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Are electric cars more or less reliable than petrol and diesel rivals?

Real-world data from the latest What Car? Reliability Survey reveals how dependable fully electric cars are in relation to more conventionally powered alternatives...

Electric car reliability vs petrol and diesel

Electric cars have crossed into the mainstream, accounting for one in 10 new car sales in 2021 and one in eight so far this year. But if you’re considering making the switch, you might have some concerns about reliability.

These vehicles are, after all, on the bleeding edge of technology, so does that mean they’re more likely to go wrong than your current petrol, diesel or hybrid car?

Well, thanks to the annual What Car? Reliability Survey, held in association with MotorEasy, we can provide the answer. We asked more than 16,000 people to let us know if their cars had developed faults in the previous 12 months, and if so, what they were and how expensive they were to fix. Then we used this data to give each model a unique Reliability Rating.

Here, then, we compare the reliability of six popular electric cars with petrol, diesel and hybrid alternatives you might be considering.

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Renault Zoe vs Renault Clio (2013-2019)

Renault Zoe 2022 front cornering

When you’re shopping for a small car, we’d bet that value for money sits high on your list of priorities. And this is where the all-electric Renault Zoe and its more conventional sister the Renault Clio shine, providing two budget-friendly options.

The Zoe offers a much greater range than most similar-priced rivals, making it easier to take advantage of the substantial savings in running costs provided by electric power. However, the previous-generation Clio could also be a tempting proposition, with a one-two punch of low second-hand prices and fuel-efficient petrol engines.

Almost a quarter of Zoe owners reported a problem with their car, and a large proportion of those were related to the electric motor. And if your Zoe was faulty, it’s unlikely that you’d describe the repair process as smooth. A quarter of owners waited longer than a week for remedial work, and those caught outside of the warranty period all paid more than £1500 for their troubles.

Renault Clio

The Clio developed faults at a similar rate to the Zoe, but these faults were slightly more serious, leaving almost half stuck with mechanics for more than a week. Unlike the Zoe, all Clio repairs were carried out for free.

No examples of either car left their owners stranded, and both exceeded the average reliability score for small cars, so it’s really a question of how much of an inconvenience they could be.

Most reliable Draw

Neither car edges the win here, but there are differences; you’ll need to decide whether you value a lower repair bill or a shorter wait for repairs.

BMW i3 vs BMW 1 Series petrol

BMW i3 2018 front cornering

If you’re looking for a family hatchback, the BMW i3 and BMW 1 Series are two of the more opulent choices.

The i3 was something of a trailblazer for electric cars, combining compact dimensions and a taxi-like turning circle with a luxurious interior.

However, the 1 Series also offers a posh (if signicantly less memorable) driving environment, while also having a superior ride and handling balance.

When it comes to dependability, the i3 avoided motor failures, but it didn’t come away with a clean record. The majority of its issues were related to the bodywork, non-motor electrics and suspension, and a small proportion of cars suffered battery and gearbox faults.

BMW 1 Series 118i front

Around one in five cars was rendered undriveable by its issues, and half of these immobile examples took more than a week to repair. Additionally, owners whose warranties had lapsed were faced with bills of up to £300.

In contrast, less than half as many 1 Series went wrong, with the most common problems being related to the fuel system and brakes. A larger proportion of faulty 1 Series could still be driven than the i3, but they all took more than a week to repair. All the 1 Series we were told about were still covered by BMW’s standard three-year warranty.

Most reliable BMW 1 Series

Although the i3 is more reliable than the average family car, it’s the 1 Series that comes out on top here. It’s less likely to develop faults, and you’ll probably be able to drive it to a garage if it does, saving you from shelling out on a recovery service.

Nissan Leaf (2011-2018) vs Volkswagen Golf petrol (2013-2020)

Nissan Leaf

The Nissan Leaf and Volkswagen Golf represent two very different sides of the family car coin, but they share one key characteristic in that you get a lot for your money.

The original Leaf is one of the cheapest electric cars you’ll find on the used market, yet (in later examples) you’ll still get more than 100 miles of real-world range. That makes it a capable low-cost commuter or school-run option for many people.

For similar money, you can get a petrol-powered seventh-generation Golf. We rate this highly as a used buy, because it offers an upmarket interior and a comfortable, stable drive.

You might expect that the Leaf – being such an early electric car – could have glaring issues that make it a reliability disaster more than 10 years on. In reality, the opposite is true: this Leaf was the highest-scoring electric car in our survey.

Volkswagen Golf - 17 plate

Just one in 10 cars was afflicted by faults, and these only affected the brakes and the non-motor electrics. Moreover, these faults were so minor that every Leaf was repaired on the same day that it went to a mechanic, for free.

The same can’t be said about the Golf, because it went wrong at a much greater rate, including some engine failures. In addition, it took longer than a week to repair more than a quarter of cars.

Most reliable Nissan Leaf

The fact that the Leaf caused minimal headaches for owners, developing far fewer issues that were much easier to resolve, ensures that it takes the win over the petrol Golf.

Kia e-Niro vs Kia Niro Hybrid

Kia e-Niro 2020 front white

In most cases, we’ve compared electric cars with similar rivals, but what if a model of car is available in both electric form and with an engine? Well, the Kia Niro line-up invites such a comparison, with it available as both a fully electric car and a hybrid.

The Kia e-Niro was one of the most dependable electric cars we were told about, with faults being rare; less than one in 10 owners reported issues. Its case is bolstered by the fact that Kia’s seven-year, 100,000-mile warranty prevented any owners from being charged in the unlikely event of a problem.

Of the faults that were flagged, they most commonly affected the motor, battery and motor electrics. This meant that most faulty e-Niros couldn’t be driven and took more than a week to repair.

2020 Kia Niro PHEV front 3/4

This wasn’t the case for the Kia Niro hybrid. Although its faults were similarly rare, they affected less critical parts of the car, such as the bodywork and air conditioning system, which meant that all of them could be driven in spite of their issues.

Moreover, just one in three owners had to wait more than a week for remedial work – less than half as many as with the e-Niro.

Most reliable Kia Niro hybrid

The hybrid is the most reliable member of the Niro family, but that doesn’t mean the e-Niro is unreliable. In fact, it’s one of the most reliable electric cars – far surpassing the average family SUV – and only loses here because its rare faults tended to be more severe.

Nissan Leaf (2019-present) vs Ford Focus

Nissan Leaf front - red 19-plate car

If you’d rather buy a thrifty brand new family car, you might be looking at the current Nissan Leaf, which is priced very competitively against conventional rivals such as the big-selling Ford Focus.

Much like the first-generation Leaf, the current version shines from a financial point of view. It’s one of the cheapest electric cars to buy, and even the entry-level 40kWh version is officially capable of up to 168 miles between charges.

The Focus offers a different sort of appeal entirely; it’s one of the most rewarding family cars to drive, with sharp handling and a well-controlled ride.

Given how reliable the first-generation Leaf is, you might expect the current model to follow suit. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case; nearly half of the examples we were told about went wrong, and the majority of faults were related to the motor, motor electrics and gearbox. These issues prevented a third of affected cars from being driven.

Ford Focus

Nonetheless, Nissan’s service departments seem to have been up to the task; most of the afflicted cars were fixed within a day, and all of the work was done for free.

The Focus didn’t fare much better. Its issues were distributed over a much wider range of categories, with the 12-volt battery and non-engine electrics proving to be most problematic. Repairs took longer than they did with the Leaf, and a small proportion of owners were charged up to £100 for the work.

However, the Focus did have one key advantage over the Leaf. Its engine suffered a less substantial proportion of failures than the Leaf’s electric motor, and this meant almost half as many Focuses were rendered undriveable.

Most reliable Ford Focus

Both cars fell far short of the benchmark for family cars, but the Focus just edges the win here. It developed faults less often than the Leaf – although at a still-problematic rate of around one in three – but its critical components were less affected, meaning most examples could still be driven to a dealer for repairs.

MG ZS EV vs Dacia Duster

Electric Car of the Year Awards 2021 - MG ZS EV

Electric cars tend to be more expensive to buy than their petrol or diesel counterparts, so it’s tempting to look at a budget-friendly model such as the MG ZS EV. But with even entry-level versions offering a respectable official range (198 miles) and lots of kit, you might begin to wonder whether any corners have been cut to achieve those bargain prices.

Thankfully, if anything has been sacrificed, it isn’t reliability. Around an eighth of the ZS EVs we were told about went wrong, and these issues were confined to the bodywork and steering. As a result, all affected cars remained driveable and were fixed for free. In fact, the only substantial knock against the ZS EV is the fact that a few took more than a week to fix.

In your search for a low-cost family SUV, you might also be considering the Dacia Duster, which starts at just £14,495 – less than half the cost of the MG.

Dacia Duster front corner

The Duster is largely based on previous-generation Renault underpinnings, but with the kinks ironed out. This approach manifests itself in the reliability data; few Dusters went wrong, with the most common faults being related to the non-engine electrics and infotainment system.

This meant that all afflicted Dusters could be driven to a workshop for repairs, where they were fixed at zero cost to owners.

Most reliable Draw

You’re unlikely to be led astray going with either car here, because they both exceed the average family SUV’s reliability score by a significant margin. Both cars prove that just because you’re shopping on a budget, you don’t need to sacrifice reliability.

Tesla Model 3 vs BMW 3 Series petrol

Tesla Model 3 2021 front cornering

If you’re shopping for an executive car, the BMW 3 Series and Tesla Model 3 are two of the best around. The former is our reigning Executive Car of the Year in plug-in hybrid 330e form, while the latter is our favourite large electric car.

That it’s such a tough choice between the two means reliability becomes rather important, because – to borrow a phrase from the sporting world – the best ability is availability. But even this comparison is made more challenging by the fact that both are more reliable than the average executive car.

Slightly more than a quarter of Model 3 owners told us that their cars had developed an issue in the previous year, although these tended to be minor. That’s because they were most often related to the bodywork and non-motor electrics. However, some cars were afflicted by motor issues, which meant around 7% of them couldn’t be driven.

Executive Car of the Year - BMW 3 Series

All Model 3s were repaired for free, but one in five took more than a week to be returned to owners.

The 3 Series was more reliable. All remained driveable, and very few struck faults, with the non-engine electricals causing most gripes. These issues were all rectified for free.

Most reliable BMW 3 Series

The 3 Series is a clear winner here, because it suffered fewer faults and fewer serious faults, although the Model 3’s score is still above average by the standards of executive cars and electric cars.

Our verdict

MG ZS EV long term

In these comparisons of rivals of similar price and proficiency, the petrol or hybrid model comes out on top in the majority of instances. However, with the exception of the current Nissan Leaf, the electric cars looked at still perform very well when it comes to reliability, suggesting there isn’t a significantly increased risk by going electric.

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