Is it time to buy an electric car?

Carlton Boyce / 30 November 2017

They're cleaner and greener, but has the latest Budget convinced you to buy an electric car? Carlton Boyce has the lowdown

With the autumn 2017 Budget’s announcement that the government is set to invest half-a-billion pounds in supporting the UK’s electric vehicle market, is now the time to finally buy that electric car you’ve been thinking about?

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What did the Budget actually say?

Philip Hammond, the chancellor of the exchequer, said:

“Our future vehicles will be driverless, but they’ll be electric first. And that’s a change that needs to come as soon as possible.

So we’ll establish a new £400m charging infrastructure fund, invest an extra £100 million in Plug-In-Car Grant, and £40 million in charging R&D.

And I can confirm today that we will clarify the law so that people who charge their electric vehicles at work will not face a benefit-in-kind charge from next year.”

Which means we should see more charging points, the continued existence of cheaper electric cars than the market might otherwise stand, and a boost to the research around how we can better (which is usually taken to mean faster) charge them in real-world conditions.

How did the manufacturers respond?

With glee: Mike Hawes, Chief Executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), responded by saying:

“The autumn Budget contains some positive measures and … (t)he investment in charge points and new incentives to encourage the take up of electric cars is a positive step to boost buyer confidence, which will be essential to increasing market share.”

And, make no mistake, consumer confidence is the key. As sales of electric vehicles (EVs) fall in 2017 by almost 5% year-on-year, the continued availability of the current government subsidy of up to £4,500 per eligible vehicle should mean that the current level of UK sales will be at least maintained, something that probably wouldn’t have occurred if buyers had had to start paying the full price.

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That's good news, right?

It is if you’re thinking of buying an electric car. However, let’s not forget that this subsidy is a tax on those people that don’t want to buy an EV, levied in order to give thousands of pounds to those that do but aren’t prepared pay the full market price.

This isn’t just bad news for the 95% of us who prefer to stick to the more conventional petrol or diesel-powered cars, it’s also a damning indictment on the confidence a lot of motorists have in electric vehicles; even with this whopping subsidy, only 1 in 20 new car buyers are prepared to buy one.

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So, I shouldn’t buy an electric vehicle then?

Oh no, I didn’t say that! If you’re prepared to make the mental shift that’s necessary to successfully run one then you absolutely should.

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Mental shift? Isn’t it all about range anxiety?

No, the problem should more accurately be called ‘recharge anxiety’ but, for most of us, there’s simply no need to worry. Let me explain:

  • Most of our journeys are well under the current average range of 100 miles or so. This makes range a non-issue for most of us for almost all of our journeys.
  • If you use your car primarily for commuting then the news could be even better. If your employer provides somewhere for you to charge your car at work, you’re simultaneously easing your recharge anxiety AND getting free fuel…
  • On longer journeys the key is to top the battery up when you can. As most EVs will give you at least a couple of hours of range at motorway speeds, you’ll need to stop every 100 miles or so to recharge. With modern ‘rapid chargers’, you’ll get an 80% charge in 20-40 minutes, so your car will have been topped up by the time you’ve had a natural break and a coffee.
  • For really long journeys, where you don’t want to faff about with having to plot a route around the presence of charging points – and in some parts of the country that is still a very real problem – you could hire a car. Even with the rental fees, you’ll probably still be in profit for the year overall.

With almost 5,000 public charging points, more than half of which are rapid chargers, range anxiety is unlikely to be a problem unless you live in a rural area. When I’m travelling behind the wheel of an electric car I use ZapMap (either the website or smartphone app), to find the nearest charging point.

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Is it all about financial and environmental savings?

Mainly, yes but not exclusively because there is real joy to be had in driving an electric vehicle. The instantaneous torque is a real pleasure to have on tap, as is the absence of noise, vibration and harshness (NVH).

If you can charge yours at home, it’s also nice to have what feels like ‘free’ fuel. (It isn’t, of course, but at only a couple of pounds per charge and not having to splash out £70 on a tankful at a time makes it feel almost free…)

Any recommendations?

The UK government's current subsidy is split into three levels:

  • Category 1. Vehicles with a ‘zero-emission’ range of 70 miles, and CO2 emissions lower than 50g/km.
  • Category 2. Vehicles with a ‘zero-emissions’ range of at least 10 miles, and CO2 emissions lower than 50g/km.
  • Category 3. Vehicles with a ‘zero-emissions’ range of at least 20 miles, and CO2 emissions between 50-75g/km.

Cars in category 1 (generally battery-only vehicles) qualify for the full £4,500 grant. Those in categories 2 and 3 (generally plug-in hybrids) only qualify for a £2,500 subsidy. Those lucky enough to be in a position to pay more than £60,000 for their new electric car will find they’ll be paying the full price as the subsidy stops at that level. #firstworldproblems, eh?

As for my personal recommendations, the family friendly Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV is as close as you’ll ever come to owning a fuss-free, five-seat SUV that just happens to be powered by both electricity and petrol. It drives well, is supremely practical, and does away with almost every objection you could possibly mount against making the switch. The prices of a new one starts at £31,805 inclusive of its category 2 subsidy.

If you want go full-on, pure EV then you’d be hard-pressed to better the Nissan LEAF. It’s a little slice of mini-luxury and prices start at £21,680 as it qualifies for the full grant.

Or, the simply brilliant Hyundai IONIQ is available with three powertrains: as a hybrid, a plug-in hybrid and a full electric car. Prices start at £20,885 for the hybrid, and £24,995 for the full EV and the plug-in hybrid.

(Incidentally, carwow can probably negotiate a significant discount on all of these vehicles, as well as many others…)

Should you buy or lease a car?

What about buying secondhand?

The lack of consumer confidence in them means that the secondhand EV market is stuffed full of cars that no one wants, which means that prices are low and bargains are widespread, a point even Nissan acknowledged in its response to the most recent budget:

"The package of support announced by the Chancellor in the Budget is good news for the EV sector. We welcome the continued incentives for electric car purchases through the Plug-in Car Grant. Of course, these incentives will not be needed indefinitely, and manufacturers predict that the cost of building an electric car will drop below the cost of producing a petrol or diesel car within the next five years. It is also worth pointing out that consumers can buy an electric car for as little as £5000 on the used market."

What Car? recommends the Renault Zoe as a cracking second-hand buy, pointing out that while the early cars only have a range of 60-90 miles, they can now be picked up for around £5,000 plus a monthly leasing fee for the battery. The price for this starts at £49 per month, and is, in my opinion, a good thing as it removes your biggest worry i.e. that the battery will fail, leaving you with a car-shaped brick that’ll cost £5,000 or more to repair.

The ubiquitous Nissan LEAF is also available for the same sort of money, but in this case you have the choice of buying an early example with no monthly battery leasing fees, or a later car (2014 onwards) for the same money plus a monthly FLEX leasing fee of £70 upwards. The brave will choose the former, while the prudent will insure themselves against catastrophic failure by choosing the latter.

In any case, it’s always worth looking at the monthly cost to buy a new example. With the heavy depreciation they suffer, leasing one via a PCP or similar is well worth exploring.

Our tips for buying a second-hand electric car

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.