If you’re investing in a life-changing product such as an electric vehicle, it’s good to know exactly how it works. The technology behind electric and hybrid cars can be a bit baffling, but we think it’s worth understanding the details so you can drive away confident, knowing that you’ve made the right decision.
Essentially, an electric vehicle (EV) has a battery instead of a petrol tank, and an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine. The electricity stored in its battery powers the electric motor. When too low, the car’s battery needs to be recharged by plugging it in to use grid electricity, like when your phone needs charging. Similarly, Plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) come with a plug socket and charging leads so that you can charge the battery via the mains. Although they have a smaller capacity, these models are able to run in electric-only mode for 20-30 miles.
An amazing perk of EVs is that they can be charged at home if you have a home charging unit installed, saving you the usual trips to the nearest petrol station or charging point. The thing that really swings most people when it comes to EVs is that they’re much cleaner, producing no tailpipe emissions whatsoever.
Their green credentials are not the only thing that convinces people to go electric. A lot of EVs now offer really advanced technology that further reduces running costs and helps save you energy.
Lots of models, such as the Nissan Leaf, turn off the engine when stopped, and actually charge the battery when you brake – this is called ‘regenerative braking’. This technology is also seen in hybrid models and it helps to power the electric motor without needing to plug it in to charge so you can go further without using the petrol engine.
Pioneering manufacturers behind lots of cars stocked at Wilsons, such as Nissan, Renault and Tesla,
are constantly re-engineering and refining their batteries for bigger driving ranges.
In terms of control, you can pre-condition the car’s temperature, set the charge start and stop time, enjoy heated seats and steering-wheels, and even decide on a battery percentage so that your car knows exactly how much it needs to charge before you drive it.
But what about the driving experience? This is where a lot of EVs really come into their own. Not only does the technology behind an EV make for a really intuitive car, the electric motor also provides almost instant torque, making them quicker, lighter and ultimately more enjoyable to drive. They’re also quieter than traditional cars and able to accelerate extremely quickly, so you’re not going to be left behind at any traffic lights.
If this sounds like the kind of thing for you, browse our selection of EVs and hybrids on offer, or pop into our showroom to speak to one of our expert sales advisors. We’re open seven days a week and can easily book you in for a test drive or an alternatively-fueled car either on the phone or online.
How do EVs work?
Fundamentally, electric cars work in broadly the same way as ones powered by petrol, diesel or even hydrogen. There is a fuel source, a drive unit, and a gearbox to provide motion forwards and backwards. Above this there are passenger and luggage compartments.
Electric vehicles (EVs) are still cars, and anyone who has driven an automatic vehicle will feel immediately at home behind the wheel of one.
There is a distinct lack of engine noise, of course, and the initial acceleration of EVs is often greater than that of an similarly sized internal combustion car. Or, in the case of the Tesla Model S P100D, EVs can literally be the quickest accelerating cars on sale todayIn some cases you will find parking is reduced or free (as is the case in some London boroughs to promote EV adoption), and there is also no London Congestion Charge or road tax.
In the US, federal tax incentives range from $2,500 to $7,500 for each EV purchased, but this offer will only last until each manufacturer has produced 200,000 electric vehicles.
Tesla will reach that milestone in 2018, and from there the incentive value will gradually decrease. Unless the system changes, many of the 400,000-plus Model 3 reservations holders will receive no discount at all.
It is also worth remembering these are all measures to try and incentive EV ownership, so once EVs become the norm it is likely that these discounts will be adjusted or abolished.
Some public chargers are free, and so too is Tesla’s Supercharger network providing you own a qualifying car, or bought your car with a referral code from a fellow Tesla owner.
TYPES OF ELECTRIC VEHICLES: BEV, PHEV AND HEV
There are three main types of electric vehicles (EVs), classed by the degree that electricity is used as their energy source. BEVs, or battery electric vehicles, PHEVs of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, and HEVs, or hybrid electric vehicles. Only BEVs are capable of charging on a level 3, DC fast charge.
Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV)
Battery Electric Vehicles, also called BEVs, and more frequently called EVs, are fully-electric vehicles with rechargeable batteries and no gasoline engine. Battery electric vehicles store electricity onboard with high-capacity battery packs. Their battery power is used to run the electric motor and all onboard electronics. BEVs do not emit any harmful emissions and hazards caused by traditional gasoline-powered vehicles. BEVs are charged by electricity from an external source. Electric Vehicle (EV) chargers are classified according to the speed with which they recharge an EVs battery.
The classifications are Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3 or DC fast charging. Level 1 EV charging uses a standard household (120v) outlet to plug into the electric vehicle and takes over 8 hours to charge an EV for approximately 75-80 miles. Level one charging is typically done at home or at your workplace. Level 1 chargers have the capability to charge most EVs on the market.
Level 2 charging requires a specialized station which provides power at 240v. Level 2 chargers are typically found at workplaces and public charging stations and will take about 4 hours to charge a battery to 75-80 miles of range.
Level 3 charging, DC fast charging, or simply fast charging is currently the fastest charging solution in the EV market. DC fast chargers are found at dedicated EV charging stations and charge a battery up to 90 miles range in approximately 30 minutes.
BEV Examples that can charge on DC Level 3 Fast Chargers
- Tesla Model 3
- BMW i3
- Chevy Bolt
- Chevy Spark
- Nissan LEAF
- Ford Focus Electric
- Hyundai Ioniq
- Karma Revera
- Kia Soul
- Mitsubishi i-MiEV
- Tesla Model S
- Tesla X
- Toyota Rav4
- Volkswagen e-Golf
What about hybrids?
Hybrids come in several different configurations. First there is the regular hybrid, like older generations of Toyota Prius, which uses both a petrol engine and small electric motor.
A hybrid car combines a conventional petrol or diesel engine with an electric motor and batteries. Although not as ‘green’ as fully electric cars, hybrids generally consume less fuel and produce less CO2 than conventionally powered cars.
The most common type is the parallel hybrid – sometimes known as a self-charging hybrid – and is found in cars such as the Toyota Prius. The engine is still the main power source, but the wheels can be powered in three different ways: either directly by the engine, by the electric motor alone, or by both working together. You never need to charge these hybrids. Most can run on electric power only for just a few miles at low speeds.
Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEV)
HEVs are powered by both gasoline and electricity. The electric energy is generated by the car’s own braking system to recharge the battery. This is called ‘regenerative braking’, a process where the electric motor helps to slow the vehicle and uses some of the energy normally converted to heat by the brakes.
HEVs start off using the electric motor, then the gasoline engine cuts in as load or speed rises. The two motors are controlled by an internal computer, which ensures the best economy for the driving conditions.
- Toyota Prius Hybrid
- Honda Civic Hybrid
- Toyota Camry Hybrid
For: They’re really economical for stop-start city driving, because the electric motor gets the most use and the regenerative braking boosts the batteries whenever you decelerate or use the brakes.
Against: Fuel economy tends to nosedive out of town, because the batteries make the car heavy and the electric motor will soon run out of charge at higher speeds and under hard acceleration.
The car charges its battery pack using brake regeneration, and can drive itself solely on battery power for short periods of time.
You may well see Prius drivers set off from traffic lights in silent electric mode, but the engine will kick in when they accelerate more firmly. Hybrids like these cannot be plugged in to charge the battery.
Plug-in electric vehicles (PHEV) are becoming increasingly common and act as a half-way house between ICE and full electric.
They can run like a regular hybrid, only topping up the battery when coasting and braking, but can also be plugged in to a public EV charger.
These cars can often cover the daily commute without using their engine, and PHEV technology already appears on a wide range of vehicles, including the VW Golf GTE, Mini Countryman Hybrid and Range Rover P400e.
There’s still an internal combustion engine to maintain, but a nightly charge of the battery means you might not need to use it very often if your commute is short. For example, the Golf GTE and new Range Rover each have an electric range of 31 miles.
Potential lifestyle changes
Living with an EV requires some lifestyle changes. Because public chargers are owned and operated by a number of different companies, you will need to obtain a membership – and often a contactless membership card – for the ones you think you’ll need to use.
It’s a frustrating situation and feels shortsighted – imaging not being able to buy petrol from BP because you only have a membership with Shell – but hopefully this will become simpler as EV adoption spreads.
Next you will need to work out how far your EV can go, and how factors like the temperature affect this. EVs lose charge more quickly in cold weather than in the summer, as the battery takes a longer time to warm up and, just like any lithium battery, is less efficient when the temperature falls.
Manufacturers all provide range claims for their EVs, just like they offer MPG figures with ICE cars – but your mileage will certainly vary. And because EV chargers are less common than petrol stations, you’ll need to put some effort into planning any unfamiliar journeys before setting off.
Also, because chargers are sometimes already in use, or broken, it’s worth having a contingency plan to keep the range anxiety at bay.
Maps of public EV chargers are widely available, and the satellite navigation of some EVs – like the BMW i3 – can guide you to the nearest charger.
Teslas all take into account the company’s Supercharger network whenever you use the sat-nav to get somewhere, and take charge time into account when working out your estimated time of arrival.
For now, owning an EV is only really possible if you have off-street parking at home and space to install a charger. This means those who live in town and city centers – and residents in apartment blocks – will likely be out of luck, unless you are happy to always use public chargers, or perhaps your office has one you can use.
In short, owning an EV requires more journey planning, and those journeys will take longer than with an ICE car when charging en route is required. But these drawbacks are slowly being eradicated, and will continue to fade as EV adoption grows.
Once home chargers are more widely installed – and chargers are included in the car park of new apartment blocks – charging your car at night will become as instinctive as plugging in your phone.
What is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV)?
As the name implies, this type of hybrid can be plugged into an electric outlet to recharge its batteries, as well as being charged on the move. One of the most popular so far is the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV.
In effect, it’s a halfway house between a parallel hybrid and a full electric vehicle. Although it has a conventional engine, it also has larger batteries than a parallel hybrid and can drive for longer distances and at much higher speeds on electric power alone – up to 30 miles and at least 70mph in some cases.
Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles or PHEVs can recharge the battery through both regenerative braking and “plugging in” to an external source of electrical power. While “standard” hybrids can (at low speed) go about 1-2 miles before the gasoline engine turns on, PHEV models can go anywhere from 10-40 miles before their gas engines provide assistance.
- Chevy Volt
- Chrysler Pacifica
- Ford C-Max Energi
- Ford Fusion Energi
- Mercedes C350e
- Mercedes S550e
- Mercedes GLE550e
- Mini Cooper SE Countryman
- Audi A3 E-Tron
- BMW 330e
- BMW i8
- BMW X5 xdrive40e
- Fiat 500e
- Hyundai Sonata
- Kia Optima
- Porsche Cayenne S E-Hybrid
- Porsche Panamera S E-hybrid
- Toyota Prius
- Volvo XC90 T8
For: Has a longer range than an electric car; cheap to use for short, urban journeys that don’t deplete the batteries.
Against: Batteries add weight, making fuel economy poor on motorway runs once the batteries are depleted; need to recharge batteries more often than a pure EV, which will have a longer range; need to plug in to properly charge, unlike parallel hybrids.
What is a range extender?
These cars run on electricity but have a small petrol or diesel engine that is used to produce electricity to recharge the batteries and extend the car’s range; it never powers the wheels. The aim of range extenders such as the BMW i3 REX (there’s also a fully electric version) is to provide an extra 70 to 100 miles of range once the batteries have been depleted, giving extra flexibility between charges.
For: Better than a parallel hybrid for longer, out-of-town journeys, because it drives on electricity only; no range anxiety, thanks to the engine.
Against: Extra weight of engine means the car isn’t very economical when it’s generating power, so the overall range will be less than that of a comparable regular electric car.
What is a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle?
These cars mix hydrogen with oxygen in a fuel cell to produce electricity. They’re rare – the Toyota Mirai being one of the few you can buy – because they’re expensive and there are fewer than 20 public hydrogen refuelling stations in the UK.
Hydrogen-powered cars take less than five minutes to fill up, have a greater range than battery-electric cars and only emit water from their exhausts.
They are therefore seen by some people as the best longterm solution to emissions-free driving. However, the processes used to generate and transport hydrogen make them less ec0-friendly overall than conventional electric cars at present.
For: Quick refuelling time; range between fill-ups is far closer to that of a petrol or diesel car, zero tailpipe emissions.
Against: Infrastructure is in its infancy; high CO2 emissions from current production process; technology is very expensive.
Electric car battery guide
Everything you wanted to know about electric car batteries but were afraid to ask…
What are the pros and cons of buying and leasing EV batteries?
Nissan and Renault initially only sold their EVs with the option of leasing the car’s batteries rather than buying them to keep the price of their EVs down. If the battery is leased, and its capacity drops below 75% of its original rate, it will be replaced for free.
Nissan dropped the lease option in 2017 when it introduced the facelifted Leaf and Renault now also offers the Zoe with batteries included in the price.
However, if you’re looking for a used EV, the majority of cars are likely to have leased batteries. Rather than leasing the batteries on a second-hand purchase, it’s possible to buy the battery outright with the car – we’ve seen reports of people buying four-year-old cars and paying around £3500 extra to buy the battery, too.
The cost of leasing the batteries for a new EV varies depending on how many miles the car is going to do. A driver doing 6000 miles a year in a new Renault Zoe ZE 40 will pay £59 a month to lease the batteries; this rises to £99 a month for a car doing 10,500 miles a year. Excess mileage is charged at 8p per mile, and the lease periods are generally three years, the same as most PCP new car buying deals.
The lifespan of the battery pack depends on how much it’s charged. You can extend the life of the batteries by only charging them up to 80% and trying not to let them drop below 50% too often.
Different car makers provide different lengths of warranty for their cars’ batteries. Nissan and Toyota’s last for eight years or 100,000 miles and Renault’s is for five years or 60,000 miles.
What are kilowatt hours?
An electrified car’s battery capacity is measured in kilowatt hours (kWh). As an example, the Tesla Model S 75D has a 75kWh battery. It has a real-world range of around 230 miles, meaning you use (on average) 32.6kWh of electricity per hundred miles.
What are ampere hours?
Occasionally, batteries are quoted in ampere hours (Ah). The latest version of the BMW i3 has a capacity of 120Ah, which is equivalent to 42kWh.
What are EV batteries made from?
Most electric and hybrid car batteries are made from lithium ion, and work in the same way as batteries in household appliances, mobile phones and laptops. Their capacity will decline over time, but not massively; 80% of the original capacity after eight years of daily use is expected. There are concerns about the longterm sustainability of sourcing materials for these batteries.
What are solid state batteries?
The next big step appears to be a move to solid-state batteries; BMW, Toyota and Volkswagen, among others, are aiming for a start to mass production in the mid-2020s. Solid-state batteries have the potential to deliver shorter charging times and greater ranges than lithium ion ones, while being smaller and potentially cheaper. They would also last for longer and be safer. A range of 500 miles could be achievable
How long do electric car batteries last for?
Keeping your electric car’s battery in top condition could prolong its life; here’s everything you need to know…
Battery life is one of the biggest worries potential buyers have when considering an electric car. Along with range – and the fear of running out of power mid-journey, known as range anxiety – the way an electric car’s battery might degrade over time is considered a big barrier to EV ownership.
Like any battery, including the one in your mobile phone or laptop, the batteries in electric cars will lose some of their capacity over extended use. Below, we’ve explained why this happens and offered advice on how you can keep your electric car battery in top condition for longer.
Why does an electric car battery lose charge?
Almost all the batteries in electric cars are of the lithium ion variety. These batteries undergo ‘cycles’ of discharge (when you’re driving your car) and charge (when you plug your car in), and over time those cycles take a toll in terms of how much charge the battery can hold – and therefore, how far your electric car can travel before needing to be recharged.
How can I care for my car’s battery?
As counter-intuitive as it might sound, keeping your electric car fully charged can actually damage its battery, because of the heat generated during recharging. That’s why some electric cars can stop charging when they reach capacity, while others – such as the Tesla Model S luxury saloon – allow you to charge the car to a certain percentage before stopping, helping to preserve the battery.
Overcharging can also cause chemical changes inside the battery itself, which again could negatively affect how efficiently it can store energy.
Equally, discharging an electric car battery to empty isn’t a good idea. Most lithium-ion batteries perform at their best when they’re at between 50% and 80% of capacity. Charging the last 20% of a battery also takes longer than the first 80%, and that’s why when you’re reading about rapid charging of the kind you might do at a motorway service station, you’ll regularly see figures quoting how fast it takes to charge an electric car to 80% of capacity.
Another factor is temperature. Extreme cold or heat can negatively affect your car’s battery and therefore the range you can travel. In a test of the Nissan Leaf in cold conditions, for example, we managed 108 miles – substantially less than in warmer temperatures.
Electric car battery warranties
Car makers are well aware that potential buyers are concerned about the longevity of their car’s batteries, and many offer warranties tailored for EV owners. On the Leaf, for example, Nissan offers a warranty covering the battery and electric motor for up to five years or 60,000 miles.
Electric car reliability
According to the latest results from our Reliability Survey, the Nissan Leaf is the most reliable electric car, with a score of 99.7% – with the few complaints we received being about the car’s bodywork, rather than its battery. At the other end of the scale is the Tesla Model S, with a score of 50.9%. Most of those faults were to do with its electrical systems and bodywork, however; just 4% of the complaints we received related to its battery.
It’s also worth noting that there are cases where an electric car battery has long since surpassed expectations. In 2015, for example, Nissan reported the case of a Leaf that was bought in 2013 to be used as a taxi around Cornwall. The car had covered more than 100,000 miles without losing any of its battery life.
Electric car charging guide
Everything you wanted to know about electric car charging, but were afraid to ask…
You can charge an electric car or plug-in hybrid through a mains three-pin socket, a specially fitted home wallbox, or at a public charging station on the road or at your destination:
Wallbox or home charger
If you own or lease an electric car, you can get a home charging station installed. These come in either slow 3kW or faster 7kW and 22kW forms. For the Nissan Leaf, the 3kW wallbox will give a full charge in six to eight hours, while the 7kW unit reduces the time to three to four hours.
There are currently about 17,000 public charging points in the UK, and this number is growing all the time. As of this year, it is a legal requirement for all large petrol stations and motorway services to provide charging points. They are usually fast or rapid chargers.
Ecotricity, which provides charging points at all motorway services in the UK, charges about £6 for a 45-minute recharge with a rapid charger. In a Nissan Leaf, this should fill up the battery to 80% of its full range.
A slow charger usually means a domestic three-pin plug (up to 3kW), and would take more than 12 hours to fully charge an electric car. A fast charger, typically found at a workplace or public location, will take the ‘Type 2’ seven-pin plug attached to the charging cable in your car and will have an output of 3.6kW, 7kW, 11kW or 22kW. Depending on the charger’s power and what your car can accept, a charge will generally take between one and six hours.
Rapid chargers, also called quick chargers, will have a plug of their own that attaches to your car, and can charge in an hour or less. While lesser chargers all output AC electricity, most rapid chargers give DC.
AC rapid chargers have an output of 43kW, while DC rapid chargers have an output of 20kW-50kW, although installation of 150kW and 175kW chargers has begun in the UK. These can recharge the latest electric cars in just 45 minutes.
Tesla has a network of its own ‘Superchargers’. In the UK, these are capable of dispensing 145kW, although the firm’s current cars can only accept up to 120kW.
In Europe, a consortium of major car manufacturers has begun installation of 350kWcapable chargers. These could result in EVs being charged in as little as five minutes.
The National Grid conducted a study into installing 100 of these across England and Wales and found that this would put 90% of drivers within 50 miles of such a charger. The chargers would be wired directly into the electricity transmission network, rather than local grids, dispelling concerns about power shortages.
You might wonder why manufacturers and the press often quote a charging time to 80%, rather than 100%. This is firstly because not fully charging each time extends the life of the battery, and secondly because the last 20% takes longer to complete relative to the first 80%.
Getting a charger installed
The average cost of installing a home charging point is £1000. However, EV owners can get a £500 government grant towards the cost of this, and a further £300 from the Energy Saving Trust (EST), significantly reducing the cost.
It’s worth noting that you need to own or lease an EV to qualify for the grants; you won’t get one if you simply use one every now and then or haven’t bought an EV yet. The same government grant can be claimed by businesses for installation at places of work.
What’s the cost of charging?
While 80% of EVs are charged at home by owners, the public charging network is growing, and with it the difference in how much you’ll pay to charge depending on which provider you pick.
You’ll need to sign up with a public charging company before you can use its chargers. Most let you join for free, but some charge an initial fee.
We recommend opting for one that shows its tariffs in kWh rather than cost per minute, because it’s easier to work out how much a recharge will be if you have the kWh cost.
Example: Volkswagen e-Golf
- Battery capacity35.8kWh
- Official range144 miles (WLTP)
- Real Range117 miles
- Cost to charge at home at standard rate(14p per kWh) £5.01
- Cost to charge at home at discounted rate(7p per kWh) £2.50
- Cost to charge at public fast charger(30p per kWh) £10.74
- Cost to charge at public rapid charger(35p per kWh) £12.53
Types of electric car plug
From Type 1 to CCS, we take a look at the different electric car plugs and how common they are…
There are several types of electric car charging plugs, because an industry standard hasn’t been agreed upon. Some cars also feature more than one port: one for slow and fast charging and another for rapid charging.
This five-pin plug is unusual, although it can be specified in some cars, such as the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. You can get a cable that allows you to plug into a Type 2 charger with a Type 1 cable.
This seven-pin plug, also known as the Mennekes after the company that invented it, is the most common in electrified cars. Teslas use this plug, enabling them to charge at regular charging points as well as bespoke Superchargers.
Standing for Combined Charging System, CCS is a five-pin plug developed by the major German car manufacturers, so it can be found in cars such as the BMW i3 and Volkswagen e-Golf. CCS is less common than Type 2 in the UK but is by no means rare.
Short for ‘Charge de Move’, the Chademo is a 10- pin plug developed by a consortium of Japanese car manufacturers and is one of the two used by the Nissan Leaf. It is the most common rapid charging plug in the UK.