Electric cars: Five important questions answered by Which?

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Is it time to buy an electric car? Exclusive report from Which? answers five of the most pressing questions motorists will have about switching to a battery-powered vehicle


Buying a new car is unlikely to be near the top of many people’s to-do lists in the middle of the coronavirus crisis, but time spent at home gives the opportunity to research whether it is time to go electric when you do next upgrade your motor.

With the ban on the sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid cars brought forward to 2035 – and even potentially 2032, according the transport secretary Grant Shapps – more drivers will be contemplating making an early switch to electric vehicles.

While there’s no doubt the UK needs to address its air pollution issue, what are the other benefits and potential pitfalls of owning a battery car?

Consumer group Which? has given us its exclusive expert answers to five of the key questions buyers are asking about electric vehicles right now…

Is it time to buy an electric car? Exclusive report from Which? answers five of the most pressing questions motorists will have about switching to a battery-powered vehicle

1. Are electric cars really that green?  

One of the biggest arguments between early adopters of electric cars and steadfast combustion-engine fans centres around the environmental benefits – if any – of battery-powered vehicles. 

Various studies have shown that electric vehicles, while not entirely green, are not as polluting as petrol and diesel equivalents.

Analysis by research organisation BloombergNEF in 2019 found that CO2 emissions produced by electric vehicles charged with non-renewable power are still 40 per cent lower than the outputs of cars with internal combustion engines.

Which? said it also knows that battery cars are cleaner because it measures carbon outputs from the exhaust pipe (which electric cars don’t have) and calculates a car’s well-to-wheel (WTW) CO2. 

CO2 emissions produced by electric vehicles charged with non-renewable power are still 40% lower than the outputs of petrol or diesel cars, a recent study found

CO2 emissions produced by electric vehicles charged with non-renewable power are still 40% lower than the outputs of petrol or diesel cars, a recent study found

‘This takes into account the CO2 impact of generating and delivering the fuel, as well as how efficiently the car uses it,’ the product-testing company said,

‘It’s based on an EU-wide average for generating and delivering fuels, so there will be variations. But what’s clear is that getting electricity into cars in general requires more CO2 than petrol or diesel. 

‘However, when you look at how efficiently a car uses its fuel, our independent tests found that petrol and diesel cars have a WTW CO2 average of 188-190g/km, compared with 115g/km for electric.’

It says, based on its tests, electric cars are far from sin-free, but are still ‘substantially less responsible for CO2’ than a combustion equivalent.

And if energy production shifts more towards renewable sources, such as solar, wind or hydopower in the future, WTW figures for electric cars will continue to decline. 

2. Are the ranges of electric models becoming less of an issue?

One of the biggest drawbacks of electric car ownership for drivers is the restriction on range.

However, as battery technology is rapidly developing and makers are bringing new and better models to market with extended driving distances between charges.

You no longer need to spend over £80,000 on an expensive Tesla to travel more than 200 miles on a single charge – more affordable examples from Kia (Kona Electric), Hyundai (e-Niro) and Tesla (Model 3) can achieve these sorts of figures in the real world.

Relatively more affordable models, like the Hyundai Kona Electric, have ranges in excess of 200 miles, even in real-world tests

Relatively more affordable models, like the Hyundai Kona Electric, have ranges in excess of 200 miles, even in real-world tests

And Which? has found from its own car survey that owners of electric vehicles are doing plenty of miles in their machines. 

Figures show that EV drivers are averaging 9,257 miles a year, which is more than petrol-car owners.

‘That works out at just less than 180 miles a week, which is possible on a single charge these days with some cars, and two charges with just about everything else.’

3. Electric cars have fewer moving parts so must be more reliable, right?  

This isn’t necessarily the case, as Which?’s annual car reliability survey has found that they’re not without their issues. 

In the most recent poll in 2019, it found that petrol and hybrid car owners suffered less faults per car than those driving electric. 

Tesla’s Model S and Model X are top of the tree in terms of electric car range, but they are rock bottom for EV reliability.

And just over one in four owners of electric cars under three-years old had a problem to report. That rises to more than a third in cars aged 3-8 years. 

The consumer group said these older cars also suffer a higher breakdown rate than other fuel types and spent twice as much time in the garage than average.

But despite this overall higher fault rate, you might be surprised to find out that electric car owners are some of the most satisfied car owners going. 

The Tesla Model S has been the most-loved car for years, and the current Nissan Leaf is has been voted the medium-sized hatchback that most satisfying to run.

Tesla¿s Model S and Model X (pictured) are top of the tree in terms of electric car range, but they are rock bottom for EV reliability, says owners who filled in the latest Which? Car Survey

Tesla’s Model S and Model X (pictured) are top of the tree in terms of electric car range, but they are rock bottom for EV reliability, says owners who filled in the latest Which? Car Survey

4. Are electric cars becoming more practical to run? 

If you can charge your car somewhere off the road or at home, then they are unquestionably practical to own. However, that’s still not the case if you only have on-street parking or live in a flat. 

‘If you have nearby supermarkets or car parks with chargers, it makes it easy to do the weekly shop, or whatever you want to do, at the same time as getting a charge to last you a week (that 180 miles), which should make it more convenient,’ the report says.

But it goes on to acknowledge that there are known issues with public chargers, including a lack of accessible charging points and devices not always working. 

However, the biggest bugbear is the large number of different networks, each requiring an app, a website or a radio-frequency identification (RFID) card.

‘To see how feasible it is to run an electric car if you don’t have a charger, we drove an Audi e-tron SUV for a week,’ explains expert Adrian Porter.

‘We ended up with a website and four apps on hand just to use the charging points around us, and that’s a pain.’

This should improve later this year, with the government providing funds for a range of new rapid chargers with pay-as-you-charge facilities using contactless card. 

5. Have we reached a sweet spot where electric cars are less expensive to own than petrol and diesel?

The biggest hurdle stopping this happening is the higher cost of electric models, which still come at a significant premium over a similar car with a combustion engine.

This hasn’t been helped by the government’s recent decision to cut the plug-in car grant with immediate effect following the latest Budget.

The subsidy has been reduced from £3,500 to just £3,000, and is now only available for electric models with a purchase price under £50,000 – eliminating the likes of Tesla.

Running costs can also be high if you can’t charge at home. 

Those with an off-street charger are able to switch tariffs to competitive rates so the can keep bills low.   

And while some charging points are free, the rates being charged by some public charger networks can make it very expensive – as What Car? discovered in a recent market report. It said some public networks can be up to 10 times as expensive to use than charging at home.

And while electric cars with zero CO2 emissions are – in theory – exempt from road tax, you’re still likely to be stung by Vehicle and Excise Duty.

Any new model bought for more than £40,000 (which will be the case for many EVs) is subject to a higher rate tax for five years (staring in the second year), costing a staggering £320 a year. 

Is it time to contemplate making the switch? Only if you can charge at home, says Which?'s report

Is it time to contemplate making the switch? Only if you can charge at home, says Which?’s report

The Which? verdict… 

‘You can and are able to swap to an electric car in the knowledge that it really is better for the environment, at least in terms of running it, given our WTW CO2 figures. 

‘There’s no denying it’s much easier and cheaper if you charge it from home, but this requires offroad parking you can get power to, which not everyone has.

‘The initial cost of buying an electric might be high, but keep an eye out for reducing prices.’ 

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