Thinking of buying an electric car? Read this first

Petrol and diesel are coming to an end – so when should you upgrade to an electric car? From range anxiety to tax breaks, this is how to make the right choice for you


08 Feb 2020
Tesla / WIRED

Government plans to bring forward a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2040 to 2035, and outlaw hybrids too, has sparked a surge in online searches for electric cars by UK drivers.

According to AutoTrader, searches for EVs on the day of the government’s announcement grew by 162 per cent. Searches for hybrid vehicles also jumped upwards, despite these now being included on the government’s blacklist – a change described by the UK motor industry as an “extremely concerning” move of the goalposts.

Panic-browsers will have at least been greeted by a large range of plug-in vehicles to choose from, with AutoTrader listing 2,295 electric cars for sale as of February 6, priced from under £4,000 for a seven-year-old Renault Twizzy (range: 62 miles, on a good day), to over £130,000 for a Porsche Taycan.

Those wishing to buy a brand new electric car will have to find £25,000 for a Mini Electric or Renault Zoe, as a category of car once considered out of reach for the many is slowly becoming affordable.

But buying an electric car in the UK in 2020 is far more complex than stumping up the cash and plugging it in. Range, charging, tax breaks, location, your driving habits and even the weather all come into play. And with the proposed 2035 ban looming, it's time to help make sense of it all. Should you buy an electric car in 2020? Environmentally, 100 per cent yes. But, if other concerns are important, it becomes complicated.

When are you buying your next car?

If you’re in the market this year and considering the switch to electric, you’ll soon have more choice than ever. There are the aforementioned £4,000 Twizys at the bottom of the market, but if you’re shopping for new wheels you’ll need to budget £24,400 for the 124-mile Mini Electric (after the £3,500 government grant, more on which later), or £25,670 for a 186-mile Renault Zoe.

Later this year we should see the circa-£35,000, 315-mile Tesla Model Y crossover go on sale. At the other end of the market, well-healed drivers can opt for the Porsche Taycan from £83,000, or if you’ve a couple of million burning a crater in your pocket, there’s the Lotus Evija and Pininfarina Battista, both members of the freshly minted 2,000 horsepower club.

There’s plenty of choice out there, but with the market likely to evolve throughout the decade, savvy buyers looking for the best cost-to-value ratio could find themselves stuck in the same paradox as those who endlessly wait for the next iPhone.

And if you do buy this year, will your sub-150-mile Mini or Honda e hold its value when range stats edge ever upwards over the coming years? This is largely unknown for now, but with cash buyers increasingly switching to personal contract purchase finance deals, residual value is less of a concern as long as you are comfortable with the deposit and monthly payments, and understand how the balloon payment works.

More pressing, however, is this: does an electric car fit into your lifestyle and will it cater for your driving habits today? Let’s answer some questions.

How often do you drive?

If you rack up a lot of short journeys across town an electric car should suit you well, providing you put some initial groundwork into learning where your local public chargers are, and what charging speeds they offer.

Soon you’ll be an EV native, topping up the battery while doing the weekly supermarket shop, or from outside your favourite cafe. And don’t forget, the silent simplicity of driving an EV also makes them excellent city cars.

If your daily commute is a few dozen miles, you might get away with only charging at work. This is possible in some places now, as business parks begin installing chargers in their parking bays. For example, Fraser Properties is fitting rapid 50kW chargers at its business parks in the south east, allowing staff to top up their batteries with the tap of a contactless credit or debit card. If your EV is purely for commuting, this could be all the charge you need.

What about longer journeys?

Again, an element of planning is required. Electric cars have charging stations plumbed into the navigation systems, so it’s relatively straightforward to include charge stops on longer journeys. Some systems, as in a Tesla, tell you exactly how many minutes to charge for at each station, and how much range you’ll have left when you arrive at your destination. They also show how many chargers are offered, and how many are currently available.

Today’s longest range cars are still all Teslas, with the flagship Long Range version of the Model S giving you a claimed 379 miles using the WLTP test cycle. This equates to around 325 miles in the real world, but as with all EVs this can reduce in cold weather and depends on traffic, temperature, elevation change and driving style.

While die-hards will invariably scoff at an EV’s inability to romp across entire continents on a charge, the vast majority of drivers will want to take a break after 200 miles of driving, so having to plug in for 30 or 40 minutes shouldn’t really be seen as an inconvenience.

But, all that said, if you plan to rely on a smaller capacity EV as your only car, and occasionally have to cover long distances, you might want to hold off or even buy a hybrid for now.

What tax breaks are available, and will they last?

As of February 2020, a government grant of up to £3,500 is applied to the price of a brand new low-emissions vehicle. More specifically, the grant will pay for 35 per cent of the purchase price of the vehicle, up to a maximum of £3,500.

The grant fell from £4,500 in early 2019 and was due to end in March, but chancellor Sajid Javid now says it won’t be scrapped. However, we’ll have to wait for the latest budget to know what it will look like going forward.

The discount is applied by the dealer, meaning the buyer needn’t do anything to secure the reduced price, and EVs are often advertised with the discount already in place. Only vehicles approved by the government are eligible for the grant, and to be considered for the full £3,500 they must be able to drive at least 70 miles on pure electric power.

You can also receive £500 off the cost of a home charger and, separately, electric cars will be exempt from company car tax from April 2020. This increases to one per cent in April 2021, then two per cent in April 2022. It is hoped this will encourage the use of EVs among company car fleets.

Can you rely on today’s charging network?

This is surely the most important question when it comes to electric car ownership today. Tesla has its own Supercharger network, which covers much of the UK and Europe and is steadily growing with stations located at motorway services, as well as hotels, business parks and shopping centres.

Tesla believes 99 per cent of the European population is covered by its Supercharger network, meaning at least one station is within the reach of a Tesla car from all but one per cent of households. Its latest third-generation Supercharger can fill the battery of a Model 3 at 250kW, which supposedly adds range at a rate of up to 1,000 miles per hour. However, don't believe the hype – the lithium batteries of electric cars charge more quickly when empty, then slow down as they fill up. So that maximum rate is only possible for a few minutes.

As for everyone else (and Tesla owners plugged into something other than a Supercharger), there is a degree of confusion to overcome. Firstly, a number of different companies run car-charging networks in the UK. But unlike competing BP and Shell petrol stations, they don’t offer an identical means of refuelling.

The first thing to understand is charge rate, most commonly expressed in kilowatts. Tesla Superchargers pump out electrons at up to 250kW, while other chargers are as slow as 3kW, although these are (mercifully) rare. Other charge rates are branded Fast (7kW or 22kW) and Rapid (25kW, 43kW, 50kW, 100KW, 120KW, 150KW and industry-leading 350kW).

Next, you need to be aware of the different types of plug. These are physically different and include Type 2, Commando, Yazaki, CCS, and CHAdeMO.

Confused yet? No? Good, because next up we have payment methods. A few years ago, paying meant setting up an account with each charging network and carrying a contactless RFID card for each, which you tap on the charger to pay. Thankfully, the fog is clearing and charge networks are moving towards contactless payments via debit or credit card, with no need for an account.

Car manufacturers are also helping here. As an example, buyers of the Porsche Taycan receive a Porsche-branded charging account, phone app and RFID card, all of which work with pretty much all compatible chargers. That way, it no longer matters who the charging company is; just plug in, tap your Porsche card and your account will be billed accordingly.

What about charging at home?

While electric car sales still represent a tiny minority, you may well luck out and be the sole user of the handful of chargers to have sprung up in your office car park. But, while this is surely a picture of EV driving nirvana for now, it isn’t sustainable. Once every desk in every office is the workspace of an electric car driver, you’ll have to charge elsewhere.

As an indication of how quickly things could change, EV sales grew by 204 per cent in January compared to last year, according to the The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. Petrol sales fell 9.5 per cent and diesel tumbled 36 per cent.

Home chargers will pick up some of the slack here, and can be bought from around £300 to £1,000, excluding a £500 government subsidy. As with public chargers, home chargers offer different speeds. According to charger manufacturer PodPoint, its 3.6kW home charge will fill a Jaguar I-Pace in “under 25 hours”.

This might sound unfit for purpose, but do you brim your petrol tank every evening? For someone who drives around 200 miles a week, a nightly top-up from that charger could be perfectly adequate. If you need more juice, a 7kW charger will fill the I-Pace in under 13 hours. Still not speedy, but again, how often do you arrive home on an empty tank?

With regard to cost, you’re best plugging in at night to take advantage of lower electricity rates. PodPoint says charging an EV can cost from 2p per mile, so potentially just £5 for a car with a range of 250 miles.

For now, private chargers are installed at the side of your property, so you’re going to need off-street parking. For many cities, and anyone living in an apartment, this isn’t possible.

However, progress is being made to install chargers elsewhere. Charging points are being installed in lampposts in some areas of Coventry, Buckinghamshire and London. Additionally, startups like Urban Electric Networks are developing chargers that rise out of the pavement like a bollard, then disappear into the ground when not in use.

Fitting EV chargers to new-build homes sounds like a no-brainer, and the government has plans in place to facilitate this. A proposal made last summer, currently being analysed, asks for all new homes to be fitted with a car charge point. This is certainly a positive move, but the vague proposal made no mention of properties lacking off-street parking, or what will happen with the car parks of apartment blocks.

It’s a complex situation and one which is moving quickly as the benefits of EV ownership. This year there will be more affordable EV options than ever, and the charging networks will continue to grow. But important questions remain, from residential off-street parking, to the longevity of the government grant, battery recycling, and what might happen to hybrids if they really are banned from sale in 2035.

Ready to buy your first EV? Read the WIRED Recommends guide to the best electric cars to get you started

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