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What’s an electric car like to drive?

Our comprehensive guide reveals EV driving secrets – and routes to free power – that might surprise you...

Electric cars are becoming an ever-more relevant option for car buyers, with more people than ever interested in making the switch from petrol or diesel to electricity for their next car. But what is an electric car actually like to drive?

As more electric cars arrive in showrooms, potential buyers are full of questions and fears about how far an electric vehicle (EV) will go before its battery expires, and how long it takes to charge it up again. These questions are not necessarily that simple to answer.

In some ways, driving an electric car is just like driving a petrol or diesel one – and car makers have worked hard to make sure the experience is as familiar as possible.

But in other ways, an EV is very different from a traditional car – the way you drive it can significantly affect how much range you get between charges. And where you live and work could also make a big difference to whether an EV might be for you.

To demonstrate what we are on about, The Car Expert has employed the assistance of one of the most ‘normal-looking’ electric cars available, the Volkswagen e-Golf.

Volkswagen e-Golf charging | The Car Expert
The most obvious sign that this is an electric Golf is the charging cable plugged into the back of it

The technical bit

Instead of having a petrol or diesel engine, plus a gearbox, a fuel tank and a complex exhaust system to clean the exhaust fumes before they exit the tailpipe, a typical electric car has an electric motor, a simple transmission and a large battery.

Electric cars don’t have traditional manual or automatic gearboxes because electric motors don’t work that way. The e-Golf has a single-speed transmission, and if you think that sounds archaic when a petrol or diesel car usually has at least six gears, it’s because those types of engines work in very different ways.

With an electric car delivering instant torque, you don’t need six or more gears to keep your car in the right rev range. Maximum torque is on tap immediately, so a single-speed transmission is the most efficient way to send that power from the electric motor to the wheels.

There are far fewer moving parts in an electric car, and the whole thing is much more efficient. A petrol or diesel engine makes a lot of heat and noise, which is all wasted energy. The near-silence of an electric motor is the sound of efficiency.

First impressions

How do you actually tell this is an electric car? From the outside, the e-Golf looks just like any other Golf, rather than boasting futuristic angles and shapes screaming “Look at me, I’m electric!”, like the Nissan Leaf.

Nissan Leaf exterior | The Car Expert
Angular “Look at me, I’m electric!” styling of the Nissan Leaf isn’t to everyone’s taste

On the inside, too, this car looks like a regular Golf. Only when you turn it on does the dashboard display show battery info rather than a traditional rev counter.

This very familiarity might appeal to those who have been put off going electric because they don’t want to be seen driving something that looks odd. The clear message here is, “This is still a Golf. Don’t be afraid.”

There’s the same amount of space for passengers, both front and rear. However, you do lose a bit of space from the boot, because the batteries for the electric motor are contained under the rear seat.

This is pretty common for hybrid or electric versions of regular cars – they need a lot of batteries, which all have to go somewhere.

In a dedicated electric car, like the Nissan Leaf, the entire vehicle platform is designed differently rather than being adapted from an existing petrol car. That generally means fewer packaging compromises.

Volkswagen e-Golf gauges | The Car Expert
That dial on the left is the main clue that this isn’t a petrol or diesel Golf

Hitting the road

If you’ve never driven an electric car, one of the first things you need to get used to is the almost complete absence of mechanical noise.

Hitting the ‘start’ button appears to result in absolutely nothing happening, and you will probably hit the button again (thereby switching it off) every time you get in the car until your brain gets used to the lack of start-up noise.

Other than the near-silence, the process is exactly the same. Pull the gear lever into Drive and accelerate away. The controls on the e-Golf are all exactly where you’d expect them to be and work exactly as you’d expect them to work. The only difference is that there are a few specific extra functions you can use, which we’ll come to shortly.

Once you’re underway there is a very faint humming sound from the drivetrain, but most of what you will hear will be wind and road noise. You’ll also be far more aware of the noise that other cars around you are making, simply because your own car isn’t making those same noises.

Volkswagen e-Golf in London | The Car Expert
Near-silent e-Golf allows you to appreciate the noise made by other vehicles around you…

One important thing to be aware of is that others won’t hear you, either. So on a crowded street, pedestrians may be more likely to step out in front of you because they haven’t heard you coming.

Out on the road, the e-Golf basically feels just like a normal car but quieter. Underneath, however, the mechanics involved are very different, which means that there some real differences in how it performs.

Continued on next page: Performance, range and driving style
Keep reading: Charging your electric car and cost calculations

Andrew Charman
Andrew is a road test editor for The Car Expert. He is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, and has been testing and writing about new cars for more than 20 years. Today he is well known to senior personnel at the major car manufacturers and attends many new model launches each year.
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