Electric cars — time to buy one?
The FT's global motor industry correspondent Peter Campbell drag races a Tesla against an Aston Martin, hits the city streets in a Nissan Leaf and checks out a new Jaguar I-pace.
Produced by Peter Campbell and Joe Sinclair. Filmed by Joe Sinclair, James Sandy and Petros Gioumpasis. Edited by Joe Sinclair. Additional producing and editing by Josh de la Mare.
The race is on between the past and the future. Electric cars are fast becoming a serious option for replacing traditional petrol or diesel. But is now the right time to buy one? We're going to show you some of the benefits and the drawbacks of the current generation of battery-powered cars. And we're going to look at what's coming down the road.
People think electric cars drive like milk floats. That's not actually the case. We've come to Silverstone, the home of British motor racing, to see what they can really do. We're testing the king of electric cars against the pinnacle of the internal combustion engine-- the Tesla P-100D against the new Aston Martin Vantage. And this is a drag race. Because although normal people don't race around tracks, they do pull away from traffic lights.
With an electric car, full power is delivered instantly to all four wheels. 0 to 60 is under three seconds and the Tesla wins again and again. Of course, the Aston is always going to beat the Tesla around a race track. That's because the Tesla's stuffed with electric batteries. It's really heavy. It weighs more than two tonnes. So that means while it accelerates like a supercar, it certainly doesn't handle like one.
Inside, the car is very different as well. With no bulky engine at the front, the seats are further forward, so there's a lot more space. But what's it like out on the real roads? Particularly when the power is running out.
Tesla has its own network of superchargers, often at motorway service areas. They are free to owners and the onboard computer will tell you where to find one. The charger is designed to deliver a huge amount of energy into the car very quickly. That means under 20 minutes for another 100 miles.
But if you want to get a full battery-- which gives you a range of in excess of 200 miles, you're going to have quite a long wait on your hands. Of course, Teslas are expensive. This top-end model costs in excess of 100,000 pounds. You're far more likely to buy this-- the 27,000 pound Nissan Leaf. It's the best-selling electric car in Europe and it's just been updated to give it longer range on its battery and a new look.
The pedals work slightly differently to a traditional car. Electric cars use what's called regenerative braking. As soon as you take your foot off the accelerator, the car starts slowing down. And some of the power from that goes back into the battery.
Now this makes the battery last longer and means the car has longer range, but it also changes the driving style. If you want to slow down, like we just did there, you don't even need to touch the brake. It takes a few minutes to get used to it, but it's surprisingly comfortable once you do.
The whole driving experience of electric cars is completely different. It's silent, which means you're no longer shouting to have a conversation. But it's also smooth, it's quick. For city driving, it's ideal because there are no gears. In fact, once people get into these, they'll never want to go back.
But don't just take it from me. Angus has been driving his Nissan Leaf around south London for the past five years.
Right, off we go. Have to be a bit careful not to get pedestrians because it's so quiet.
So what's it like driving an electric car?
It's amazing. And what's lovely as well is you've got this sudden acceleration if you need it. We really use it for short journeys, lots of short journeys. Works terrifically well. We were early adopters. So we got the car almost five years ago and everyone thought we were crazy.
So has the battery worn down at all when you've owned it?
When we first got it, we were worried that the battery life would be much reduced after a few years. But, actually, it's only reduced from a range of 90 miles to 80 miles. I'll just turn in here and charge it.
80 to 90 miles doesn't sound like much, but Angus has his own charging point installed in his driveway. And he usually just charges up overnight. But what if you don't have a driveway or your own charging point? Well, then you're down to a three-pin socket, an extension lead, and a much longer wait.
So could electric cars soon be part of the mainstream establishment? This is the Jaguar I-Pace. It's the car that's going to bat for Britain in the global electric race. But it's also the first in a new wave of electric cars that are coming to market over the next couple of years-- everyone from Porsche to Peugeot-- and that means consumers are going to have so much more choice.
For now, only around 1% of the searches on the UK's leading online car marketplace are for electric vehicles. And even if the running costs are tiny, many consumers are still put off by the initial sticker price.
I think for consumers who are asking themselves right now, should I buy an electric vehicle or should I hold off, see what else comes on the market, I'd be tempted to hold off simply because we haven't got the rapid charging infrastructure until early next year. Also, by the middle of next year, there will just be such an explosion of what's on the market to choose from, which will really widen consumer choice and hopefully bring the price down.
Back in the Tesla, we've run into a problem. We didn't charge it overnight and now we don't have enough battery left to reach one of the superchargers.
We're now running very low. We've got about five miles left on the battery. I now know why it's called range anxiety. We're going to see if we can find a charge point here. It's not a Tesla supercharger, but it will have to do. There are already more than 10,000 public charging points like this around the country. And from next year, a network of high-speed, 100 kilowatt-hour rapid chargers will also begin appearing. This, along with more choice and lower prices, should help to break down the final barriers holding back most people from buying an electric car.
There are lots of great things about electric cars. They're quick, they're fun to drive, they're silent, they're comfortable. And, increasingly, there's going to be more and more of them for consumers to choose from. But there are still drawbacks-- most of all, range. Which means when you're running short of battery, there will still be times when you have to try and find a charging point in the rain.