Is now a good time to 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 1 and, from 2030, you will no longer be able to buy a new ICE car in the UK. 2 So, is now the time to buy an electric vehicle (EV)? 

Purchase price versus savings

“One of the key considerations is cost,” says Jim Holder, editorial director at What Car?, “because even with the £3,000 Government grant 3 an electric car is typically at least 20% more expensive than an equivalent ICE car.

An electric car is typically at least 20% more expensive than an equivalent ICE car

“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 Jim, “and many more cities in the UK will be enforcing clean air zones in the coming years.”

Safety and maintenance

In terms of things to worry about, some drivers are concerned about EVs catching fire, says Richard Billyeald, chief technical officer at independent automotive research centre Thatcham Research. “But ICE cars have a tank full of petrol, something we seldom consider in our everyday driving,” he says. 

He does however caution that if you have a minor crash and the car is still driveable, you might want to reconsider plugging it into your home charger. “This can damage the charging system,” he says.

But even with these small concerns, when it comes to maintenance, EVs are ‘relatively easy’.

“In many ways, the ICE is a marvel of technology,” he says, “but there’s more scope for interlinked components to fail, whereas in EVs, the number of moving parts is massively reduced.” 

Batteries and range

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

Range is another matter, however. “Some of the smaller, city-focused electric cars only have a range of 60 miles before they need charging,” says Jim, “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 charging options

Home charging is easy if you have a house with a private parking space. As Jim 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.”

With time, people may be able to charge at lamp posts along their street

But what if you live in a flat or a house without a private parking space? Dr 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.” 

Which electric car to go for? 

“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

Dr 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 Jim. “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.”

Leasing an electric car

“It’s also worth remembering,” says Jim, “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.”

And if you have any last-minute doubts, Jim reminds us that What Car? polling tells us that almost all EV owners say they “couldn't bear to take a step back into an ICE car”.

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