Electric and plug-in hybrid cars are more popular than ever. Although it’s still a niche market, nearly 70,000 alternatively fuelled vehicles have been sold in the UK so far in 2016. Models such as the Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe and BMW i3 prove electric cars don't have to be cramped or compromised.
Such cars offer many advantages over their petrol and diesel rivals, especially if most of your driving is around town. Not only do they help you save money on fuel and be more environmentally friendly, but they attract greatly reduced road tax or are exempt entirely.
Charging an electric car is far cheaper than filling a fuel tank with petrol or diesel. For example, if electricity costs 10p per kWh, you could home-charge a Nissan Leaf to 100% for a mere £3. A motorway fast-charge will usually cost around £6 to bring the batteries up to 80%. And with the official average electric car range now 150 miles, range anxiety is less of an issue.
True, electric and plug-in hybrid cars are generally more expensive to buy new than their conventionally-powered counterparts, but most qualify for a government grant that will reduce the price. Buy a car that emits less than 50g/km of CO2 and can travel at least 70 miles on electric power alone, and you’ll get a grant of £4500. Or if the car can travel between 10-69 miles on electric power, you’ll get £2500 off the purchase price.
Sadly, if you’ve decided you want a plug-in hybrid or electric car, there’s a whole minefield of confusing jargon to navigate. So, here we explain the terms you’ll hear when researching these cars and what they mean in plain English.
Different types of electric car
Alternatively fuelled vehicle
Any car that doesn’t simply use a conventional petrol or diesel engine falls under this umbrella term.
Standing for electric vehicle, these cars run solely on electric power. Instead of an engine, they have an electric motor which gets its power from batteries which you charge by plugging the car into a power source. EVs are exempt from road tax and the London congestion charge.
Example: Nissan Leaf
Hybrid electric vehicle (HEV)
A hybrid has a regular petrol or diesel engine, plus an electric motor and batteries. The electric power is generated by the engine and through regenerative braking technology, which captures the energy that's usually lost under braking. As a result, you never need to charge these cars, but they can't go far on electric-only power.
Example: Toyota Prius
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV)
PHEVs work in the same way as regular hybrids, but they need their electric batteries charged from an external power source. These have a greater range than regular EVs, and they’re still exempt from the London congestion charge.
Example: Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV
Hydrogen electric vehicle
These cars mix hydrogen with oxygen in a fuel cell to produce electric power. They are rare at present, partly because they're expensive and partly because there are only eight hydrogen charging stations in the UK.
Example: Toyota Mirai
An electric car’s battery will have its capacity measured in Kilowatt Hours (kWh). As an example, the Tesla Model S 85D has an 85kWh battery. It has a real-world range of around 250 miles, meaning you use (on average) 34kWh per hundred miles.
Occasionally, battery charge is measured in Ampere Hours (Ah). The BMW i3 is available in 60Ah or 94Ah forms – these are equivalent to 22 and 33kWh respectively.
Most electric and hybrid car batteries are made from this, and work in the same way as batteries in household appliances, mobile phones and laptops. Capacity will decline over time, but not massively – 80% of battery capacity after eight years of daily use is expected.
You can charge your EV or PHEV through a mains socket, a specially-fitted home wall-box, or at a public charging station on the road.
Types of charging
There are three types of charger: slow (3kW), fast (7-22kW) and rapid (43-50kW). Rapid chargers are AC or DC, with AC giving up to 43kW charging and DC up to 50kW. The higher a charger’s kW rating, the faster it will charge your electric car.
Types of plug
Most electric cars have a Type 2 ‘Mennekes’ seven-pin charging plug. Some, such as the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, can also be specified with a five-pin Type 1 plug. If you have a car with a Type 1 plug, you can get a cable that enables it to be charged using a Type 2 charger.
You can charge most electric cars with a standard three-pin plug in a mains socket, although this will take longer than using a dedicated charging point. We recommend you have an electrician check everything’s good to go first, though.
Wall-box or home charger
You can get a home charging station for your electric car. These are either a slow 3kW charger or a more expensive fast 7kW charger. For a Nissan Leaf a 3kW charger will give a full charge in 6-8 hours, and a 7kW unit will take 3-4 hours.
These are found at the roadside, in car parks and at motorway service stations. They are usually fast or rapid chargers. One of the biggest motorway EV charging providers, Ecotricity, charges £6 for a 30-minute charge with a rapid charger. On a Nissan Leaf, this will fill up the battery to 80% of its full range.
Got a motoring question? Our experts are standing by to help, just tweet us your question using #askwhatcar
For all the latest reviews, advice and new car deals, sign up to the What Car? newsletter here