An electric car being charged up

11 questions to ask before buying an EV

Is it time for your family to make ‘the switch’ to EV? Here are some common questions people ask.

There are lots of advantages to going electric. The main reason is to reduce emissions, because an electric car doesn’t release harmful fumes from its exhaust. In fact, they don't have exhausts at all - an EV is what’s known as a ‘zero-emission’ car.

Other advantages include the low running cost associated with an electric car, the quietness of electric motors, and the speed with which electric cars accelerate. But there are some disadvantages too. Electric cars generally cost more to buy than a petrol or diesel car and it takes longer to charge them up with electricity than it does to top up a conventional car’s fuel tank at a petrol station. 

An electric car or electric vehicle (EV) is one that runs on electricity rather than petrol or diesel. Instead of refuelling them with liquid, you ‘charge’ electric cars with a wire like you do your mobile phone. 

All of this means that you have to think much more carefully about buying an electric car than a petrol one. We’ve answered the top questions people should ask before ‘making the switch’ to driving electric.

1. Will an electric car suit my lifestyle?

If you have your own driveway and normally travel less than 100 miles in a day, then yes, an electric car probably will suit your lifestyle. The average British family could incorporate an EV into their lives without any effort, and would normally save money as a result. Electric cars are ideal if you make lots of short trips (under an hour) and return to your house every night - a pattern that most of us fall into. It’s definitely something that more of us should consider. 

People who probably shouldn’t consider an electric car just yet include commuters who drive 200 or more miles per day, long-distance drivers who sometimes need to go from one end of the country to the other, and anybody who’d be reliant on public charging stations to keep their EV topped up. It’s perfectly possible to use an electric car in these circumstances, and many people do, but for now - until the technology and infrastructure improves over the next five years or so - it’s easier to use petrol and diesel for long-distance driving.

2. What’s the difference between an electric car and a hybrid car?

An electric car is one that uses rechargeable batteries, and runs on electricity alone. Cars like the Nissan Leaf, Kia e-Niro and Tesla Model S are all electric cars. 

Hybrid cars combine elements of this technology with traditional petrol or diesel engines. This means that a hybrid car can run on petrol or diesel, but with some electric assistance. Some hybrids are basically electric cars with a tiny petrol engine added to occasionally generate electricity, like the BMW i3 REX. Others are essentially petrol-powered cars, with a tiny electric motor added to help it along. That means that hybrid cars vary a lot in how they work and how much better they are for the environment than plain petrol or diesel cars. 

A plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) is one that allows you to charge it up with electricity as well as adding petrol. This should give you lower running costs and reduce the amount of harmful emissions you create when driving. You don’t have to plug in a plug-in hybrid though - if you never use the charging cable, you won’t get much benefit from the technology.

3. How do I charge an electric car?

An electric car needs electricity to run, which you get from the mains just as you would with your mobile phone. The charging cable is much larger, though, and your car’s battery will take a lot more electricity to fill up than your iPhone. 

You can plug your electric car into an ordinary three-pin electric socket, like you’d find in any home in the UK. But a modern electric car would take ages to charge up - probably around 12 hours, or maybe even more. Rapid chargers like you find outside supermarkets and petrol stations will be able to give you an 80 percent charge in around an hour. And you can fit a special wall box on your driveway that will enable you to easily charge your car up overnight.

4. What are the running costs for an electric car?

Electric cars are a little bit more expensive to buy than petrol or diesel cars, but savings can be made on running costs. Electricity is a cheaper fuel than petrol or diesel, especially if you can charge up at home. You should be able to travel 100 miles for about £2, or maybe even less. This cost rises if you use electric charging points, especially on the motorway, which might cost £6.50 for a full charge. 

That’s still cheaper than most petrol cars. Electric cars are generally cheaper to maintain as well, as they have fewer moving parts and less need for ongoing expenditure on things like oil. Tax is free, and many cities that have implemented emissions-based tolling offer cheap or discounted access to EV drivers. You will probably pay more on insurance for an electric car, though, so it’s worth getting a quote as you do your research. 

5. Where are my nearest electric vehicle charging points?

You can check Zap Map for more information on where to find public charging stations. You’ll be able to filter by the type of charging system your car uses, how you want to pay for the electricity, and whether the charger is currently available. 

Unless you live on a remote Scottish island or in the Welsh valleys, there’s probably a rapid charger not too far from you. And with more being built every day, availability is constantly improving for drivers of electric cars who want to charge up away from home.

6. Can electric cars drive through water?

Electric cars are about as safe in water as petrol or diesel cars. The amount of water a car can drive through is called its ‘wading depth’ - check in the handbook or with the company that builds your car for more details. The wading depth of an electric car is normally around the same as for its petrol or diesel equivalent. 

The depth of water it is safe to drive through is often lower than the wading depth supplied by the manufacturer, though. Driving through floods is risky regardless of whether your car runs on electricity or conventional fuel.

7. Do electric cars have the same lifespan as petrol cars?

Electric cars last about the same length of time as petrol or diesel cars. The average lifespan of a car in the UK is around 14 years, and no modern electric cars are that old yet. That means we don’t know whether electric cars will last longer than their petrol or diesel counterparts, and probably won’t find out for certain for another decade.

The existing data suggests that electric cars last at least as long as conventional cars, and should cost less to maintain as they get older. While their batteries do deteriorate as they get older, this isn’t always severe, and probably won’t affect them as noticeably as a run-down petrol or diesel car.

8. Can electric cars go as fast as non-electric cars?

Electric cars accelerate much faster than petrol or diesel cars. That makes them feel quick in town, and means you can ‘get away from the lights’ as quickly as you could in a sports car. Even the cheapest, slowest electric cars are nippier than most petrol or diesel cars.

And although electric cars normally have lower top speeds than petrol or diesel cars, it’s still much faster than you’d want to travel in the UK - even on the motorway. Most modern EVs have a top speed of between 90mph and 120mph, which is too fast to be driving anyway.

9. Could an electric car suddenly stop working or shut down like other electrical items?

Electric cars are normally very reliable. This is because they have fewer moving parts to go wrong or wear out, and don’t require things like oil and fluid in order to keep working. But if they do break down, the problem normally requires a specialist to fix it. You won’t be able to mend an electric car on the hard shoulder as easily as you can a petrol or diesel car.

10. Will I get tax breaks?

Electric car owners are exempt from company car tax and vehicle excise duty, also known as road tax. Drivers of electric cars are also exempt from certain local fees like congestion charging. Combined with the lower cost of owning and charging an electric car compared to filling a conventional car up with petrol or diesel, these advantages make EVs very attractive to business users.

11. Will I be able to park in special places if I have an electric car?

Some towns and cities offer preferential parking rates to drivers of electric cars. Conversely, some places have put penalties in place for drivers of non-electric cars, making EVs cheaper to park and drive in city centres. While only a handful of UK cities have these schemes at the moment, it’s inevitable that more will follow in the future.

Many large supermarkets now have charging bays specifically for electric cars. These are reserved for people who want to charge up their electric cars using the chargers provided. That could mean that you find a parking space when your diesel-driving neighbour doesn’t.