It seems like we have been waiting forever for electric cars to come along, but after more false starts than you’ll see in the London Olympics this season, it looks like the electric car is finally here to stay.
Now, we need to begin with some dull terminology: A true electric car (EV, for Electric Vehicle) has no gasoline engine as backup, so you’re 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 regular 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’re driving. A typical journey, even a short one, will use both petrol and electric power to drive wheels.
A plug-in hybrid,”range-extending” electric car, is more of a fancy hybrid compared to a true EV although it drives more like an EV than a regular hybrid. In practice it might be a enormous difference or none whatsoever, depending on how you use the vehicle. A range-extender, or plug-in hybrid as it’s more commonly known, has a gas engine that could be used to power the electric motor when 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 this kind of car, and they assert an urban fuel consumption of 300mpg (yep, that’s three hundred.
A car running on an electric engine is normally 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 car away from rest is both immediate and strong, as electrical motors generate huge amounts of torque instantly. They are quiet from the exterior to, to such an extent that the EU is contemplating making audible warnings mandatory in the future as pedestrians simply won’t hear an electric car coming.
Concerning exciting handling, electric cars are normally not brilliant, it must be said. They tend to be very heavy and usually run tyres & wheels more beneficial for economy than handling. However, as a commuter vehicle around town, they are zippy and productive. Plus they create less noise, pollution and heat to the street so a traffic jam of Nissan Leafs in the city would be a lot more pleasant for passing pedestrians.
The batteries on a typical electric car only give it enough scope for several miles (although a true EV will have a larger battery pack as it does not have to match a petrol motor & gas tank too ), so the cars use various means to charge the battery while driving. Usually this involves converting kinetic energy from coasting and braking to electric energy to store in the batteries.
In a fully electric car that means you have to stop and charge the batteries, so hopefully you parked near a power socket somewhere and have several hours to find something else to do. In a hybridvehicle, the petrol engine will start up to provide the power. In a normal hybrid such as a Prius, the automobile effectively becomes a normal petrol car, albeit with a fairly underpowered engine pushing a heavy car around so it is not swift. In a’range extender’ like the Ampera/Volt, the gas engine provides energy to the electric motor to drive the wheels, which is more efficient in both performance and economy. Depending on how you are driving, any spare energy from the petrol engine can be used to charge up the batteries , so the car may switch back to electrical power once charging is complete.
So what exactly does this mean in real life?
Well, just how much of the subsequent driving do you do? We are assuming here that the batteries are fully charged when you put off.
Short excursions (<50 miles between charges).
These sort of journeys are ideal for electric cars and plug-in hybrids, as the batteries will deal with the entire journey and also get some charge as you drive. A regular hybrid will still have to use the petrol engine, although how much depends on how you drive it and how much charging it’s able to get along the way.
These are the sorts of trips 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 point. A plug-in hybrid or regular hybrid will be OK because they can call on the gas engine. In a standard hybrid, this means the car will be petrol powered for the majority of the journey. In a plug-in hybridvehicle, it’ll be mostly electric with the petrol engine kicking into top up the batteries if needed late in the travel.
Longer trips (100+ miles between charges)
Not feasible in a fully-electric car, as you’ll most likely run out of power before you get there. The regular hybrid is basically a petrol car for almost the whole journey and the plug-in hybrid is majority electric but supplemented by petrol in a far more efficient manner than a regular hybrid.
Let us summarise the three Kinds of electrically-powered cars:
PROS: cheaper, no charging required, no range anxiety, regular petrol engine makes it feel like a regular petrol car
CONS: just very short journeys (a few miles at best) will be completely electrical, small battery pack and weak 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 due to carrying gas and electric powertrains in one car
Fully electric car (EV) (eg – Nissan Leaf)
PROS: strong electric motor gives much better performance than a regular hybridvehicle, 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 capability due to lack of gas engine backup, leading range anxiety is a real problem for motorists, question marks over battery life, technology advances will make next generation massively better and hurt resale value, a few driving adaptation required, lengthy recharging required after even a moderate drive
Plug-in Hybrid / range-extender (eg – Vauxhall Ampera)
PROS: powerful electric motor and backup petrol engine provide best combination of range and performance, most journeys will be completely electric which is cheaper than gas, 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 because of having petrol engine and fuel tank in addition to electric motor and batteries.
Electric Car Economics – Why is it all worth it?
For most people, an electric vehicle is difficult to justify on pure hard-headed economics. Even with a #5,000 rebate from the government, an electric car is expensive. A Nissan Leaf starts at #31,000, so after the government gives you #5K you’ve spent #26K on a car which would be likely worth about #15K if it had a normal petrol engine. That could conceivably buy you a decade’s worth of fuel!
Purchasing a hybrid or electric car because you think you are helping the environment might not be helping that cause as much as you believe, if at all. Producing automobile batteries is a filthy and complicated process, and the net result is that there is a significantly higher environmental impact in building an electric or hybrid car than building a normal petrol or diesel car. So you are beginning 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) rather than renewable sources, so you’re still polluting the atmosphere when you drive, albeit not as much and the effects are not as noticeable to you.
The biggest electric car turn-off for car buyers (other than the high purchase price) is the joint problem of very limited variety and very slow recharging. In a petrol or diesel car, you can drive for a few hundred miles, pull into a gas station and five minutes later you are ready to drive for another few hundred miles. In an electric car, you drive for 50-100 miles, then have to stop and charge it for several hours to drive another 50-100 miles.
If you just take short journeys and can keep the car plugged in if it stops (usually at home or work), this might never be a problem. But you can not expect to jump in the car and drive a couple hundred miles, or get away with forgetting to plug the car in immediately 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 big problem as there are relatively few power sockets available in public parking areas 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 such as a Toyota Prius, but you are carting a petrol engine (and fuel) around all the time that you may not need, adding hundreds of kilos of weight and consuming lots of space, so it’s a compromise.
So as you can see from all the above, it’s not at all straightforward. You need to carefully consider what sort of driving you will be doing and what you need your vehicle to be able to do.
*there is a complicated technical argument about whether the Ampera/Volt’s gasoline engine directly drives the wheels under certain conditions, but it is really boring and doesn’t really make any difference to how the car drives.
Stuart Masson is founder and owner of The Car Pro, 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 automobiles and delivering high levels of customer satisfaction to bring a unique and personal car buying agency to London. The Car Expert offers specific and tailored advice for anyone looking for a new or used car in London.