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Electric car buyers guide – everything you need to know

  • 6, May 2021
  • Read time: 14 mins

So, you’re thinking of buying an electric car. In this guide, we provide all the information you need to make a considered choice. 

Electric car charging

Although there are important reasons to go electric – the environment, government tax breaks, and supplements, and cheaper fuel costs – a cornerstone of sustainability is convenience. So, we’ll also help you decide whether an electric or low carbon vehicle will work for you.

Electric car acronym buster!

You’ll need this handy list of terms to understand the range of different types of zero or low carbon vehicles available:

  • ICE = Internal combustion engine
  • BEV = Battery electric vehicle
  • ZEC = Zero emissions capable 
  • EV = Electric vehicle
  • PHEV = Plug-in hybrid electric vehicle
  • HEV = Hybrid electric vehicle
  • ZEV = Zero-emissions vehicle
  • FCV = Fuel cell vehicle
  • HFVC = Hydrogen fuel cell vehicle
  • LCV = Low carbon vehicle
  • MHEV = Mild hybrid electric vehicle
  • EVSE = Electric vehicle supply equipment (charging cable).

How electric cars work

To understand what an electric car is, you first need to understand how a petrol engine car works.

Petrol engine cars 

Essentially, petrol engine cars work by feeding petrol or diesel into a cylinder, creating an explosion that forces the piston to rotate the crankshaft to drive your car. This is the internal combustion engine process, also known as ICE.

The drawback is that petrol engines rely on fossil fuel for power. They also expel carbon monoxide from the internal combustion process via the exhaust into the atmosphere.

Electric cars 

Electric vehicles (EV's) by comparison, don’t have an internal combustion engine and this means fewer moving parts (gearbox, clutch etc) which also means reduced maintenance. The ICE is replaced by a large battery pack which you simply charge from a convenient power source. There are no exhaust fumes. Another advantage is, if you source power from a renewable energy provider, your car will provide you with zero-emissions driving at the point of use.

What is a hybrid car?

A hybrid uses both petrol and electric power to drive the car. Sometimes the car is powered by the electric motor, while at other times the petrol engine takes over.

On a hybrid car, the electric motor is recharged by regenerative braking, which feeds power automatically back into the batteries. Hybrid cars can be extremely economical, and you do not need to plug them into an external power source.

What is a plug-in hybrid car?

PHEV's (Plugin hybrid electric vehicles) as they are sometimes called, recharge from an external power source. This allows the car to receive a greater charge. Therefore it is able to travel for greater distances on electric power alone, than its hybrid counterpart.

It can travel solely on its petrol engine, or solely on its electric motor (for shorter distances). The electric motor will often kick in during overtaking, for example, providing an extra boost in performance. Or, the motor can also take over when driving in slow-moving traffic.

What is a mild hybrid car?

As its name suggests, a mild plugin hybrid car uses both petrol and electric motors to power the car. However, MHEV's have a greater reliance on the petrol engine with some assistance provided by the electric motor. They can still be classed as LCV’s (low carbon vehicles) because of the reduced emissions they offer.

What batteries do electric cars use?

The batteries typically found in electric cars are rechargeable Lithium-ion. This type of battery saves on space and weight, making the car lighter and therefore more maneuverable while also providing a decent driving range.

Not all Lithium-ion batteries are the same. Manufacturers compete to develop fuel cells that offer greater levels of longevity and energy retention. Today, the widespread use of Lithium-ion batteries is pretty much standard for all EV's.

How to charge an electric car

You charge an electric car the same as you would charge your mobile phone. A charging plug and cable are connected to either a roadside charging point or a wall-mounted outlet attached to your home.

Connecting the charger is simple. Plug in, and wait until the car registers enough charge to get you to your destination. Usually, drivers take advantage of cheaper tariffs to charge their cars overnight, either at home or at public roadside chargers.

Charging your electric car at home

The safe way of charging your car at home is to install a standalone wall-mounted charging point. This dedicated system will offer greater speeds of charging, plus it will have safety features built-in, and should also be waterproof making it suitable for domestic use.

Using an Electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) charging cable in connection to a normal 3-pin house socket is not an efficient way of charging your vehicle. It will take much longer to charge overnight. Although most electric cars are sold with a three-pin socket adapter, think of this as a last resort and investigate wall-mounted charging points and relevant government installation grants as a better method of home charging.

Charging your electric car at the roadside

Although the number of charging stations around the UK is steadily growing, many motorists will need to understand their usage before buying an electric car. Check to see how many roadside charging points are available in your local area, or on the route you intend to use the electric car for, such as commuting longer distances.

  • Locate your nearest charging station: Find your nearest charging point using one of many apps available on the market to pinpoint charging stations. They will either be supplied with a cable or you will need to use the cable provided with your car.
  • Plug-in: Your car will recognise the charge and begin the payment process while charging your battery.
  • Fast charge: Motorway service stations will usually have a row of fast charging ports available to use.
  • Get the charge you need: Just as you don’t always need to fill a petrol engine completely to drive it, the same applies to electric vehicles. You simply need enough to get you to your destination.
  • How many charging points are there in the UK?: By the time you read this, the number of public charging points available in the UK will have significantly increased. According to a recent report, the number of EV public chargers had risen by 37% during 2021 to 20,775.
Service station electric car chargers

Is 2021 the right time to buy an electric car?

Here are four reasons to consider buying an electric car during 2021:

  1. Peace of mind. You can reduce your carbon footprint by using an electricity supplier that uses renewable energy only. 
  2. Less maintenance. In a conventional motor, the engine creates the energy to drive the wheels of your car. In an electric car, that energy source is replaced by a fuel cell or battery. No engine, no oil, fewer moving parts to maintain 
  3. Government grants and supplements. These are readily available to help you cut the costs of owning a low carbon vehicle. In a few cases, the grants and supplements are so generous that they may actually make some LCV's cheaper than their petrol-driven motors counterparts
  4. Independence. Having the option of never using a petrol station again and the accompanying volatility of oil prices is another benefit.

Is an electric car right for me?

For most road users in the UK, there won’t be a significant difference between owning an electric vehicle compared to a petrol-driven car. Yes, they are fuelled differently, so you’d have to get your head around charging, as opposed to filling up. But once this mindset is changed, and your options to charge your vehicle fully understood, switching to electric shouldn’t be too difficult.

Electric car schemes, grants, incentives, and tax benefits

The government wants you to buy low or zero-emission cars. To encourage you they have implemented a range of grants, schemes, and financial incentives:

    Plug-in car grants 

    You can get £2,500 toward the cost of your new electric vehicle via a government plugin grant. But your car must not emit more than 50g/KM of CO2. These vehicles are eligible for the grant:

    • cars
    • motorcycles/mopeds
    • small/large vans
    • taxis
    • lorries.

    How much of the grant you qualify for depends on how much the government has allocated for the type of vehicle you own.

    Road tax for electric cars

    How much tax you have to pay will depend on what level of C02 emissions your vehicle emits when it was first registered. As a general guideline, zero-emission cars (0g/km) would pay £0, and cars that emit 1 to 50g/km would pay £10. 

    Electric company car tax 

    If the incentives for private ownership of EV's are attractive, the incentives to have an EV as your company car are even more generous.

    Applying to the lowest tax rate, company cars receive the most significant reductions. You will now pay just 1% tax of an electric cars’ official price, as opposed to pre-2020 when you would pay 16%. During 2021/22 this figure will rise to just 2%.

    The amount of tax you pay for an electric company car will also include other factors, including the business tax code, the official price of the vehicle, and the Benefit-in-Kind (BiK) rate. Investigate this properly, and electric cars could be an attractive option for business users.

    What are the cons of electric cars?

    You should consider the following disadvantages of owning an electric or low carbon vehicle:

    • Currently, there is a smaller selection of EV's and LCV's to choose from, so you might not find the right model to suit your needs
    • You need a convenient access point to recharge your car overnight
    • The charge time takes significantly longer than filling up at the petrol station
    • They are generally more expensive to buy than petrol engine cars.
    Electric car roadside charging

    Things to consider when buying an electric car

    How far can I travel?

    The unofficial record for driving a Tesla on a single charge is 670 miles. While this is frugal driving taken to its extreme, consider that the average length of a car trip is unchanged between 2002 and 2019 at 8.4 miles per trip. For most everyday car journeys, therefore, driving distances should not be an issue.

    How will I charge the car?

    • You can charge slowly overnight at home using a 3kW supply from a standard 3-pin wall plug but this takes much longer to deliver a full charge – in some cases, up to 24 hours
    • Install a faster 7kW charging standalone wall box to charge at home and you could deliver a full charge in up to 8 hours, but you’ll need some form of off-street parking to be convenient for everyday use
    • You can use a public faster charging system commonly found at service stations which typically deliver anything between 50-350kW and would be able to charge most cars to 80% in an hour or two.

    Costs of an electric car

    Even when government grants are considered, electric cars are still more expensive than their petrol or diesel counterparts. However, fuel costs are significantly cheaper than in conventional cars. Generally, electric vehicles are also cheaper to service. 

    Insurance may be more costly in some cases. This may be due to higher repair costs linked to expensive parts (e.g. the battery) and specialist technical expertise required. Their cost price also will be a consideration, plus how EV's deliver their power. In some cases, the 0 to 60mph of EV's is comparable to many high-performance cars. Tax deductions may also help to offset other expenses.

    How much does it cost to charge?

    A typical family car weighing 1.6 tonnes would cost its owner approximately £400 a year to drive 9,000 miles.

    Home charging is significantly less expensive than public charging, but this can also be offset by taking out a subscription with a convenient charge provider such as BP Pulse’s monthly service.

    The demand has been high for many electric models. But, if you consider your options carefully and do your research on handy government websites, you’ll appreciate why many drivers are switching to zero-emission or low carbon vehicles.

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