How to buy an electric car

Electric cars are still very new to most people, knowledge about the technology, how to use it and what the big brands are offering remains hard to come by. The first step to buying an electric car for most people then, is to get up to speed with the change in usage patterns that EVs demand and the type of products that are available from brands like NissanBMWVolkswagenMitsubishi and more. Usefully, a new type of car showroom aims to help you do just that.  

Charging point operator, Chargemaster,  has opened the UK’s first multi-brand EV showroom. Dubbed the Electric Vehicle Experience Centre (EVEC), it gives motorists the chance to explore the latest electric and hybrid cars, although the cars can’t be bought at the facility.

• Best electric cars on sale

Auto Express joined the centre’s ‘EV gurus’ and spoke to potential owners to get their thoughts on this new approach. Located between a jeweller and a chemist in Milton Keynes’ Centre:MK shopping mall, the site is hard to miss, with four gleaming cars parked inside a modern showroom. On display are a Volkswagen Golf GTE, Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, BMW i3 and Nissan Leaf – all of which can be test driven – along with a Renault ZOE, Kia Optima PHEV, Kia Soul EV and Volkswagen Passat GTE.

The EV gurus receive intensive training, but Tom Callow, Chargemaster’s director of strategy, gave us a crash course on why spreadsheets aren’t the way to sell EVs.

“Many motorists who only look at the numbers have already got an EV, so you need to excite and interest the people who haven’t,” he said. “To do that, you have to get them behind the wheel.

“In some cases they get in thinking it’s going to be a milk float and instead they get instant torque and quick acceleration. We’re way beyond the G-Wiz era now.”

EV guru Tom Taylor added: “Those who know a bit about EVs might come straight over to me and ask about the differences between a Type 1 and Type 2 connector, whereas those who are just passing will often look around and ask me why there are ‘milk float’ cars in a shopping centre.

“But that’s great; it’s why this place is here. We can provide information, offer a test drive and get the cogs turning on whether an EV could fit into their life.”

One such passing shopper is Emma Shah, from Milton Keynes, who wanted to see if an Outlander PHEV could replace her Kia Sportage. What does she think of the showroom? “It’s a good opportunity to look at the cars because not a lot of people would have the confidence to walk into BMW or VW,” Emma said. “You can just pop in while you’re shopping to have a quick look. The staff are very relaxed; they don’t seem like car salesmen.”

Visitors can drive any vehicle in the centre’s fleet round the block for free or book a seven-day test drive from £75.

The showroom receives funding from the Government’s Go Ultra Low Cities initiative and will be in place for five years. The cars on display and available for test drives will be swapped out when new models are released; the new Leaf and VW e-Golf are already on order.

After the announcement of the 2040 deadline for the sale of new petrol and diesel cars in the UK, demand for electric and hybrid vehicles is set to surge. This is the future, so allowing drivers to get hands on with the tech in the relaxed surroundings of a shopping centre is an inspired idea.

Frequently asked questions

While the EVEC is a fantastic resource for getting answers to your questions, we are willing to bet not everyone fancies a day trip to Buckinghamshire. Therefore, at the expense of Milton Keynes’ bustling economy, we have populated a list of the answers to the most common EV buying questions below. Ranging from, whether or not batteries wear out, to what happens if you can’t make it home, the below FAQs are the first step to buying an EV.

How can I charge my EV or PHEV? 

The speed at which you can charge depends on your vehicle, and where you’re trying to plug it in. In general, there are three standards, the slowest of which is 3kW, which usually runs off a three-pin plug like you’d use in a domestic socket. Then there’s 7kW, which runs at 32 amps; this is the set-up used in most of the home charging ‘pods’ that you see on houses.

The fastest of all is DC, although it requires your car to have some extra electrics to cope with power ratings of up to 50kW. Most users in the UK are only exposed to this system at the Electric Highway stations in motorway service areas, or in IKEA car parks. Tesla’s Supercharger network offers even faster charging than ‘conventional’ DC, incidentally. But it’s exclusive to Model S and Model X owners.

Home charging systems vary in price depending on how complex the installation is, but as a rough guide, a straightforward 7kW home charger purchase should cost around £300. Equally, several manufacturers offer a 3kW system included as part of the package when you buy their electric car – and you should be able to upgrade that to the more potent charger for a small fee.

How long does charging take?

If you’re using a three-pin plug you should prepare yourself for a wait – a pure EV with a reasonably large battery will take anything from eight to 12 hours to fully replenish on this set-up. Upgrade to a proper home charging box with 7kW and you can expect that time to be cut in half.

The roadside DC chargers are designed to be used mid-journey, so they’ll get you from flat to around 80 per cent in less than an hour – 45 minutes isn’t uncommon. 

What about public charging spaces? Aren’t they always full?

In truth, most EV users have charging facilities at home, and only use public points as a way of exploiting ‘dead time’ when the car will be sitting still anyway. There was a period when owners of pure-electric cars became frustrated at plug-in hybrid users whose vehicles were often to be found in charging bays. However, the introduction of charging fees has made this less of an issue.

Future charging trends could place public spaces under greater pressure, but most big cities are exploring ways of expanding the charging network; we’re likely to see plug-in points everywhere from car parks to street lamp-posts.

Do the batteries wear out?

We all know how batteries in mobile phones aren’t as good after a few years as they were when the device was new. In simple terms, the same will happen with car batteries, but the time frames involved are much, much longer. Car manufacturers have worked out, in fact, that in almost all cases, the batteries will still be usable at the end of the car’s natural lifespan – which is expected to be around 10 years. 

What will happen to used batteries when they’re no use in cars, though? WON’T they damage the environment?

Not really. The batteries concerned may not be usable in cars, but they’ll still be very useful for storing energy. Most car manufacturers are working on schemes to reuse the batteries in everything from home energy stations to major industrial networks that will help the National Grid to manage energy flow and reduce wastage of power produced during periods of low demand. Your car will be able to feed back energy to the grid, in other words. 

Is an EV safe in an accident?

Electric cars and hybrids are subject to the same Euro NCAP crash test that conventional vehicles go through, and they’ve scored strongly. The Nissan Leaf and Renault ZOE (both bespoke pure EVs) each notched up the maximum five stars – a rating that’s been matched in more recent tests by the Toyota C-HR hybrid, Audi A3 Sportback e-tron, Tesla Model S and Hyundai Ioniq.

It’s worth remembering, too, that unlike petrol cars, pure-electric vehicles don’t have tanks full of fuel on board.

What are residual values like on EVs?

The resale values of pure-electric cars have been generally quite poor, and this hasn’t been helped by some makers, such as Renault, retaining ownership of the battery and leasing it to the user, regardless of whether they’re the first owner or not. This factor and the Government grant for zero-emissions vehicles have sent values tumbling down from what look like relatively high prices when new – although of course this is great news for used buyers.

Is it better to lease or PCP an EV so the manufacturer takes the risk?

In our view, yes. The market for electric vehicles is still relatively young and technology is moving pretty quickly. So what the manufacturer considers a suitable ‘guaranteed future value’ now may not be viable when you get to the end of your 36-month deal. A PCP contract will protect you from taking an extra hit on the depreciation because you should be able to simply walk away from the vehicle and get another one. In effect, as long as the deposit and monthly payments are agreeable to you, it makes the rest of the equation – including the key point of residual values – the manufacturer’s problem.

Is there a best time to buy an EV?

Electric cars and hybrids fall into the same sales patterns as regular cars, really, so the best time for deals is around the registration plate changes in March and September.

If anything, the bargains for pure-electric cars can be even more attractive, because some manufacturers roll these cars into their salesmen’s bonus schemes – so if they want the extra money for a good quarter’s sales of petrol cars, they also need to shift a few EVs.

What’s battery leasing?

Some manufacturers – Nissan and Renault, mainly – keep ownership of the battery in your car and lease it to you. The fees depend on how many miles you’re covering every year, but it can add up to £90 to your monthly bill if you’re doing more than 10,000 miles annually. Nissan offers the alternative of buying the car including the battery, but Renault does not, so you’ll need to factor in the extra monthly cost if you’re working out the finances on a ZOE.

Are EVs more expensive to insure?

Some insurers may offer you a small discount on a policy for an EV, because of its environmental credentials and the fact that owners of pure-electric cars tend to rack up fewer miles and, because they’re used mainly in towns, at lower speeds. However, some cover providers still believe there’s an added risk because of the charging equipment, or even the possibility of people tripping over your cable if the car is plugged in on the street.

Factor in higher list prices of electric cars and plug-in hybrids, and you end up with a final bill that’s likely to be roughly the same as it would be for a conventionally powered vehicle. As always, it pays to shop around.

Remember, too, that if you’re leasing the battery instead of owning it outright, you’ll need to inform your insurer about this when you’re getting a quote.

How much will servicing cost?

Service bills will vary from vehicle to vehicle, of course – and you’ll also see a difference between the costs for pure EVs and hybrid cars. That’s because all-

electric vehicles have fewer moving components than anything with an internal combustion engine.

As an example, the parts used in the scheduled services on a VW e-Golf over three years or 30,000 miles will cost you just under £26; that’s around £60 less than the components required to maintain a plug-in hybrid Golf GTE during the same period. And the amount of labour required for servicing is the same across both vehicles. 

Can I drive it through water?

Yes. The general advice is roughly the same as it is for conventionally powered cars: don’t tackle water that’s going to be above the top of the tyres. But there’s no problem with driving on rain-soaked roads in a downpour. It’s fine to take an EV into automated car washes, too.

How much does charging cost?

Home charging rates will depend on your energy tariff, but as a really rough guide, a pure EV with a decent-sized battery – something like a VW e-Golf – will cost you between £4 and £5 to charge from flat. The charging points at motorway service stations now cost a flat connection fee of £3, plus a certain amount per kWh. For a typical 80 per cent recharge you should expect to pay about £6 or £7.

What happens if I can’t make it home?

This is only likely to be an issue if you’re in a pure-electric car, because plug-in hybrids always have the combustion engine to fall back on in an emergency. Even so, almost all cars sold in the UK come with at least a year of breakdown cover, and this applies as much to pure EVs as it does petrol or diesel models. Indeed, many pure-electric cars, such as the Nissan Leaf and Renault ZOE, get at least three years’ recovery included.

If you’re buying a second-hand EV that’s more than three years old, incidentally, you should consider home recovery services. Most of the major providers have schemes that will include electric vehicle assistance.

Are all charging cables the same?

Frustratingly, no. Even among the regular EVs, there’s still some diversity on the sockets used. A few manufacturers, such as Mitsubishi and Nissan, are still committed to the CHAdeMO standard, but most EVs can be charged using what’s called a Type 2 Mennekes plug. Some home ‘rapid’ chargers have the cable built into the box; make sure the socket at the other end matches the car you’re going to run.

The DC chargers at motorway service stations and IKEA branches use either a Mennekes with a couple of extra holes – called a CCS – or a version of the CHAdeMO. It’s expected that in the coming years, Mennekes and CCS will become the standard.

After you’ve have decided on which make and model you would like to go for, it’s time to start shopping for deals. Our advice is to look carefully at PCP and lease deals on EVs because that way much of the uncertainty regarding residual values and reliability will be the problem of the manufacturer rather than yourself. A finance deal will also let you get a feel for whether an EV will fit in with your lifestyle over a long period without making a big financial commitment. Many manufacturers offer innovative ways to buy and run an electric car with battery leasing options, access to charging networks and short-term loans of conventional cars all available as part of the deal.

Where to buy an electric car

The EVEC won’t sell you an electric car but there are plenty of place that will. You’ll increasingly find EVs and plug-in hybrids for sale or lease at franchised car dealers, car brokers, and car supermarkets. The benefits and negatives of each can be found summaries below.

Franchised car dealers

A franchised car dealership a the main route for car manufacturers looking to put their products on your driveway. As a result, any sales staff you encounter in a dealership should be expert in their products.

If you didn’t manage to make it to the EVEC, they should be able to answer any queries and questions you may have. On top of this, a dealer will get more support from the OEM with regards to repairs and warranty work. It can also be the best place to part-ex your current car provided you will be getting behind the wheel of one of their new cars.

A limitation is of course, a franchised dealer will only sell models from that franchise, limiting how many different cars you can look at on site. Everything in the showroom will be tailored to show the cars in the best possible light, and there should be a smorgasbord of brochures to swot-up on.

If you aren’t fussy about whether a car has already be registered, franchised dealers will have access to a wealth of manufacturer approved used and nearly new models. The great benefit of these cars is that they will often be covered by a used car warranty and the approved system will guarantee their quality.

With respect to the ones and zeros, a franchised dealer will be able to be extremely flexible with their finance offers, mostly due to the fact they have the backing of the manufacturer’s finance department behind them, meaning special offers which help you get behind the wheel are more likely to come your way. On top of this, the majority of dealers will have a finance expert on site, so all the options available to you can be explained clearly. Don’t forget though, as with all sales there will be room to negotiate, sales targets must be met, which is something you can use to your advantage.

Car Broker

Using a car broker can be an excellent way of saving yourself some effort and let an experienced negotiator get a great deal for you. Or at least in theory it is. A key point is that the dealership the car comes from should pay the broker to source the car, and not you. Reputable and successful car brokers will have plenty of customer reviews for you to ensure you are going to get great service.

As car brokers work by ordering cars from dealers in large numbers, there is always the chance you will not get offered the exact car you were after, and while this can be as simple as blue car rather than a black one, it can also mean bigger changes such as a trim level. There is also the risk that the broker will offer you cars from dealers they can get the best commision on, so take things brokers say with a pinch of salt before you buy.

Car Supermarkets

Car supermarkets are just what they sound like – a large collection of a huge mix of makes and models of cars. From your garden variety hatchback to family SUV there should be a car for everyone, including those wanting an EV. However, unlike franchised dealers, the cars will all be used, or nearly new, bought in bulk as ex-demonstrators, part exchanges, and pre-registered vehicles from manufacturers.

Generally speaking, the biggest advantage is the variety on offer. You aren’t limited to one brand and as such can compare cars much more easily. That being said, the majority of the cars on offer will be the mainstream winners as these supermarkets are in the business of selling large numbers of cars. With EVs still rare compared to conventionally-engined cars, you might find the choice at car supermarkets a little limited.

As you find in the franchised dealers, there will be a raft of flexible finance deals, which will allow more buyers to find the right deal for them. A point to bear in mind is that all other aspects of car ownership such as servicing, maintenance, and recall work will most likely not be covered by the supermarket as they will not have the facilities, but some do offer warranties.  

Ultimate guide to electric cars

Are you considering buying an electric car? If so, will you be going to the EVEC? Let us know in the comments below.

 

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