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Electric cars explained – should I buy an EV, and will it save me money?

Porsche Taycan 
The Porsche Taycan might be a bit expensive for most households, but there are clear economic arguments in favour of EV ownership  Credit: manuel hollenbach

No matter where you look in the press, it’s hard to escape mentions of electric cars. Some say electrification is the future – that if electricity generated from a clean, green source can be used to power our daily transport, we’ll have managed to make motoring about as environmentally friendly as it can be at the moment. 

But it isn’t just their green credentials that are tempting buyers. Electric cars are far cheaper to run than their petrol- or diesel-powered alternatives, especially if you can charge them at home. And if you can, the theory goes, you should rarely need to stop to add more juice elsewhere – especially with the latest breed of electric cars and their very usable ranges. What’s more, you’ll always leave home with a full “tank”. 

However, perhaps electric cars feel like too much of a step into the unknown. Maybe you’re not sure quite what a kWh is and why it’s relevant, or you don’t know your CCS from your CHAdeMO.

Fear not – we’ve got all the answers right here. So read on to learn everything you need to be able to stay current (sorry).

What’s the difference between “electric” and “electrified”?

Both terms have been bandied about by car manufacturers and the Government alike for the last few years, and their meanings are not yet entirely set in stone. Nevertheless, it’s generally assumed that an electric car is one which runs solely on electricity, and so cannot proceed if the battery has run out. Alternative terminology for this type of car includes full electric, pure electric or BEV (which stands for battery electric vehicle). 

Read: Hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and electric cars – what's the difference?

By contrast, an electrified car is one that has a traditional internal combustion engine, to which an electric motor (or motors) and battery render some level of assistance. This category includes full, plug-in and mild hybrid cars.

For the purposes of this guide, we’re concentrating on pure electric cars, although some of the ground we’ll cover will also apply to the electric part of a plug-in hybrid’s drivetrain. 

What’s the range of an electric car?

Ranges are increasing exponentially as battery technology improves. The latest, most cutting-edge electric cars are capable of achieving around 300 miles on one charge, though it’s thought electric cars that can travel 400 or even up to 500 miles on a charge are just around the corner. 

Keep in mind that some smaller electric cars, designed for use around towns and cities, have a lower range by design. Their manufacturers argue that because these cars will mostly be used in urban environments, where there’ll be chargers close at hand, increasing their range by fitting a larger battery would only add unnecessary weight, reducing space inside and hampering efficiency. 

How long does it take to charge an electric car?

Every electric car charges at a different rate, and just to add to the confusion, different chargers will charge at different rates, too. So if your electric car is of a slow-charging variety, it will still do so even if you plug it into a really fast charger. 

But as a rough guide, an electric car with an average-sized battery – around the 40kWh mark – will take around 11 hours to charge from a three-pin domestic plug, which is usually around 3kW. That drops to six hours to charge from empty to full from a 7kW home wall box, which can normally be installed at your house. That drops to an hour from a 50kW rapid charger, of the sort you may have seen outside supermarkets.  

A car with a larger battery will, as you can probably imagine, take longer to charge – a 75kWh battery, for example, will take two hours from a 50kW rapid charger, 11 hours from a 7kW charger, or 21 hours from a three-pin socket. Of course, although you spend longer on charge, you get a greater range at the end of it, because the battery is that much larger.

What do kW and kWh mean?

A kW – or kilowatt – is a unit of power; in other words, it describes how energy is being transferred or used. When you’re charging your car, think of the figure in kW as describing how quickly your car is being charged. The higher the number, the faster electricity is being “pumped” into your battery. 

And when you’re driving along, you can measure how quickly you’re using that energy in kilowatts. The faster you drive, or the harder you accelerate, the more power – the more kW – you’ll need to use to push your car along the road and through the air. 

A kWh – or kilowatt hour – describes how quickly that energy is being consumed. One kWh means enough electrical energy to power something that requires one kW to operate, for one hour. How does this translate to battery sizes? Well, it effectively describes how big your battery, or “fuel tank” is. If you’ve got a 64kWh battery, it can store enough electricity at maximum capacity to supply your car with 1kW of power for 64 hours. Or 2kW of power for 32 hours. And so on, and so forth. 

So if your electric car has a 64kW electric motor, and a 64kWh battery, and you run that electric motor at full power, the battery will run flat after an hour. Of course, in normal driving you’ll be using a fraction of your car’s full power most of the time – which is why your battery should last much longer than that. 

What’s a rapid charger? And what’s the difference between that and a fast charger?

There are actually three types of electric car charger: slow, fast and rapid. The term “rapid” is generally used to describe a charger of at least 43kW; “fast” covers chargers of between seven and 22 kW; while “slow” is taken to mean anything below 7kW.

Is it really cheaper to run an electric car?

At the moment, yes. Even charging a 64kWh car like the Kia e-Niro at a contactless charging point, which is one of the most expensive ways, will cost you about 7.5p per mile*. In contrast, an average diesel saloon car like the Volkswagen Passat 2.0 TDI will set you back more than 10p per mile in fuel*. 

Of course, if you charge your electric car at home, running costs drop even further. At the UK average price for electricity of 15.5p/kWh, you’ll pay about 3.3p per mile*. So travelling 200 miles in an electric car charged at home will cost £6.61, whereas in the diesel car it would set you back about £20. 

Then there are the maintenance costs; with far fewer moving parts in an electric motor than in an internal combustion engine, servicing takes much less time and therefore costs a great deal less. And of course, there are no costly timing belts or chains to worry about. What’s more, most electric cars use a simple, single-speed reduction gearbox that’ll cause fewer problems further down the line than a traditional manual or automatic.

* Based on prices correct in late 2019

So an electric car is cheaper all round, then?

Yes and no. It’s important to factor in that electric cars usually cost significantly more than their internal combustion-engined counterparts, for now at least. So before taking the plunge, it’s worth sitting down to do some sums, to work out whether, with your annual mileage, the savings you’ll make on fuel mitigate the extra cost.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that electricity may not remain this cheap forever. Of course, it’s impossible to predict the future, but experts believe that once electric cars reach a saturation point and people are buying less petrol and diesel, the Government will need to recoup revenue lost to the exchequer through the drop in fuel duty by increasing taxes on electricity. Market forces could push up the price of electricity, too, so it’s entirely possible that electric cars may one day become as costly to run as petrol or diesel ones are today. 

There isn't yet enough data to accurately predict what will happen to electric cars as they get older, either. We know that batteries will deteriorate, but we're yet to establish how quickly and to what extent. As such, depreciation will affect electric cars in a slightly different way.

What are Type 2, CCS and CHAdeMO connectors?

These are the three main types of connector in widespread use in the UK at the moment. 

The Type 2 connector is the most common, and is fast becoming something of an industry standard. This alternating current (AC) connector features a mostly round plug with a flat top and seven pins, and can only be used for slow and fast charging, with the notable exception of Tesla cars, on which it can also be used for rapid charging. You can find Type 2 connectors on most modern electric cars.

The CCS, or Combined Charging System, connector looks much like a Type 2, which should come as no surprise given it was designed to be compatible. The main difference is that it features fewer pins within the main socket, but adds two large pins beneath, which are used for direct current (DC) rapid charging. As a result, many modern electric cars now feature a combined CCS and Type 2 charging port, which allows slow, fast and rapid charging in one port, rather than having to carry two separate ports.

Finally, there’s the CHAdeMO connector, an abbreviation of the delightfully clunky phrase Charge de Move, which has a perfectly round plug socket that contains ten pins – two large ones, and eight small ones, arranged in two groups of four. The CHAdeMO connector is also a DC rapid charging socket, and can therefore be used for fast and rapid charging, though it can’t be used for slow charging. As a result, most cars equipped with a CHAdeMO charger also have a Type 2 port fitted alongside so that their owners can plug into a three-pin socket should they need to. 

Do you still have to wait when charging an electric car?

It’ll certainly take longer than filling up with petrol or diesel. But the flipside is that, if you can charge at home overnight, you’ll always leave with a full or nearly-full range. As a result, you should only have to charge away from home if you’re doing a longer trip. 

This can be an inconvenience if you rarely stop for long along the way, because it’ll mean you have to pull over for a decent chunk of time in order to add enough juice to get your car to where you want it to be (and, if there’s no charger at the end of your journey, back home again). 

Read: Is an electric car viable for long journeys? Our EV newbie puts a Leaf to the test

Worse still, if you arrive to find all the chargers where you want to top up are in use – or out of order – you might have to divert to another nearby charger in order to be able to charge then continue your journey.

However, if you’re able to work in breaks for coffee stops or picnics with the family, and the charging network is working as it should, it is possible to do long journeys in electric cars and never feel as though you’ve been inconvenienced. 

The most modern electric cars have the ability to charge very quickly – and with extremely fast chargers now starting to pop up across the UK, it won’t be long before it’s possible to top up a long-range electric car in a matter of minutes.

Do I need to have a special charger fitted at home?

Ideally, yes. You can charge an electric car from a three-pin socket, but for various reasons, it isn’t recommended as best practice; charging from a three-pin socket should really be reserved for emergencies only. 

In any case, fitting a wall box makes owning an electric car much easier. A full charge will take between four and 11 hours depending on the size of battery, so is easily achievable overnight. By contrast, the same charge would take between 11 and 21 hours on a three-pin domestic socket.

What if I haven’t got a driveway?

Good question. If you don’t have somewhere you can park your car off the road, it is undoubtedly more hassle to live with an electric car. You’ll have to find times to charge it at a public charge point, perhaps on your way to or from work, or perhaps while you’re doing the weekly shop. 

Read: EV owners use extension leads in the rain 'due to poor infrastructure'

There’s talk of schemes to encourage workplaces to fit car chargers in their office parking areas, which would certainly help in this situation. So if you want to own an electric car and you have nowhere to park it, you might try suggesting to your employer installs some electric car charging points. 

In any case, with time, as more workplaces offer charging to their employees, along with the advent of more roadside chargers and more public chargers in car parks, it’s thought it will become easy to own an electric car even if you don’t have a driveway. 

Won’t someone unplug my electric car when it’s charging?

No. When you put an electric car on charge and lock it, the cable locks to the car and to the charger. It’s impossible for it to be pulled out, unless someone does so violently.

But are electric cars really that good for the environment?

That’s a good question, and one that seems to be on everyone’s lips at the moment. But the current thinking is that the answer is ‘yes’. 

A 2018 International Council on Clean Transportation report suggests that, even though the emissions produced during manufacturing are much higher than those produced when making an internal combustion-engined car, the complete lack of exhaust emissions makes up for this throughout the car’s life.

This is true even when the emissions of the power sources used to generate the electricity powering electric cars is taken into account. While a study by the Centre for Economic Studies in Munich claimed that, based on Germany’s then-current energy mix, the CO2 emissions of battery-electric cars was higher than those of diesel cars when the power source was taken into account, this study has since been widely debunked, with experts finding a plethora of problems with the research.

However, a much better-regarded report by Carbon Brief showed that even with the UK’s energy mix as it is, an electric vehicle will produce fewer lifetime emissions than a conventional internal combustion car – though it's worth noting that the difference between an electric car and a diesel car is not as pronounced as most people think. And as our electricity generation becomes more environmentally friendly with time, that situation will only improve.

Are there any other advantages to owning an electric car?

Yes. Electric cars are rather pleasant to drive. Not only do they offer lots of acceleration from a standstill, which is very useful around town, the way they accelerate is much smoother than a standard car, because there’s only one gear – and therefore, there are no gear changes. Acceleration happens seamlessly. 

What’s more, because the engine is silent, driving an electric car is much quieter. And there are other advantages inside, too – because there’s no need to run an exhaust to the back of the car, for example, most electric cars have flat floors, which often means more space for people in the back seats. 

So – should I buy an electric car?

As with most things in life, the answer is not a clear-cut ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It all depends on your circumstances. At the moment, if you have a driveway, are able to install a wall charger and can afford a longer-range model, it seems to make sense. Not only are electric cars cheaper to run, but in most day-to-day circumstances they’re nicer to drive, too. 

However, we would advise doing the maths to work out whether it makes sense financially. Electric cars are still expensive to buy, and if you don’t do enough miles per year to mitigate that extra cost (environmental and financial) through fuel savings you’ll need to decide whether the other advantages of owning an electric car are worth it. What's more, Britain's fledgling electric car charging infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired, and for now we'd be reluctant to recommend electric car ownership to anyone who might depend on public charge points. 

Do you have an electric car, or are you considering buying one in the future? Let us know in the comment section below.