It looks like we have been waiting forever for electric cars to come along, but after more false starts than you will see at the London Olympics this year, it seems like the electric car is finally here to stay.
Now, we need to begin with some boring terminology: A true electric car (EV, for Electric Vehicle) has no gasoline engine as backup, so you are reliant on the batteries having enough charge to get you to where you need to go. The Nissan Leaf is the best-known (and best) electric car currently on sale.
A normal hybrid uses an electric motor or a gas motor, depending on the conditions. You do not plug it into a wall socket as the batteries charge while you are driving. A typical travel, even a short one, will use both electric and petrol power to drive wheels.
A plug-in hybridvehicle,”range-extending” electric car, is technically more of a fancy hybrid compared to a real EV even though it drives more like an EV compared to a regular hybrid. In practice it might be a enormous difference or none at all, depending on how you use the car. A range-extender, or plug hybrid as it’s more commonly known, has a petrol engine that could be used to power the electric motor once the batteries have drained, but the petrol engine doesn’t directly drive the wheels*. The Vauxhall Ampera/Chevrolet Volt twins are the leading example of the kind of car, and they claim an urban fuel consumption of 300mpg (yep, that’s three hundred.
A car running in an electric motor is usually very quiet (eerie quiet or a distant hum instead of a clearly perceptible gas engine) and smooth (no vibrations from engine or gearbox). The response from the vehicle away from rest is both immediate and powerful, as electrical motors generate tremendous amounts of torque instantly. They are quiet from the outside to, to such an extent that the EU is considering making audible warnings mandatory in the future as pedestrians simply won’t hear an electric car coming.
In terms of exciting handling, electric cars are normally not brilliant, it has to be said. They tend to be somewhat heavy and usually operate tyres & wheels more beneficial for economy than handling. However, as a commuter vehicle around town, they’re zippy and efficient. Plus they create less noise, pollution and heat to the street so a traffic jam of Nissan Leafs from town would be a lot more pleasant for passing pedestrians.
The batteries on a standard electric car only give it enough range for a few miles (although a true EV will have a bigger battery pack as it does not need to match a petrol engine & fuel tank too ), so the cars use various means to charge the battery while driving. Usually this entails converting kinetic energy from coasting and braking to electric energy to store in the batteries.
In a fully electric car that means you’ve got to stop and charge the batteries, so hopefully you parked close to a power socket somewhere and have several hours to find something else to do. In a hybridvehicle, the petrol engine will begin to offer the power. In a normal hybrid such as a Prius, the automobile effectively becomes an ordinary petrol car, albeit with a fairly underpowered engine pushing a heavy car around so it’s not swift. In a’range extender’ such as the Ampera/Volt, the gas engine offers energy to the electric motor to drive the wheels, which is more efficient in both performance and economy. Depending on how you’re driving, any spare energy in the petrol engine can be used to charge the batteries up again, so the car may switch back to electrical power once charging is complete.
So what does this mean in real life?
Well, how much of the subsequent driving do you do? We’re assuming here that the batteries are fully charged when you put off.
Short trips (<50 miles between charges).
These sort of journeys are ideal for electric cars and plug-in hybrids, as the batteries will deal with the whole journey and get some charge as you drive. A normal hybrid will still need to use the gasoline engine, although just how much depends on how you drive it and how much charging it is able to acquire along the way.
These are the sorts of excursions that provide EV drivers plenty of stress, since the traffic conditions may indicate you run out of juice before you make it to your charging stage. A plug-in hybrid or regular hybrid will be OK since they can call on the petrol engine. In a regular hybrid, this means the car will be petrol powered for most of the journey. In a plug-in hybrid, it’ll be mainly electric with the gas engine kicking in to top up the batteries if needed late in the journey.
Longer trips (100+ miles between charges)
Not feasible in a fully-electric car, as you’ll most likely run out of electricity before you arrive. The regular hybrid is essentially a gas car for almost the entire journey and the plug-in hybrid is bulk electric but supplemented by gas in a much more efficient way than a regular hybrid.
The pros and cons:
Let’s summarise the three Kinds of electrically-powered cars:
PROS: cheaper, no charging required, no range anxiety, regular gasoline engine makes it feel like a regular petrol car
CONS: only very short journeys (a few miles at best) will be fully electrical, small battery pack and feeble petrol engine means relatively poor performance compared to a normal gas car or a fully electric car, poor economy when pushed hard (like most Prius minicabs in London…), not very spacious for passengers and luggage because of carrying petrol and electric powertrains in 1 car
PROS: powerful electric motor gives better performance than a regular hybrid, bigger battery pack means longer electrical running, no petrol engine reduces weight and frees up a lot of space, #5000 government lien, power is cheaper and generally less polluting than petrol, privileged parking spaces in some public places
CONS: Still expensive despite rebate, minimal range capacity due to lack of gas engine backup, resulting range anxiety is a real problem for motorists, question marks over battery life, technology improvements will make next generation massively better and hurt resale value, a few driving adaptation needed, lengthy recharging required after a moderate drive
PROS: strong electric motor and backup petrol engine give best combination of range and performance, most journeys will be fully electric which is cheaper than petrol, no range anxiety, privileged parking spaces in certain public places
CONS: Very expensive despite rebate, question marks over battery life and resale value, wall socket charging remains slow, lack of space and quite heavy due to having petrol engine and fuel tank in addition to electric motor and batteries.
Electric Car Economics – Why is it all worth it?
For many people, an electric vehicle is hard to justify on pure hard-headed economics. Even with a #5,000 rebate from the government, an electric car is expensive. A Nissan Leaf begins at #31,000, so after the government gives you #5K you have spent #26K on a car which would be probably worth about #15K if it had a normal petrol engine. That could conceivably get you a decade’s worth of fuel!
Electric Cars and the Environment
Buying a hybrid or electric car as you think you are helping the environment may not be helping that cause as much as you think, if at all. Producing automobile batteries is a dirty and complicated process, and the net result is that there is a significantly higher environmental impact in building an electric or hybrid car than creating a normal petrol or diesel car. So you’re starting behind the ecological eight-ball before you have even driven you fresh green vehicle.
Beware of”zero emissions” claims about electric vehicles, because most electricity still comes from fossil fuel sources (like gas or coal) instead of renewable sources, and that means you’re still polluting the atmosphere when you push, albeit less and the effects are much less noticeable to you.
The biggest electric vehicle turn-off for auto buyers (other than the high purchase price) is the joint problem of very restricted range and very slow recharging. In a gas or diesel car, you can drive for a few hundred miles, pull into a petrol station and five minutes later you’re ready to drive for another couple hundred miles. In an electric car, you drive for 50-100 miles, then have to stop and charge it for several hours to push another 50-100 miles.
If you only take short journeys and can keep the car plugged in whenever it stops (usually at home or work), this may never be an issue. But you can’t expect to jump in the car and drive a couple hundred miles, or get away with needing to plug the car in overnight after a journey. You have to be far more disciplined in terms of planning your driving, and allow for recharging. Away from home this remains a huge problem since there are relatively few power sockets available in public parking places for you to use.
A plug-in hybrid like the Vauxhall Ampera/Chevrolet Volt gets round the range anxiety problem, as does a normal hybrid like a Toyota Prius, but you are carting a petrol engine (and fuel) around all the time which you might not need, adding hundreds of kilos of weight and taking up lots of space, so it is a compromise.
So as you can see from all of the above, it is not at all simple. You want to carefully consider what sort of driving you’ll be doing and what you need your car to be able to do.
*there’s a complicated technical argument about whether the Ampera/Volt’s gasoline engine directly drives the wheels under certain circumstances, but it’s really boring and doesn’t really make any difference to how the car drives.
Stuart Masson is founder and owner of The Car Expert, a London-based independent and impartial car buying agency for anyone looking to get a new or used car.
Originally from Australia, Stuart has had a passion for cars and the automotive industry for almost thirty years, and has spent the last seven years working in the automotive retail industry, both in Australia and in London.
Stuart has combined his extensive knowledge of all things car-related with his own experience of selling cars and delivering high levels of customer satisfaction to bring a unique and private car buying agency to London. The auto Expert offers specific and tailored advice for anyone looking for a new or used car in London.