The sky can seem to be the limit when it comes to the price of electric cars. But even though you might spend a little more upfront on an EV, there are definitely savings to be had through cheaper running costs. And if you are powering it with renewable energy from your roof or from the grid, you'll be making savings quicker than you might expect.
The cheapest new electric car will set you back around £17,000. In the used market, you might expect to pay around a third of that for a basic model.
Which is the cheapest new electric car?
The absolute cheapest electric car on the market in the UK today is the Renault Twizy, which is around £11,500 new. However, the Twizy is considered a quadricycle rather than a car, and while it’s great for one individual to get around town, it’s not practical for a couple, or if you want to carry much luggage.
The next cheapest electric car on the market today is the Smart EQ ForTwo, coming in at under £17,000. This is still a very small car, but it’s a lot more practical than the Twizy. It’s so small it can actually be parked perpendicular to other cars, saving you the hassle of looking for a parking space. This is especially useful in large cities like London where parking spaces are at a premium. It features a tiny 6m turning circle, and will get around 85 miles out of a single charge. This makes it perfectly adequate for city driving, but perhaps not ideally suited to long journeys.
The market for sensibly-sized and sensibly-priced EVs has, until recently, been sewn up for the Renault Zoe.
The Renault Zoe is equivalent in size to a Renault Clio. Until the 2020 update, the Zoe was available from around £18,000 with the option to buy or lease the battery for a monthly cost adding about £5,000 to the ownership cost.
The new Zoe released in 2020 no longer includes the battery lease option, and prices start at £26,500 on the road. The new model has a higher-end interior and a bigger battery with a range of 245 miles (much higher than in previous versions). Charging is quicker too, with an optional (£750) DC charger via a CCS port under the front badge.
Entry-level EVs competing for the Zoe's crown are popping up all the time.
The MG 5 estate is a very welcome entrant. Despite costing less than a Zoe - it's available from £24,500, it has more space and a decent range. It can travel up to 214 miles on a single charge and can be topped up to 80% in 50 minutes using a 50kW rapid-charger.
The Vauxhall Corsa-e was another new entrant in 2020 to undercut the Zoe, with prices starting at £26,500. It carries a 50kWh battery pack and delivers a maximum range of 211 miles on a single charge.
Why are electric cars more expensive?
There are a number of reasons why electric cars are more expensive to purchase.
Because electric cars are less common, there are higher manufacturing costs. At the moment, electric cars aren’t manufactured to the volume that petrol or diesel cars are. In October 2019, one in ten new vehicles sold in the UK was an electric or hybrid car. While this is a massive increase on previous years, that still doesn’t change the fact that around 90% of new cars are powered by a conventional combustion engine.
Mass-producing ICEs (the name given to petrol or diesel cars with internal combustion engines) keeps costs down considerably. The UK plans to ban the sale of ICEs from 2035, so many manufacturers are busy ramping up the production of their EV models. Some manufacturers have even pledged to stop producing combustion engine cars sooner than this - Mercedes intends to make the switch by 2026. All this means bigger production lines and lower unit costs.
The other reason that electric cars are so expensive is the battery pack. The electric car battery is still an emerging technology, and manufacturers are constantly trying to improve the viability of their cars by offering cars that go further and take less time to charge. If we compare electric cars from 2010 to those on offer in 2020, it’s evident that manufacturers have made great strides in this field, and will continue to do so.
Tesla, for example, makes the Model S Long-Range, which can comfortably travel 325 miles on a single charge (in the real world). While you'll pay £80,000 for the pleasure of this range, the rest of the market is catching up, with most cars now doing at least 150 miles on a single charge.
What cost savings are there for an electric car?
Despite the higher purchase price, there are considerable cost savings that come with ownership of an electric car. The biggest cost saving comes from fuelling up at home. If you can charge on your driveway, the cost per mile can be a fraction of what it would be to run the equivalent petrol or diesel car. In fact, around 90% of all your EV charging will happen at your home, mostly overnight - when you’ll be able to take advantage of cheaper off-peak electricity rates. (See our article on EV tariffs.)
With an EV you’ll also save on maintenance costs. There's very little preventative maintenance to do on an electric car - the motor contains very few moving parts, and you’ll never have to replace your engine oil or spark plugs. All you’ll need is a service every few thousand miles or so, exactly as you’d do with your conventional petrol or diesel car. Over a period of several years, this is likely to add up to a fairly significant amount of money.
How about second-hand electric cars?
Absolutely. Electric cars have been on the market for long enough that there are plenty of used models out there. What’s more, these cars generally have a very low mileage, tend to be fairly new (in car terms) and well maintained.
For example, we found a 2013 Nissan Leaf that had done 30k miles for less than £6,000 compared to a 2013 Nissan Micra that had done 21k miles for around £7,000. We also found comparable models of the Renault Zoe and Clio around the same price mark. What’s more, electric car owners tend to look after their cars, and most used models are in excellent condition.
What are the drawbacks of driving a used electric car?
There's so much less to go wrong with an EV, so buying a secondhand EV is much less of a gamble. Obviously, the main concern when buying a used EV is battery degradation. EV batteries potentially degrade over time, to the point where they hold less charge than they did when they were new and won’t drive as far.
Is this really a valid concern, though? People look at their mobile phones and laptops and think that lithium ion batteries only last two or three years, but in the case of electric vehicles, it isn’t true. There are very early models on the roads, such as the Tesla Roadster, that have lost at maximum 5% of their charging capacity. These cars have been on the roads a lot more than six years.
In fact, an electric car that’s several years old and hasn’t been driven too hard is likely to have negligible, if any, battery degradation. It’s highly unlikely you’d even notice the difference.
Some EVs have a battery indicator that shows how much charging capacity they have. For other models, like the Renault Zoe, you can use a special dongle to interrogate the vehicle’s software or get it checked at a dealer.
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