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Car buying tips

How to buy the best electric car

By Martin Pratt

Article 11 of 11

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How to buy the best electric car

Electric cars are here to stay. Our expert guide tells you everything you need to know about buying and running one.

Thinking about buying an electric car? Read on for our top tips, including how to get a government-funded grant towards the cost of a new electric car and the installation of a charging point at your home.

Find out which electric cars should be on your shopping shortlist on our best electric cars page.

1. Do you want an all-electric car?

When choosing which type of plug-in car to buy, your main decision is whether to choose an all-electric vehicle with only a battery-driven electric motor, or a plug-in hybrid (PHEV), in which the battery power and motor supplement are backed up by a combustion engine as well.

Purely electric cars have a reduced range than hybrid but are cheaper to run because they use no fuel other than electricity.

2. Would you be better off with a hybrid?

If you live rurally or you do a lot of long-distance driving the extra range of a hybrid may be a better option. The limited range of battery-powered electric cars like the Nissan Leaf and BMW i3 can be mitigated if you buy a petrol or diesel engine hybrid like a Prius. The petrol or diesel hybrids provide fuel when the car reaches a certain speed or accelerates quickly. 

For the most part hybrids are more efficient than cars that use just diesel or petrol as fuel and typically have lower emissions.   

3. Get a plug-in car grant

Government-backed grants are available through OLEV (Office for Low Emissions Vehicles) towards the cost of selected electric vehicles. The plug-in car grants (there is a similar scheme for vans) are awarded in three categories and currently cover 35% of the basic purchase price or £5,000, although the scheme is to be reviewed in May 2015. 

To qualify for the grants, vehicles must meet a set of criteria defined by OLEV; these include, for all-electric vehicles, being able to travel a minimum of 70 miles between charges. PHEVs must be able to go at least 10 miles in electric-only mode. Eligible vehicles are listed on the OLEV and Department for Transport websites, and the discount will automatically be taken off the price of the car at purchase - there is no need for the buyer to apply. 

4. You need to charge them at home

Although many electric vehicle owners do charge their vehicles from domestic sockets - in their garage, for example - this is slow and potentially dangerous, especially at older properties. If you are thinking of doing this, your domestic electricity circuits and wiring should be checked thoroughly by a suitably experienced and qualified electrician to ensure you have the necessary circuit breakers, isolation switches and resistance to overheating. 

Installing a dedicated vehicle-charging socket and system is recommended, and many car manufacturers have teamed up with charging-equipment makers to offer a charger designed to work with your electric car. A 32 amp unit will charge up to 30-60% faster than a conventional socket, depending on the vehicle and battery type. 

Grants are also available towards the cost of having a charging point installed at your home; OLEV is currently offering up to £700 (or 75% of the cost) towards equipment fitted by one of its approved suppliers. 

5. Are there charging points near you?

If you need to charge your electric car or plug-in hybrid when you're on the move, there are a number of different websites mapping the various publicly accessible charging points across the entire country. These include on-street charging points in city centres, for example, as well as the growing number of high-voltage fast chargers and rapid chargers at strategic service stations on the motorway network., for instance, not only tells you where the charging points are, it also tells you the kW output of that specific charging point and the type of connecter required to charge at that location. It can also navigate to it.

There are also free smartphone apps, including the Charge Your Car app, that give you access to electric car charge points using your Apple or Android devices. 

6. Is there a charging point where you work?

If you have a long commute, having a charging point at work could be essential. It's no good if your car can only get you one way - no one wants to be stranded at work.

If there's a charging point en route you may be able to get away with not being able to recharge at work. Always check that your frequent journeys are feasible with an electric car before you buy one.

7. No car tax

For the time being electric cars are completely exempt from car tax. What's more electric cars will be unaffected by the upcoming changes to car tax law as long as they have zero emissions. 

There is one caveat in the new legislation, however - if the car costs more than £40,000 the owner will be required to pay £310 per year for years two to six. Assuming they still own it, that's a total of £1,550.

8. How far can an electric car take you?

Be sure to check the maximum range of the electric cars in your shortlist. The maximum ranges vary greatly between models. For example, Nissan estimates the Leaf will go for 135 kilometres on a full charge whereas the more expensive Tesla Model S has an estimated max range of around 300 kilometres depending on the size of the battery.

If your most frequent journeys are long distance, cars like the Nissan Leaf and VW e-Golf, with their shorter range, may not get you to your destination. If you live in a rural area the likelihood is there will be fewer charge points too, so you may not be able to rely on a quick charge here and there like a city driver would.

9. Do you need a lot of boot space?

Electric cars may be cheap to run but they can suffer when it comes to boot space. The huge batteries that keep the cars going need to go somewhere, and often that's in the boot. The same goes for hybrids, so make sure you check the boot is big enough for your needs before you buy.

We measure the boot space on every car we test by filling it with everyday items like buggies and luggage, so we can tell you whether a boot is well sized in a practical real-life way.

10. Prepare for a different driving experience

The basics of driving an electric car are the same - there's still an accelerator and a brake pedal - but in other ways an electric car can be strange to a seasoned driver. The lack of pistons and noisy combustion means electric cars ghost along very quietly, so don't be perturbed when you're gunning it down the M25 and all you can hear is the air conditioning. 

One difference to take into account when you drive is how quickly electric cars accelerate. The surprising speed can be dangerous so make sure you take it slow the first few times you drive one.

Find your perfect new car with our expert impartial car reviews.