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Should I buy an electric car?

Until recently, if you wanted to buy a car you chose between petrol or diesel-engined models. Then along came hybrids and before long we’ll probably have hydrogen power too. But for now the new kid on the block is the electric car, which is getting more popular by the month here in the UK.

The first usable electric car went on sale here five years ago. That was the Nissan Leaf and it’s gone on to be by far the most popular EV (electric vehicle) in Britain. Along the way it’s been joined by an array of rivals such as the Renault Zoe, BMW i3, Mitsubishi i-MiEV and the groundbreaking Tesla.

When the first Leafs were delivered the UK’s charging infrastructure was still in its infancy, but five years of investment has massively expanded the network of charging points. According to Zap-Map (, there are over 3,400 charging points in the UK, with almost 9,000 chargers between them. These include hotels, railway stations, motorway service stations and public car parks.

So while you had to be pretty committed to the eco cause back in 2010 to buy an electric car, things have moved on considerably since then. The cars are better – with greater ranges and quicker charging times – there’s a wider choice of models and it’s never been easier to find a charging point. But are electric cars still too flawed to be considered a viable proposition?

The financial side

If you’re buying a new electric car you’ll be able to benefit from the government’s Plug-In Car Grant scheme, which provides a £5,000 subsidy. Now extended until at least February 2016, this grant helps to offset the greater levels of depreciation that are currently typical for EVs.

While this extra loss in value makes buying new less attractive for some, it makes buying used even easier to justify. You can buy a newer, lower-mileage EV for less cash than you’d have to pay for the more conventional petrol or diesel alternative.

The savings continue after that, as recharging a car with a 100-mile range typically costs just £2 or so. Throw in much cheaper servicing along with exemption from road tax and London’s congestion charge and you could be saving several thousand pounds each year by switching to an EV.

However, before buying a used model, clarify whether the batteries are leased or included in the cost of the car. If they’re leased, you’ll have to add this monthly cost onto the purchase price and over the year this will add several hundred pounds to the running costs.

Are electric cars reliable?

Of course it doesn’t matter how much money you save on road tax and maintenance if appalling reliability means you have to spend a fortune on constant repairs. But EVs are much simpler than cars with an internal combustion engine.

At the moment all electric cars are still under warranty; the earliest Leafs will be out of their guarantee period from February 2016. So far there haven’t been any widespread reports of problems such as failed motors or batteries. The most likely issue with the former is tired brushes which are cheap to fix.

When it comes to battery reliability, how the car is used and stored is key. If it’s left for weeks on end with a flat battery, there’s a good chance that the battery will be irreparably damaged. At current prices you really don’t want to have to fork out for a new battery pack; costs range from £5,000 (Nissan Leaf) to around £20,000 (Volkswagen e-Up and e-Golf).

However, by the time batteries start to fail in significant numbers, cheaper aftermarket alternatives should be available. You’re also unlikely to have to replace the entire battery pack, which typically consists of around 192 cells. You’re more likely to have to just replace individual cells, which will slash costs considerably.

What about usability?

Ian Francis is a moderator for the Speak EV forum (; he and his wife Elaine are on their second Nissan Leaf, both bought as ex-demos at big savings over the list price. Says Ian: “Our fuel bills were getting out of hand so after months of research I decided to take the plunge and buy a Nissan Leaf to run alongside our Land Rover Freelander 2.

“The leaf was meant to be our second car, but after a year we’ve done 16,000 miles in the Nissan and just 5,000 miles in the Land Rover. The Leaf is far more usable than we thought it would be which is why it’s quickly become our main car”.

Ian continues: “I relax more when I’m driving the Leaf. I’m in less of a hurry and often take quieter, slower roads and just enjoy the journey more. Always setting off fully charged will help, which can require some organisation – but it’s worth it”.

John Cutler is even more of an EV convert. He runs a taxi firm in Blackpool that has 21 Leafs on its fleet, with more on the way. Says John: “The Leaf is comfortable and offers the same sort of passenger and luggage space as a small family hatchback. So it’s just as practical yet the running costs are less than a third of an equivalent diesel or petrol-engined alternative”.

So should you buy an electric car?

Before taking the plunge you need to answer a few key questions, to decide whether or not an EV will fit into your life. These include:

  • How long does the car take to charge?
  • Where will you charge it?
  • What is the car’s range?
  • What warranty does the car come with?
  • Are the batteries leased or bought?
  • How often do you undertake a journey longer than the maximum range?

If you tap into the experiences of other EV owners you’ll find unbiased answers to these questions and far more besides. You also need to find a good dealer whether you’re buying new or used; the level of staff training can vary hugely.

Finally, check out the government’s Go Ultra Low website ( which offers an overview of the different technologies, the EVs currently available and much more. Go in with an open mind and you might just find that an EV suits you far better than you thought it would.

Richard Dredge
September 2015