Should I buy an electric car?

It’s safe to say that most drivers expect to go electric at some point. But with ever-changing technology, charging networks and grants, you may be wondering if it’s the best time to buy an electric car or if you’d be wise to wait.

Steve Smethurst

The car industry is making plans for the future and it’s a future that doesn’t involve petrol or diesel. The internal combustion engine (ICE) is being phased out and it’s only a matter of time before the air is cleaner and our roads are quieter. 

Even now, a driver is never more than 25 miles away from a rapid charge-point anywhere along England’s motorways and major A-roads Footnote [1] and, from 2035, you will no longer be able to buy a new ICE car in the UK Footnote [2] . So, is now the time to buy an electric vehicle (EV)? 

Is an electric car worth it?

“One of the key considerations is cost,” says Steve Fowler, editor in chief at Auto Express, Carbuyer and Driving Electric. “You have to weigh up the purchase price against the savings you'll make over the course of your ownership,” he says. “The most obvious is the cost of electricity versus fuel, which is around one-fifth to one-tenth of the cost, plus road tax, which is currently set to zero.”

Additionally, electric cars are free to drive into many congestion or low-emission zones and, in some places, park. “The savings soon add up,” says Steve, “and many more cities in the UK will be enforcing clean air zones in the coming years.”

Safety and maintenance

"Some drivers might be concerned about heightened EV fire risk, but this is something of a misnomer," says Richard Billyeald, chief technical officer at automotive risk intelligence company Thatcham Research. “Our data indicates that EVs are actually less likely to catch fire than ICE vehicles. As drivers, we accept that we are positioned directly behind a highly combustible tank of petrol and trust that vehicle manufacturers have taken appropriate measures to minimise the risk. In the same way, vehicle manufacturers diligently protect high voltage batteries within crash structures.”

He does however caution that “it’s important that EV owners report even seemingly innocuous impacts to their insurer. In addition to damaging the charging system when you come to plug in at home, a damaged battery can also be vulnerable to ‘thermal runaway’ and ignite some time after an accident.” 

What about my EV battery?

“Battery life isn't an issue,” says Steve. “In most cases, the battery will outlast the ownership period and they tend to come with eight-year warranties.” 

Range is another matter, however. Steve says, “Some of the smaller, city-focused electric cars only have a range of 60 miles before they need charging, but they might only be driven 10-20 miles a day and can be charged overnight [see below]. 

“The longest-range electric cars can go around 250 miles on a charge — although it's important to remember range depends on the type of roads and speeds you travel at, your driving style and the weather, as the cold reduces a battery’s capacity to store energy, as well as putting a bigger demand on the car as you use your lights, heaters and so on,” he says.

The public charging network

“It's fair to say the public-charging network is a challenge,” says Steve. Although the Combined Charging System (CCS) is at least standard across all new cars. “If you want a fast charger, it has an additional part on the same CCS plug,” he says. 

“Charging once a week at home has been more than adequate when I’ve driven EVs,” says Steve. “If you are on a long motorway journey and need to top up, if you stop for half an hour, you should be able to get something like 60% of the range. Mostly, it’s a case of learning how to use the system — finding out where the chargers are and having the appropriate apps on your phone.” 

Other electric car charging options

Home charging is easy if you have a house with a private parking space. As Steve says, “With grants, putting a charge point on your home can cost less than £500, and will provide enough energy flow to charge most cars from empty to full in around 12 hours. It's one of the most appealing aspects of electric car ownership, as you can start each day with full range.”

But what if you live in a flat or a house without a private parking space? Professor Christian Brand, associate professor at the Transport Studies Unit, University of Oxford and co-director of the UK Energy Research Centre, says: “With time, people may be able to charge at lamp posts along their street but in the short term it will be petrol stations, possibly their office, or in empty supermarket car parks at night. More futuristic options being explored include induction pads embedded in major roads, which charge cars as they drive over them.” 

Professor Brand also points out there are battery exchange options. "Battery swapping – where you swap a discharged battery for a fresh one at specialised swap stations in a matter of minutes – is becoming increasingly popular in certain parts of the World and for certain types of EV such as electric motorbikes in Kenya and electric cars and scooters in China."

Which electric car should I buy? 

“It depends on your definition of affordable,” says Steve. “Tesla is leading in technology and, at their affordable end, the Model 3 starts at around £40,000. Elsewhere, Hyundai and Kia are both good in terms of their battery technology and their efficiency.

“Hyundai recently launched the Ionic 5, which has the sort of impressive technology that Porsche has in its electric car. Likewise, Volkswagen has launched the ID.3 and that tech will be rolled out across Seat, Skoda and Audi.

“And if you look at the Stellantis group, which includes Vauxhall, Peugeot and Citroen, there are lots of affordable, good quality EVs that will do around 200 miles on a single charge.”

The problem with electric SUVs

Professor Brand recommends that people avoid SUVs and hybrids, however. “Even an electric SUV uses 15%-30% more energy than a comparable sedan or hatchback. Plug-in hybrids are also problematic in that many users drive on the ICE most of the time. Even worse are ‘self-charging hybrids’. They recharge via the ICE, so are still 100% powered by fossil fuels,” he says.

Grants could be phased out by 2025

“The incentives won't last forever,” warns Steve. “There are grants to take money off the car’s purchase price, the installation of a charging point, you don't pay road tax and there are tax breaks available if you fulfil certain criteria. But most projections suggest these will be reduced significantly by 2025, when the price of an electric car is expected to reach parity with ICE cars.”

Another worry is whether by waiting you might find a much more affordable EV with better technology. “It's a valid concern,” says Steve. “But as with mobile phones, software updates will download overnight and you’ll find that your infotainment has changed or the car’s efficiency might have improved.”

Should I lease or buy an electric car?

“It’s also worth remembering,” says Steve, “that the vast majority of cars these days are leased rather than bought. Most significantly, subscription services are popping up whereby you can lease a car for shorter periods, with no obligations on how long you must have it. It's a neat solution given statistics suggest that most cars are left empty 95% of the time.”

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