It seems like we have been waiting forever for electric cars to come together, but after more false starts than you will see in the London Olympics this season, it looks like the electric car is finally here to stay.
Now, we will need to begin with some dull 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 regular hybrid uses an electric motor and/or a petrol motor, depending on the circumstances. You don’t plug it into a wall socket as the batteries charge while you’re driving. A normal travel, even a short one, will use both electric and petrol power to drive the wheels.
A plug-in hybrid,”range-extending” electric car, is more of a fancy hybrid compared to a real EV although it drives more like an EV compared to a regular hybrid. In practice it might be a huge difference or none whatsoever, depending on how you use the vehicle. A range-extender, or plug hybrid because it’s more commonly known, has a petrol engine that can be used to power the electric motor once the batteries have drained, but the petrol engine does not directly drive the wheels*. The Vauxhall Ampera/Chevrolet Volt twins are the major example of this kind of car, and they claim 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 rather than a clearly perceptible gas engine) and smooth (no vibrations from engine or gearbox). The response from the car away from remainder is both immediate and powerful, as electric motors generate huge amounts of torque immediately. They’re quiet from the outside to, to this extent that the EU is considering making audible warnings compulsory 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 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 road so a traffic jam of Nissan Leafs in town would be a good deal more pleasant for passing pedestrians.
The batteries on a typical electric car only give it enough scope for a few miles (although a true EV will have a bigger battery pack as it does not need 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. The Fisker Karma even has solar cells in its roof to charge the batteries as well.
However, a longer journey will inevitably mean that the batteries are drained. In a fully electric car that means you’ve got to stop and control the batteries, so you parked near a power socket somewhere and have several hours to find something else to do. In a hybrid, the petrol engine will begin to provide the power. In a normal hybrid such as a Prius, the car effectively becomes an ordinary petrol car, albeit with a rather underpowered engine pushing a heavy car around so it is not swift. In a’range extender’ like the Ampera/Volt, the petrol engine offers energy to the electric motor to drive the wheels, which is more efficient in both economy and performance. Depending on how you’re driving, any spare energy from the gas engine can be used to charge up the batteries again, so the car may switch back to electrical power once charging is complete.
So what 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 trips (<50 miles between charges).
These kind of journeys are ideal for electric cars and plug in hybrids, as the batteries will cope with the whole journey and also get some charge while you drive. A regular hybrid will still need to use the petrol engine, although 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 until you make it to your charging point. A plug-in hybrid or regular hybrid will be fine because they can call on the gas engine. In a regular hybrid, this means the car will be petrol powered for most of the journey. In a plug-in hybrid, it will 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 will most likely run out of power before you arrive. The regular hybrid is essentially a gas car for almost the whole journey and the plug-in hybrid is majority electric but supplemented by gas in a far 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 petrol engine makes it feel as a regular petrol car
CONS: just very short journeys (a few miles at best) will be completely electric, small battery pack and weak petrol engine means relatively poor performance compared to a normal petrol car or a fully electric car, poor market when driven hard (like most Prius minicabs in London…), not very spacious for passengers and luggage due to carrying petrol and electric powertrains in 1 car
PROS: strong electric motor gives much better performance than a regular hybrid, larger battery pack means longer electric running, no gasoline motor reduces weight and frees up a lot of space, #5000 government lien, power is cheaper and usually less polluting than petrol, privileged parking spaces in certain public places
CONS: Still expensive despite rebate, minimal range capability due to lack of gas engine backup, leading range stress is a real problem for drivers, question marks over battery life, technology advances will make next generation massively better and hurt resale value, some driving adaptation required, lengthy recharging required after a moderate drive
PROS: powerful electric motor and backup petrol engine give best combination of performance and range, most journeys will be completely electric which is cheaper than gas, no range anxiety, privileged parking spaces in some public places
CONS: Very expensive despite rebate, question marks over battery life and resale value, wall socket charging remains slow, lack of space and very heavy because of having petrol engine and gas tank as well as electric motor and batteries.
Electric Car Economics – is it worth it?
For many people, an electric vehicle is difficult to justify on pure hard-headed economics. 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 as you think you’re helping the environment may not be helping that cause as much as you think, if at all. Producing automobile batteries is a filthy and complicated process, and the net result is that there’s a significantly higher environmental effects in creating an electric or hybrid car than creating a regular petrol or diesel car. So you’re starting behind the ecological eight-ball before you have even driven you fresh green car.
Beware of”zero emissions” claims about electric vehicles, because most electricity still comes from fossil fuel sources (such as gas or coal) rather than renewable sources, so you are still polluting the atmosphere when you push, albeit less and the effects are not as noticeable to you.
The biggest electric car turn-off for auto buyers (other than the high purchase price) is the joint problem of very limited variety 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.
If you just take short journeys and can keep the car plugged in whenever it stops (usually at home or work), this may never be a problem. However, you can’t expect to jump in the car and drive a couple hundred miles, or get away with forgetting to plug the car in overnight after a journey. You have to be much 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, including 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 straightforward. You need to carefully consider what kind of driving you will be doing and what you want your car 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 does not really make any difference to the way the car drives.
Stuart Masson is founder and owner of the auto Expert, a London-based independent and impartial car buying agency for anyone looking to buy a new or used vehicle.
Originally from Australia, Stuart has had a passion for cars and the automotive industry for nearly thirty years, and has spent the past 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 personal car buying agency to London. The auto Expert provides tailored and specific advice for anyone looking for a new or used car in London.