Buying an EV is no longer a novel concept, but go in prepared
With car makers and legislators thrusting EVs out of their niche and into the mainstream, here’s our extensive buying guide for those tempted to take the plunge
The moment has come for electric cars. Lockdown is easing and, due to that, we’re seeing a rapid acceleration in demand for new cars – along with a determination in many a keen owner’s mind that this is a time to take a new view on life and concentrate on what really matters.
For a great number of us, that means making a well-informed and far-sighted decision about our next car. Do we stick with the same, safe, internal-combustion choices or embrace the future with an EV? We know it’s coming, so why not do it now?
Autocar believes it’s okay to think such things. Even before Covid-19, this was always going to be a major year for EV sales. The biggest European car makers must this year begin reducing their fleet-average CO2 emissions to 95g/km, and there’s no better way of offsetting the petrol cars that most of the market will still want by selling a decent number of zero-emissions ones. One reason EVs were so hard to buy last year is that firms were using 2019 to clear their less fuel-efficient stock, knowing 2020 would be the year of the EV push. Now, suddenly, they want to sell you battery cars.
There are other prime reasons for considering the change. The supply of enticing EVs has grown from a dozen to 40-plus in short order, and there’s now a viable second-hand EV market, reassuring for those considering the change. Company car economics have moved decisively in the favour of EVs, too. Road tax is eliminated, parking costs are low, fuelling costs are slashed and London’s congestion charge and ULEZ fees don’t apply.
What used to be a speculative topic has become a serious option. Now read on as we rate every EV on sale and answer the questions surrounding them.
Note: Prices include the government grant if the car costs less than £50,000 and thus is eligible.
Runners and riders
Audi E-Tron: The Audi E-tron range has already expanded to include an entry-level 50 model that sneaks below £60,000 and a Sportback variant with a superbly effective – and believe it or not – drift-enhancing torque-vectoring rear axle, but the midpoint 55 in the standard body remains the most compelling.
Its 250 miles of range is a touch disappointing, but the E-tron is outstanding for refinement and usability, while its performance is strong enough to fulfil its premium-luxury brief and its 150kW charging capability outguns what Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz offer. The E-tron is brilliantly unremarkable, which is what many want from their first EV.
* Spec is for the E-tron 55 quattro
BMW i3: The radical, composite-bodied BMW i3 awaits cast-iron-classic status, but in the here and now, you can still buy one factory-fresh despite the model having been introduced as far back as 2013.
There have, of course, been several updates since then to keep BMW’s first electric car competitive in terms of range and interior technology, but the one thing the i3 still does better than so many others is combine strong ergonomics with ease of use. It’s fantastically stress-free to pilot through busy city streets and can comfortably seat four. Yes, the ride is a bit bouncy and you’d expect a longer range, but the rakish i3 still makes a compelling case for itself.
DS 3 Crossback E-Tense: All four of the major PSA Group brands will end up with an electric compact car either this year or next. And all four will use the same platform, electric motor and battery, so you might wonder why you would splurge on the one that will undoubtedly be the priciest of the quartet when you could save a few grand by just buying smarter.
Well, the others don’t have the fashionista style of the DS. They’re not quite as practical, either, even if rear quarters here aren’t as accommodating as the crossover billing might suggest. Performance, handling and range are all a shade above the class average, but they won’t stay so for long.
Honda E: Remember the original Insight, with its Integrated Motor Assist driveline and slippery two-seat body? That car was Honda at its imaginative best and, two decades later, it seems the Honda of old is back.
The simply named E is a city car that feels special and unusual in a way that few rivals can dream of. It’s genuinely good to drive, having its single motor powering its rear wheels, and superbly agile – impressive attributes before you even consider the inimitable design and classy interior. However, poor range and a high price make it much more of a heart than a head buy. As one tester put it, the E is easy to like but harder to recommend.
Hyundai Ioniq Electric: The Hyundai Ioniq has one significant claim to fame: it’s one of only two cars that can be bought as a hybrid, a plug-in hybrid or an electric car. The EV is the best of the lot, although it’s not the kind of car that a designer might describe as ‘emotional’. Launched in 2016, it hails from a time when some thought alternatively fuelled cars had to look and drive a bit like the Toyota Prius in order to succeed.
Suffice to say, it’s not particularly engaging: its performance is responsive but a little meek by EV standards and its handling a bit soft and steady. It’s efficient, though, getting nearly 200 miles out of a 38kWh battery, and it’s a true four-seater with a good boot.
Hyundai Kona Electric: Kia and Hyundai made a big splash when they entered the electric car market with their crossover siblings. Hyundai’s creation, the Kona Electric, set new standards for range in particular. The entry-level version we’ve included specification for is only where the car opens for business, with range-topping 64kWh-battery versions offering close to 300 miles of usable range for less than £36,000.
It offers good performance and drivability, and Hyundai’s Smart Regenerative Braking system (which uses the radar cruise sensors to adjust the brakes to suit the traffic flow) is particularly clever. It isn’t as spacious as some rival EVs, though.
Jaguar I-Pace: Being bold usually gets you some credit, but the I-Pace continues to win Jaguar praise not only because it beat both Audi and Mercedes-Benz to the EV market. Despite approaching its second birthday, the I-Pace still feels really innovative, and although it has much less visual bulk than a typical mid-sized SUV, it’s surprisingly spacious.
However, the strongest selling point remains its driving experience: the I-Pace has swift, super-responsive performance and taut, agile, engaging handling, so cleverly walking the line between family car and sports car in its dynamic character.
Kia E-Niro: On the continuum of practicality versus cost versus driving range, the Kia e-Niro is straight unbeatable, and some conspicuous cheaper interior plastics and uninspiring handling thus won’t matter a jot to the vast majority of owners.
Admittedly, the Hyundai Kona Electric, which is the e-Niro’s technological cousin, offers slightly more range for just a little extra outlay but, in our experience, the Kia is the more refined and smooth-riding of the pair, despite its more junior status. In years to come, this will be seen as the car that really put Kia on the map, and deservedly so.
Kia Soul EV: The Soul is now three model generations old. It has become symbolic of Kia’s developing maturity, evidence that it’s ready to reach beyond budget routes with genuinely stylish and alternative cars. And now that the Soul is electric-only (in Europe, at least), it has an alternative powertrain to match its signature kooky Imperial stormtrooper styling.
Think of this as a slightly cheaper, slightly more practical sibling of the Hyundai Kona. It’s roomy enough for four adults and, while its boot could be bigger, it would be a good choice for a family wanting to make an impression everywhere they go.
Mercedes-Benz EQC: Very few Autocar group tests have been contested exclusively by electric vehicles so far, and yet the Mercedes-Benz EQC is already the winner of one. You’d be right that the I-Pace is more stylish and the E-tron is more refined, but it was the EQC that had the sufficiently well-balanced hand of performance, range, space and luxury appeal to beat its rivals from Jaguar, Audi and Tesla last year.
Its cabin has most of the space and allure of any high-end Mercedes, with a few special high-tech materials and touches added in. It’s pacey, it rides comfortably and it handles deftly, too.
MG ZS EV: Few cars make electric driving affordable quite like the Chinese-built ZS EV, which offers performance and practicality on par with the segment-defining Nissan Leaf at a much lower price. It has space for a family of four and, while its official range is tricky to achieve (you’ll manage 120 miles at best, really), handling and performance are pretty creditable.
You can get better from other EVs on all sorts of fronts, but the fact that you can buy the ZS for the price of a pretty ordinary petrol hatchback and could use it in very similar fashion says much about the pace of development of EVs.
Mini Electric: Mini has always seemed the brand ripest for electrification and, after several development projects, it finally has its first series-production EV. The good news is that this drives like any other Mini, feeling planted yet fleet of foot and steering with enjoyable accuracy. It’s also lighter than many rivals and richer in character, which counts for quite a bit when the powertrain is whisper-quiet. In many ways, then, this is an excellent first EV.
Range could be a fly in the ointment, however. Officially, it’s 145 miles, making the Mini a lot less usable than the rivals that can manage around 200.
Nissan Leaf: The trailblazing Nissan Leaf has almost a decade of success behind it now and, if you want to bet on a sure thing as far as the technology and reliability of your first EV are concerned, that may mean a lot.
Behind that eye-catching design, the Leaf is a regular five-door hatchback with a roomy cabin and a fairly steady, reassuring driving experience, although its powertrain’s quiet smoothness and slick drivability augment its dynamic appeal.
If 168 miles aren’t enough, there’s the e+ version with 214bhp, a 62kWh battery and a 239-mile range, but this pushes a reasonable price above £33,000.
Peugeot E-208: If the supermini class is the battleground for mass-market electric-car superiority, Peugeot can lay claim to leading on it with the e-208. Put simply, few, if any, rivals offer the same blend of generous range, fast-charging capability, dynamism and desirability. Thoughtful engineering pays off, it seems, and the e-208’s platform was designed from the outset to house 300kg of battery, for which the rear axle has also been widened to make space.
The e-208 doesn’t ride quite as sweetly as conventional 208 variants and is pricey, but make no mistake: this is the supermini benchmark.
Peugeot E-2008: Built on the same underpinnings as the e-208, the e-2008 adds some height, a bit of length and improved ergonomics in general to the mix. The result? An unusually heavy compact crossover with more than 200 miles of range, a spacious interior and likeably distinctive looks.
Peugeot insists that this most expensive 2008 is also every bit as easy to use and live with as the conventional versions, which is largely true. Drawbacks? Higher trim levels are expensive and you need them to get the best of the e-2008, while Korean rivals offer considerably longer ranges.
Polestar 2: You’ll probably know of the 600bhp, plug-in hybrid, carbonfibre-bodied Polestar 1 coupé. But it’s the 2 that really matters because, not only is this slope-backed crossover electric, it’s also the car that will take Volvo’s new sister brand into the mainstream.
The 2 is built on a modified version of the Volvo XC40’s platform and, with potent motors at each end, it’s also quick enough to trouble a BMW M3. But most surprising is how expertly its chassis has been tuned: the 2 is genuinely fulfilling to drive. And its cabin, while smaller than ideal and clearly in receipt of various Volvo parts, is also a highlight.
Porsche Taycan: Porsche bided its time before unleashing its first EV, but the result is the finest electric driver’s car on sale and one that feels like a true Porsche from behind the wheel. There are several flavours, starting with the 4S and culminating £55,000 later with the sensationally quick, 751bhp Turbo S. The “functional luxury” of the cabin is also typical for Porsche and leads the way for perceived quality.
The Taycan isn’t perfect, mind: space in the rear and boot is modest compared with the Tesla Model S, as is range, with no Taycan exceeding 300 miles. Still, for those who have deep pockets, it’s a gem.
Renault Twizy: Strictly speaking, the Twizy isn’t a car at all: it’s a heavy quadricycle, according to technical vehicle classifications. For bikers who passed their test before 2001, it’s therefore a four-wheeled option.
It would make a really compact and characterful little machine to run, provided you go in with your eyes wide open. This is a tiny car and a strict two-seater, and even if you specify the optional door panels, it remains fairly open to the elements. Performance is peppy in town but slow above 40mph, maxing out at 50mph; range is about 50 miles on a good day and three-pin-plug charging is slow.
Renault Zoe: The Renault Zoe, once the pioneering electric supermini and now in its second generation, manages to extract an enormous 238 miles of range from its new 52kWh battery. That alone will secure it a good deal of sales at the expense of Mini and Peugeot, and the Zoe still touts one of the most likeably individual designs in the class to go with a good amount of space inside.
Two things to note, however: this is an expensive car compared with the opposition, and the interior feels neither special nor intuitive enough now that Mini and Peugeot, among others, are on the scene.
Seat Mii Electric: Seat will eventually offer its own take on the Volkswagen ID 3, named the El-Born, but the first-ever electric model offered by the marque is the Mii Electric, which slots into the family hierarchy beneath the Volkswagen e-Up but above the Skoda Citigo-e iV, in terms of both price and equipment.
One key difference is that the Seat and Skoda are offered only in electric form, after the petrol models were dropped last year – and the fact that the Mii’s sportier suspension gives it a worse ride than its siblings. Otherwise, the Mii is a strong competitor at the affordable end of the EV spectrum.
Skoda Citigo-E IV: Many will be delighted to discover that there’s a car mechanically identical to the Volkswagen e-Up but several grand cheaper. Admittedly, there are sacrifices to be made with the Skoda Citigo-e iV: heated seats (considered by many as essential in an electric car) and parking sensors are optional, as is manual height adjustment for the front seats.
Stingy? Just a bit, but in light of its urban remit, the Citigo’s range is impressive, its performance adequate and its ergonomics excellent in several key respects. As a second or third car and a toe in the water of electrification, you could do far worse.
Smart EQW Fortwo and Smart EQ ForFour: It wasn’t so long ago that an EV meant something small and slow, good on crowded city streets and easy to park but pretty hopeless at much of the rest of what is expected of a car today. It doesn’t any more, thankfully, but if you do happen to want a car purely for urban duties, Smart still caters for you.
The newly electric-only brand offers two-door hatchback, two-door cabriolet and four-door hatchback versions of its city car, which is a choice you don’t get elsewhere. Space, usability and performance are limited, though, while range really suffers, not helped by the lack of DC rapid charging.
* Spec is for the Smart EQ Fortwo
Tesla Model 3: This is the car that’s turning Tesla into a really significant global car maker. Slightly shorter than the BMW 3 Series, it has the price and proportions to fit into the lives of urbanites, suburbanites and rural-dwellers, and because it’s a Tesla, it has eye-catching performance and range to seal the deal. Its modern, minimalist and upmarket interior appeals, too, although the rear could be roomier.
Prices extend all the way up to £56,000 for the Performance, with its 3.2sec 0-60mph sprint and 300-mile-plus range. But every variant is a keen-handling, zappy driver’s car of real energy and pace.
Tesla Model S: The Model S was the breakthrough car for Tesla. It emerged in 2012 and a year later earned a 4.5-star road test endorsement, back when most electric cars wouldn’t get close to that sort of score. Fast, quiet, refined, technologically advanced and decently long-legged, it demonstrated the potential that luxury electric cars held – and it would be many years before anything really got close to it.
Just lately, the Model S has been shaded both within Tesla showrooms and without. But it’s still compelling, especially when you consider its ranges and the ultra-quick Performance version at £97k.
Tesla Model X: Family-friendliness is by the far the best argument in favour of the Model X. This is an SUV with sci-fi-style electric gullwing rear doors, remember, and at two and a half tonnes, the Performance version can still hit 60mph in three seconds flat.
The Model X isn’t the comfiest, the quietest or the most generally impressive big electric car to drive, but it is the only seven-seat EV on sale, it offers strong performance and its promise of a 300-mile range is fairly realistic. Plus, it’s supported by Tesla’s Superchargers, which really are well-provided on UK motorways and couldn’t be easier to use.
Vauxhall Corsa-E: When Vauxhall at the very last minute ripped up its plans to deliver the new Corsa on a General Motors platform and instead borrowed one from its new PSA Group owner, new doors were opened for the brand. One led to its very first pure-electric car and perhaps its most significant model since the original Corsa (or the Nova, as we know it here).
The Corsa-e is, in essence, the same supermini as the Peugeot e-208, only a little quicker and sharper in its handling but less distinctive inside and out. In short, it’s a very solid effort with a good range and certainly worthy of your consideration.
Volkswagen E-Up: The e-Up is a stalwart of the electric genre, having first appeared back in 2013, but Volkswagen didn’t take half measures in updating it last year. A new battery has effectively doubled its real-world range, yet its price has actually fallen to the extent that it undercuts some excellent city car rivals – and there’s a lot more to like about it besides.
While slow by any outright measure, the e-Up is deceptively brisk as an urban runabout and offers variable regenerative braking settings, allowing you to maximise range. Excellent front-seat space is also totally at odds with the tiny exterior dimensions.
Volkswagen ID 3: The ID 3 has a pivotal role for a company that has invested more than most in turning itself around and looking forward after the Dieselgate scandal. And what a transformative car it could be. The first creation to use the specialised MEB platform, it’s a rear-motored, rear-driven marvel that’s shorter than the Golf yet as roomy as a mid-sized saloon.
This hatchback handles in a wieldy, approachable way around town; it’s not sporty or fast like a Tesla, but it’s nippy and overwhelmingly easy to drive. Its vital stats aren’t eye-popping, but top-end variants can charge at up to 125kW and have a range of up to 350 miles.
Top 5 range
1 – Tesla Model S Long Range: Big-batteried big saloon tops the range pile on 379 miles.
2 – Tesla Model 3 Long Range: 75kWh small saloon is rated for an impressive 348 miles.
3 – Volkswagen ID 3: 77kWh battery of the priciest ID 3 keeps Elon from a podium lockout, managing 340 miles.
4 – Tesla Model X Long Range: Seven-seat SUV is sizeable yet manages 315 miles.
5 – Polestar 2: Polestar still quotes 311 miles as just a ‘target’ for the 2, but it’s unlikely to undershoot.
Top 5 in the city
1 – BMW i3: Compact, nippy, agile and straight-sided, with great visibility. Unbeatable.
2 – Honda E: Surprisingly refined, comfy and easy to drive, with a tiny turning circle. A mini-limo.
3 – Volkswagen E-Up: Has zip and grip as well as diminutive size, plus a bit of desirability with it.
4 – Volkswagen ID 3: Family hatchback uses its rear-engined layout to create great manoeuvrability.
5 – Smart EQ Fortwo: So short that you can just about park it sideways in a tiny kerbside space.
Top 5 driver appeal
1 – Porsche Taycan: In a league of one for poise, feel and involvement. Outstanding.
2 – Tesla Model 3: Hairline throttle response, huge thrust and taut handling make it very compelling.
3 – Jaguar I-Pace: Has the balanced grip, agility and finely tuned steering of a Jaguar great.
4 – Mini Electric: Offers the most fun of the affordable EVs by some margin. Quick and pointy.
5 – Polestar 2: Has impressive body control and handling balance, with Tesla-bothering pace. Great.
Top 5 value
1 – Skoda Citigo-E iV: An impressive 170 miles of range for just under £17,500. Right now, that’s unbeatable.
2 – MG ZS EV: Could almost be a petrol compact crossover for its reasonable £25,000.
3 – Nissan Leaf: Roomy hatchback offers a lot for well under £30,000, and discounts aren’t unknown.
4 – Kia E-Niro: Award-winning crossover offers genuine family usability for a reasonable £35,000.
5 – Peugeot e-208: Cheaper at entry level than any of its electric PSA Group stablemates.
My best electric drive
Porsche Taycan Turbo S, Route de Thorenc – Matt Saunders: A few years ago, I had a once-in-a-lifetime drive in an electric hillclimb car. Not one driven by Pikes Peak legend Nobuhiro Tajima, sadly (else I’d insist on being called Monster), but still: this Mitsubishi had three motors and would surely have set a competitive time if it hadn’t been crashed halfway up the mountain (not by me, I hasten to add). The best compliment I can pay the Porsche Taycan is that it made that car seem quite pedestrian – and it didn’t do so with brute poke on a drag strip, either.
The roads of the French Préalpes d’Azur are among the greatest in Europe, and they don’t let up. They give you 200 metres of clear line of sight, then three corners of different radii within the next 200. Wide sections followed by sudden, unforgiving, rocky narrows, with the constant prospect of a quarter-mile drop into the gorge below to contend with if you get things badly wrong. They make you concentrate all right.
Something heavy or underbraked, oversized or short on tactile feedback would have hit its natural speed limit very quickly here, but the Taycan just wanted to surge on quicker and quicker. It’s so much smaller on the road than you think it will be and feels so much lighter. And yes, it’s rapid; but that’s only a small part of what makes it a really special driver’s car.
The most recent is driving a Porsche Taycan in France with Matt Saunders. While the car felt sensationally complete in its own right, the equity its powertrain gave to the stunning surroundings was profound. Car and driver, moving through awe-inspiring scenery at stunning pace and with barely a whisper. The thrill of movement, rather than the car, was put on a pedestal, which I liked more than I was prepared to admit at the time.
The second memory is from almost a decade ago, when I first drove the Tesla Roadster. Even now, it’s difficult to put into words the sensation of a Lotus Elise-sized (and slightly rickety) car accelerating from a standstill at the same rate as the Lamborghini Huracán shifts at full throttle from 7500rpm. I’d never felt anything like it, and the bowel-loosening impact was heightened by the fact that photographer Olgun and I were still struggling out of congested London; neither of us had truly appreciated before just what electric motors may mean for the future of performance.
Finally, there was the international launch of the Renault Twizy. Empty, twisting Ibizan back roads in the off-season and a punchy little quadricycle that could oversteer. Enough said.
Driving the worst electric car in Britain – Steve Cropley
This tiny, ugly, Indian-made electric contraption, registered as a quadricycle to avoid lots of awkward European crash and compliance laws – even if it looks vaguely like a little hatchback – was quick to catch on in London a couple of decades ago. That was because it allowed moneyed owners who cared only about convenience to zip through the traffic in something barely bigger (and significantly uglier) than a wheelbarrow and then park all day for free in the centre of the capital – a sacred advantage.
You’d see grand-looking legal or corporate types, who had left their Bentleys in the garage, looking smug as they crawled along with the traffic in their G-Wizes, because they weren’t going to have to bother with constraints like the rest of us.
It made sense – or rather it did until you drove one. Then you knew different. Think of all the ways we judge cars: steering, driving position, accelerator response, body roll and road grip. In the G-Wiz, they were all terrible. The wheelbase was so short and the tracks so narrow that your body weight created dramatic body roll. It cornered differently through left-hand and right-hand bends. The brake pedal was always long, so you never quite knew for sure the thing was going to stop. In my brief time at the wheel, I had a closer views of the backs of red buses than I ever want to have again.
Since my day in an e2o a few years ago, I’ve often thought the car would at least be instructive for trainee road testers. I mean, if you want to know what the influence of decent shock absorbers is on ride quality or what centre feel is to steering, there’s no better way of finding out than trying a car with none of either. What the car did have was compactness, which would have been great if it wasn’t for the fact you felt so damned vulnerable.
Two things seem to have killed the e2o here: the rise of other cheap and much better EVs available on PCP deals and a rising unwillingness of drivers, even those who love beating the system, to look like such a pillock. EVs had to start somewhere in the UK, and the G-Wiz had the virtue of making everything that came after it look fantastic.