), those plug-in hybrids are only cheap to run if you actually plug them in and utilise their electric-only range. HMRC has yet to address how it will tax electricity for motoring, too. Fully charge your electric car for 150 miles and the government sees next to nothing, whereas an equivalent 150 miles-worth of petrol or diesel (or indeed any amount) sees it earn about 60 per cent of the pump price.
Therein lies the rub for future governments, too. They want us to drive cleaner cars and move to battery power, but are reducing the grants provided as it becomes more popular, and, in turn, will be forced to look at other motoring taxes to recoup the lost revenue from traditional fossil fuels.
The Netherlands’ big tax incentives saw car buyers flock to electric cars in 2015, making the country Europe’s biggest plug-in hybrid market. But when the Dutch government reduced those incentives last year, sales of plug-ins dropped by 47 per cent.
“While the electric car market has progressed, there are still hurdles to overcome and the experience in the Netherlands shows that electric cars are still dependent on incentives for sales,” says Nick Gibbs, UK correspondent for Automotive News Europe. “Battery technology is making some gains but certainly isn’t leaping ahead, and many manufacturers are quoting 2019 or beyond for when electric cars will have a good range and prices equivalent to petrol and diesel models.”
Then again, like Betamax video players, compact discs or the pop career of Martha and the Muffins after Echo Beach (apologies to those under 40), the days of plug-in electric cars could be numbered when they’ve only just begun.
Toyota has already introduced its Mirai fuel cell car, which uses hydrogen to produce electricity to power its cars, so doesn’t need recharging (just refilling). Hyundai and Mercedes are also tapping into this market, having both already had fuel cell models under development for some time.
Unlike charging via a plug, hydrogen can be provided via a forecourt pump in exactly the same process and virtually the same time as a petrol or diesel pump. The real benefits of a fuel cell car are that its only emissions are water – so clean that you could actually drink it. The big downside is the lack of filling points – the UK will have a grand total of 14 by the end of this year.
With all of hydrogen’s ease of use and similarities to today’s filling pumps, it would certainly seem to be the logical next step, although the Toyota Prius has been on sale for 20 years and motorists are only now getting comfortable with hybrid technology.
Electricity may well be powering your car in the future, but perhaps not quite in the way that you might think…
Know your electric cars
Electric vehicles can come in many different forms – here’s how to differentiate between them.
Electric Vehicles (EVs) – eg, Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe, Tesla Model S. As their name suggests, these are purely battery-driven with electric motors.
Electric Vehicles with Range Extenders – eg, BMW i3 REX. The same as fully electric cars but with small extra petrol engines to provide more range when required.
Hybrids – eg, Lexus RX450h, Toyota Prius. Has a petrol or diesel engine for longer or faster journeys, plus a battery pack for extra power or slower, urban driving.
Plug-In Hybrids (PHEVs) – eg, Audi A3 e-tron, Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. Like standard hybrid cars but with larger battery packs for a longer electric-only range.
Fuel-cell vehicles – eg, Toyota Mirai. The same as EVs but with an onboard hydrogen fuel cell to generate electricity. Can only be refuelled by hydrogen alone.
FIVE OF THE BEST
- From £17,845
Renault’s superb Zoe supermini looks cute, drives even better and a new, bigger battery provides a 186-mile range. You can buy the battery outright with the car or hire it separately for a monthly charge.
With looks straight out of a science fiction film, the i8 boasts supercar performance but with tree-loving emissions. Expect a convertible version to be available at some point next year.
Volvo XC90 T8 Plug-In Hybrid
- From £61,715
Volvo’s XC90 is undoubtedly one of the hottest seven-seater SUVs on the market. This flagship T8 version only makes it even more desirable. A 2.0-litre petrol engine combines with an electric motor for an electric-only 30-mile range.
- From £19,995
In a single swoop, Hyundai has effectively out-Priused the Toyota Prius. A smart five-door hatchback, at present the Ioniq comes in either fully electric or petrol-electric hybrid forms, with a plug-in hybrid due later this year.
The UK’s first commercially available fuel cell car that runs on hydrogen. The only downsides are looks that only its mother could love, and that it’s easier to find unicorn tears than a UK filling station.