How much have EVs improved?: New MG 4 vs used BMW i3 and Renault Zoe

We pit a new MG 4 against two older machines to see how much better (or not) electric cars have become over the past decade...

New MG4 vs used BMW i3 and Renault Zoe fronts

Just how far have things moved on at the affordable end of the electric car market in the past 10 years? Answering this question should give us a good idea of where we might be in another decade’s time, when electric vehicles (EVs) are likely to account for the vast majority of new cars you’ll be able to go out and buy.

To find out, we put together a two-part challenge with three EVs: one car that represents the state of the UK market today, another that was a sound choice from around five years ago, and the third an early electric pioneer from a decade ago.

On day one, we’d head to Brighton for lunch, before driving to Oxford’s zero-emission zone – an example of the restrictions city centres might impose on non-electric cars in the coming years. We’d finish the day at our test track (at Millbrook in Bedfordshire), rounding off a total journey of around 240 miles and one that should paint a realistic picture of everyday electric motoring – including charging.

New MG4 vs used BMW i3 and Renault Zoe sides

On the second day, we’d put the trio through a more scientific test to find out how far each can travel on a full charge and how they stack up when it comes to efficiency.

Deputy reviews editor Neil Winn would be driving our oldest contender: a BMW i3. This distinctive machine has just celebrated its 10th birthday and the example here is the fully electric version (a petrol-assisted range extender was also offered). Fresh from the showroom, it had an 18.8kWh (usable capacity) battery and an official range of 118 miles. We say ‘had’ because, after a decade of use and with 41k miles on the clock, it’s almost certain to have experienced some degree of battery degradation.

When new, the i3 cost £30,680, and back in 2013 the Government paid £5000 of that via a plug-in car grant (PICG). Our car has a few optional extras fitted, though, the most relevant of which is CCS rapid charging (£560).

MG 4 charging alongside Renault Zoe and BMW i3 charging

Reviews editor Will Nightingale will be behind the wheel of our second protagonist, a Renault Zoe, which was originally launched a few months before the i3 in 2013. However, the car we have here is the heavily overhauled ZE40 version, which arrived in 2017.

Its 41kWh battery gave it an official range of 250 miles, and you could either buy it outright (for £27,945) or pay £22,345 and sign up to a monthly subscription to lease the battery. Either way, you got a £4500 government grant to cover some of your outlay. The car we’re using for the challenge has done 33k miles and has had its original Michelin energy-saving tyres swapped for stickier (but no doubt less efficient) regular Hankook rubber.

The PICG has since been axed, and that’s one of the reasons why EVs are now much more expensive to buy than equivalent petrol models, but one brand doing its best to keep prices down is MG. Indeed, the MG 4 is one of the cheapest new EVs you can buy today, starting at £26,995. The Long Range SE version (driven by head of video Doug Revolta) costs £29,495, has a 61.7kWh battery and can officially do 282 miles on a charge. While that doesn’t seem a dramatically better range than the Zoe’s, that’s partly because it was measured using a different method; this more true-to-life system was introduced in 2018.

Day 1: The long journey

Our starting point in Farnborough, Hampshire, was dictated by the whereabouts of the i3 – the car with the shortest range. We made sure our trio were fully charged and then set off for lunch in Brighton, a journey of 73 miles if you take the fastest route.

That was no problem for the MG and Zoe, but the i3? Well, that was showing a predicted maximum range of 72 miles, so not wanting to risk running out of charge, Neil decided he should go a more direct (if slower) route to avoid long sections of motorway.

The Zoe and MG made it to Brighton at the same time, and the latter had so much charge left that Doug decided to park it a couple of minutes’ walk from the meeting point and not worry about finding a charger. The Zoe, meanwhile, clearly wasn’t going to complete the remaining 166-mile journey to Millbrook via Oxford without charging, so Will took that to a 22kW public charger (the maximum speed the Zoe can charge at) close to the meeting point.

Brighton Palace Pier

Frustratingly, all the connectors were being used, and after visiting two more charging locations and finding them either blocked with petrol cars or out of order, Will decided to try an underground car park on the seafront. The good news was that he managed to connect up; the bad news was that the charger was of the slow, 7kW variety. This meant the Zoe was taking on power at only a third of its potential rate, so it was charging no faster than would have been the case using a typical home wallbox.

All that faffing also wasted 45 minutes, more than cancelling out the extra time it took Neil to make the trip in the i3. However, Neil, too, experienced charging woes in Brighton; two of the CCS chargers he tried were broken and the third was being used by someone else, so he ended up joining Will and the Zoe and plugging into a 7kW charger in the same car park.

Meanwhile, smug Doug wasn’t prepared to wait and managed to order and finish his fish and chips before Neil and Will even made it to the meeting point. He was polite enough to wait until their food arrived but made a swift exit shortly after. Nearly an hour later, after lunch and a much longer walk back to their cars, Neil and Will also made tracks for Oxford – albeit with nowhere near as much charge in their cars’ batteries as they’d hoped.

Eating fish and chips in Brighton

In fact, Neil had to stop just 26 miles into the journey – the first of three charging pitstops on his way to Oxford city centre. Will, meanwhile, made it 50 miles to Cobham services, only to find no spare charging points. He had to wait almost 20 minutes to plug in to a 22kW charger, and then spent another 1hr 20min drinking coffee until the Zoe reached 80%.

The whole process took so long that Neil was actually well ahead by this point; his charging pitstops were much quicker, courtesy of his i3’s CCS capability. That didn’t last long, though; the Zoe didn’t need any further charges, and Will made it to the centre of Oxford 10 minutes before Neil in the i3. That advantage was maintained, and both cars rolled up at our Millbrook test track around 10 minutes apart, with single digits of predicted range remaining.

If you’re wondering what happened to Doug, well, his story was rather uneventful – just like you’d want if you were making this sort of long journey for real. He made the entire 240-mile trip without a single charging stop, arriving at Millbrook 2hr 15min before Neil and Will and with 8% (20 miles) of the predicted range remaining. Doug’s only mild inconvenience was having to moderate his motorway cruising speed to 60mph in order to comfortably make the journey without having to pause to charge.

Renault Zoe driving through Oxford

Day 2: The range and efficiency test

After placing the three cars on charge overnight, the next day we entered them in our annual summer range test. Twice a year, in the height of summer and the depths of winter, we put 12 electric cars through a drive-’em-until-they-die challenge in order to find out how far they can really go, and to see how efficiently they use the energy stored in their batteries.

We drive all the cars in convoy around our Millbrook test track, repeating a relatively simple test route of around 15 miles. This includes 2.6 miles of simulated stop-start urban driving, four miles at a steady 50mph and eight miles at a constant 70mph. The rationale for the high percentage of high-speed cruising is that drivers who want to travel for long distances in one hit are likely to be using faster roads, including motorways.

The temperature during testing ranged from 24deg C to 27deg, and the air-con systems in all three cars were set to 21deg. There was also a driver change at the end of each lap to ensure a level playing field.

New MG4 vs used BMW i3 and Renault Zoe driving

So, how far did the trio go before grinding to a halt? Well, unsurprisingly, the i3 stopped first, after just 64 miles; it had clearly suffered significant battery degradation over the years. A full charge from empty drew just 18.10kWh, and with 10-20% of the energy from a charge being lost through heat, that puts the battery’s usable capacity at around 16kWh.

On the plus side, having such a small battery means the i3 is relatively light by EV standards. This helps efficiency and meant a return of roughly 4.0 miles per kWh.

The Zoe managed a far more respectable 145 miles and its battery pulled 47.78kWh from empty to full, suggesting far less degradation than the i3’s. Efficiency was nothing special, though, at around 3.6 miles/kWh.

That leaves the MG, which kept going for an impressive 253 miles. Its efficiency of almost 4.1 miles/kWh was also the best of the trio – despite it being the biggest and heaviest car here. That’s progress for you.

New MG4 vs used BMW i3 and Renault Zoe rears

Our verdict

Early EVs, including the i3 but also the original Nissan Leaf, were simply too compromised to encourage many buyers to go electric. Spending more than £25k on a small hatchback that couldn’t even manage 100 miles on a charge in the summer, especially back in 2013, wasn’t something that many people could justify.

The Zoe ZE40 moved things on dramatically in 2017. Not only was it cheaper to buy initially than the i3, especially if you opted to lease the battery, but it also had a range between charges that’s still respectable by today’s standards. However, the absence of fast CCS charging capability meant long journeys were (and still are) an arduous experience.

That’s certainly not the case in the MG 4. For one thing, you won’t need to stop to charge anywhere near as often, and when you do, its CCS port can accept almost three times as much charging power (135kW) as the i3’s. It’s not exactly cheap, but factoring in inflation, it even looks pretty good value compared with some of the early EV pioneers.

In short, then, it’s clear that the lower end of the electric car market is light years ahead of where it was a decade ago. If progress continues at the same rate and the public charging infrastructure (which has so far seen much smaller improvements than the cars that rely on it) becomes larger and more reliable, there’s no reason to think EVs won’t be the right choice for just about everyone in another 10 years’ time.

Specifications: MG 4 EV Long Range SE

Renault Zoe boot badge

List price £29,495
Engine Electric motor
Power 201bhp
Torque 184lb ft
Gearbox 1-spd automatic
Battery size 61.7kWh (usable)
0-62mph 7.9sec
Top speed 100mph
Real Range 252.9 miles
CO2, tax band 0g/km, 2%

Specifications: Renault Zoe ZE40 Dynamique Nav

BMW i3 boot badge

Price when new £22,345
Engine Electric motor
Power 91bhp
Torque 163lb ft
Gearbox 1-spd automatic
Battery size 41kWh (usable)
0-62mph 13.5sec
Top speed 84mph
Real Range 145.0 miles
CO2, tax band 0g/km, 2%

Specifications: 2013 BMW i3

BMW i3 boot badge

Price when new £30,680
Engine Electric motor
Power 100bhp
Torque 184lb ft
Gearbox 1-spd automatic
Battery size 18.8kWh (usable)
0-62mph 7.2sec
Top speed 93mph
Real Range 64.4 miles
CO2, tax band 0g/km, 2%

Buying a used Renault Zoe

Renault Zoe

Early Zoes can be bought for as little as £5000, but those have a 22kWh battery and a feeble real-world range of around 70 miles between charges. It’s worth going for the ZE40 (2017-2020), ideally with the ‘quick charge’ (Q90) option box ticked; this doubles the maximum charging speed to 43kW. Expect to spend around £7500 for a battery lease version with around 30k miles on the clock, or a little more for an ‘i’ version if you want to own the battery.

Performance is nothing to write home about, but the Zoe is more practical than it looks and has a comfy ride. Plus, if you’ve opted to lease the battery, Renault will have to cough up for a repair if its capacity drops below 70% of its original specification.

Read our full used Renault Zoe buying guide >>

Buying a used BMW i3

BMW i3

An early i3 like our test car, with 40k miles on the clock, will set you back around £9000. It has obvous draws, including its smart interior, good driving position, surprisingly nippy acceleration and the prestige of that BMW badge, but it’s really only suitable for local chores – especially when you consider that its range could be as low as 40 miles in the depths of winter. Its ride comfort isn’t great, either, plus its handling is nervous at higher speeds and it has a small boot.

The best i3s were made between late 2018 and the end of production in mid-2022; these models had a larger, 37.9kWh battery and a real-world range of around 120 miles. Expect to pay from around £15,000 for one of these.

Read our full used BMW i3 buying guide >>

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