The electric car is finally here, but is it worth it?

Car buying advice
The Car Expert can advise if an electric car is a good choice for you

It seems like we’ve been waiting forever for electric cars to come along, but after countless false starts over the years, it looks like the electric car is finally here to stay.

Now, we need to start with some boring terminology: A true electric car (EV, for Electric Vehicle) has no petrol engine as backup, so you are reliant on the batteries having enough charge to get you to where you need to go. The Nissan Leaf is the best-known electric car currently on sale.

A regular hybrid uses an electric motor and/or a petrol motor, depending on the circumstances. You don’t plug it into a wall socket as the batteries charge while you are driving. A typical journey, even a short one, will use both electric and petrol power to drive the wheels. The Toyota Prius is the most popular and best-known hybrid on sale around the world.

A plug-in hybrid, “range-extending” electric car, is technically more of a fancy hybrid than a true EV although it drives more like an EV than a regular hybrid. In practice it might be a huge difference or none at all, depending on how you use the car. A range-extender, or plug-in hybrid as it’s more commonly known, has a petrol engine which can be used to power the electric motor once the batteries have drained, but the petrol engine does not directly drive the wheels*. The Vauxhall Ampera/Chevrolet Volt twins are the leading example of this type of car, and they claim an urban fuel consumption of 300mpg (yep, that’s three hundred. Not a typo!)

A car running on an electric motor is usually very quiet (eerie silence or a distant hum instead of a clearly audible petrol engine) and smooth (no vibrations from engine or gearbox). The response from the car away from rest is both immediate and powerful, as electric motors generate huge amounts of torque instantly. They’re quiet from the outside to, to such an extent that the EU is considering making audible warnings compulsory in the future as pedestrians simply won’t hear an electric car coming.

In terms of exciting handling, electric cars are usually not brilliant, it must be said. They tend to be very heavy and usually run tyres & wheels more beneficial for economy than handling. But as a commuter vehicle around town, they are zippy and efficient. Plus they generate less noise, heat and pollution into the street so a traffic jam of Nissan Leafs in the city would be a lot more pleasant for passing pedestrians.

The batteries on a typical electric car only give it enough range for a few miles (although a true EV will have a bigger battery pack as it doesn’t have to fit a petrol engine & fuel tank as well), so the cars use various means to charge the battery while driving. Usually this involves converting kinetic energy from coasting and braking to electric energy to store in the batteries. The Fisker Karma even has solar cells in its roof to charge the batteries as well.

However, a longer journey will inevitably mean that the batteries are drained.  In a fully electric car that means you have to stop and charge the batteries, so hopefully you parked near a power socket somewhere and have several hours to find something else to do.  In a hybrid, the petrol engine will start up to provide the power. In a regular hybrid like a Prius, the car effectively becomes an ordinary petrol car, albeit with a fairly underpowered engine pushing a heavy car around so it’s not swift. In a ‘range extender’ like the Ampera/Volt, the petrol engine provides energy to the electric motor to drive the wheels, which is more efficient in both performance and economy. Depending on how you’re driving, any spare energy from the petrol engine can be used to charge up the batteries again, so the car may switch back to electric power once charging is complete.

So what does this mean in the real world?

Well, how much of the following driving do you do?  We’re assuming here that the batteries are fully charged when you set off.

Short trips (<50 miles between charges).

These sort of journeys are ideal for electric cars and plug-in hybrids, as the batteries will cope with the whole journey and also get some charge while you drive. A regular hybrid will still need to use the petrol engine, although how much depends on how you drive it and how much charging it is able to get along the way.

Medium trips (50-100 miles between charges).

These are the sorts of trips that give EV drivers plenty of stress, as the traffic conditions may mean you run out of juice before you make it to your charging point. A plug-in hybrid or regular hybrid will be fine because they can call on the petrol engine. In a regular hybrid, this means the car will be petrol powered for most of the journey. In a plug-in hybrid, it will be mainly electric with the petrol engine kicking in to top up the batteries if needed late in the journey.

Longer trips (100+ miles between charges)

Not feasible in a fully-electric car, as you will almost certainly run out of electricity before you get there. The regular hybrid is basically a petrol car for almost the whole journey and the plug-in hybrid is majority electric but supplemented by petrol in a far more efficient way than a regular hybrid.

The pros and cons:

Let’s summarise the three types of electrically-powered cars:

Regular hybrid (eg – Toyota Prius)

PROS:  cheaper, no charging required, no range anxiety, regular petrol engine makes it feel like a regular petrol car

CONS:  only very short journeys (a few miles at best) will be fully electric, small battery pack and weak petrol engine means relatively poor performance compared to a normal petrol car or a fully electric car, poor economy when driven hard (like most Prius minicabs in London…), not very spacious for passengers and luggage due to carrying petrol and electric powertrains in one car

Fully electric car (EV) (eg – Nissan Leaf)

PROS:  powerful electric motor gives much better performance than a regular hybrid, larger battery pack means longer electric running , no petrol engine reduces weight and frees up a lot of space, £5000 government rebate, electricity is cheaper and usually less polluting than petrol, privileged parking spaces in certain public places

CONS: Still expensive despite rebate, minimal range capability due to lack of petrol engine backup, resulting range anxiety is a real issue for drivers, question marks over battery life, technology advances will make next generation massively better and hurt resale value, some driving adaptation required, lengthy recharging required after even a moderate drive,

Plug-in hybrid / range-extender (eg – Vauxhall Ampera)

PROS: powerful electric motor and backup petrol engine give best combination of performance and range, most journeys will be fully electric which is cheaper than petrol, no range anxiety, privileged parking spaces in certain public places

CONS: Very expensive despite rebate, question marks over battery life and resale value, wall socket charging is still slow, lack of space and very heavy due to having petrol engine and fuel tank as well as electric motor and batteries.

Electric car economics – is it all worth it?

For most people, an electric vehicle is difficult to justify on pure hard-headed economics.   Even with a £5,000 rebate from the government, an electric car is expensive.  A Nissan Leaf starts at £31,000, so after the government gives you £5K you have spent £26K on a car which would be probably worth about £15K if it had a normal petrol engine.  That could conceivably buy you a decade’s worth of fuel!  And there are still question marks hovering over the long-term reliability of batteries and resale value, which may bite you hard somewhere down the line.

Electric cars and the environment

Buying a hybrid or electric car because you think you’re helping the environment may not be helping that cause as much as you think, if at all. Producing car batteries is a dirty and complicated process, and the net result is that there is a significantly higher environmental impact in building an electric or hybrid car than building a regular petrol or diesel car. So you’re starting behind the environmental eight-ball before you’ve even driven you new green car.

Beware of “zero emissions” claims about electric vehicles, because most electricity still comes from fossil fuel sources (like gas or coal) rather than renewable sources, so you are still polluting the atmosphere when you drive, albeit not as much and the effects are not as noticeable to you. If you have your own solar panels or wind farm to power your car, this is much more environmentally friendly.

Range anxiety

The biggest electric car turn-off for car buyers (other than the high purchase price) is the joint problem of very limited range and very slow recharging. In a petrol or diesel car, you can drive for a few hundred miles, pull into a petrol station and five minutes later you are ready to drive for another few hundred miles. In an electric car, you drive for 50-100 miles, then have to stop and charge it for several hours to drive another 50-100 miles.

If you only take short journeys and can keep the car plugged in whenever it stops (usually at home or work), this may never be a problem. But you can’t expect to jump in the car and drive a couple of hundred miles, or get away with forgetting to plug the car in overnight after a journey. You have to be much more disciplined in terms of planning your driving, and allow for recharging. Away from home this is still a big problem as there are relatively few power sockets available in public parking areas for you to use.

A plug-in hybrid like the Vauxhall Ampera/Chevrolet Volt gets around the range anxiety problem, as does a normal hybrid like a Toyota Prius, but you are carting a petrol engine (and fuel) around all the time which you may not need, adding hundreds of kilos of weight and taking up lots of space, so it’s a compromise.

So as you can see from all of the above, it’s not at all straightforward. You need to carefully consider what sort of driving you will be doing and what you need your car to be able to do.

Further reading on environmentally-friendly driving

Fuel economy – petrol vs. diesel: The Car Expert explains the differences.

Fuel economy – real-world vs. official figures: The Car Expert explains why most drivers can’t match the official fuel economy figures on their cars.

Fuel economy – Are diesel cars suitable for city driving?: The Car Expert explains how urban driving affects diesel drivers.

Should you buy an electric car? Ask The Car Expert!

*there is a complicated technical argument about whether the Ampera/Volt’s petrol engine directly drives the wheels under certain circumstances, but it’s really boring and doesn’t really make any difference to anybody.

Stuart Masson

Stuart is the Editor of The Car Expert, which he founded in 2011, and our new sister site The Van Expert. Originally from Australia, Stuart has had a passion for cars and the car industry for over thirty years. He spent a decade in automotive retail, and now works tirelessly to help car buyers by providing independent and impartial advice.

15 Comments

  1. Why are there no diesel hybrids? If diesel is better for economy then wouldnt a diesel hybrid be better than a petrol hybrid?

    Reply
    • Stuart Masson

      Hi Sarah,

      Diesel hybrids are starting to come to market, but it has taken longer than for petrol hybrids. There are a few reasons for this, and it also depends on who you ask. I think the two reasons that are most likely are: 1) diesel engines are less-suited to stop/start running and short trips which you get on a hybrid in city driving. They don’t start as easily and smoothly as a petrol engine, so it is more noticeable when it’s happening, and diesels emit soot when they are cold, which has to be trapped by a special filter (called a DPF) and can get clogged if the engine is not doing enough running; and 2) the development of hybrids has been led by America and Japan, where diesel is nowhere near as popular as it is in Europe. So rather than trying to scare customers with two new fuel concepts in one car, a petrol hybrid is more familiar to most people there.

  2. Is a Vauxhall Ampera really a good investment? I figure that resale is going to be terrible compared to a normal car.

    Reply
    • Stuart Masson

      Hi Andy,

      It’s a big leap of faith at the moment, but if petrol prices continue to increase (and if people keep panic buying petrol!) then fuel-efficient cars will be more and more desirable as a used car. We already see this in the used car market, where gas-guzzling cars lose a lot more of their value than fuel-efficient cars. Diesels usually have higher resale than petrol cars, hybrids seem to be doing well as used cars at the moment, and so on. What will work against the Ampera is likely to be a big jump from Version 1 to Version 2 when that arrives in a few years’ time, as the jump in performance, range and recharging speed is likely to be much bigger than you would get on an all-nre petrol car replacing an old one.

  3. What do you think of the new Prius plug-in model? Is it better than the Ampera?

    Reply
    • Stuart Masson

      Hi Katherine,

      From what I understand, the Prius plug-in will be cheaper than the Vauxhall Ampera/Chevrolet Volt, but not quite as strong in terms of performance or range. However, it is yet to hit the UK market so there is not a lot of information available yet.

  4. So how long until a car like the Ampera becomes viable for the majority of buyers? At £35K they’re having a laugh. Even with a £5K government handout they are far too expensive.

    Reply
    • Stuart Masson

      I’d say it’s going to be at least another 5 years before electric or plug-in cars start to achieve really significant numbers of sales. By then the prices should start to come down enough, and there will be enough charging points available, that a larger number of people will feel comfortable making the leap to an electric car. Although if a manufacturer can come up with an electric car that doesn’t look like a weird version of a petrol car, they might have a hit on their hands. The Prius, Volt, Ampera, Leaf et al are not especially attractive-looking machines, which doesn’t help their cause.

  5. My hubby and I looked at an electric car, as I want to do my bit to be enviro-friendly. But the numbers just don’t add up for any of the electric cars. I worked out we would have to do about 200,000 miles in a diesel car to recover the extra expense of buying a new Leaf or Volt. Its pointless.

    Reply
    • Stuart Masson

      Yes, it’s the up-front cost of electric cars that is really limiting sales at the moment. If they were comparable in price to a diesel car, plenty more people would learn to live with the charging issue. But if you are patient, the pricing will eventually become more competitive.

  6. Pretty much sums up my feelings when I looked at the numbers, like the idea but there’s no way known I can justify it.

    Reply
  7. I like the idea of buying a car like the Ampera, but its just not affordable for me. Maybe next time….

    Reply
  8. It’s a chicken/egg problem. Electric cars won’t get more popular until the get cheaper, and they won’t get cheaper unless they become more popular. I’m not holding my breath.

    Reply
  9. Finally, a blog about electric cars and hybrids which doesn’t push a barrow for a particular paymaster. Good to read some clear and unbiased advice on EVs for a change! Brian

    Reply
  10. How does the Prius plugin compare to a regular Prius. Is it worth the extra money?

    Reply

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