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Volt wagons: Your 2020 guide to buying a new electric car

Once outside the mainstream, electric cars are starting to become more popular as manufacturers conquer range and pricing

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They're the topic of manys a discussion, but are electric cars finally on the point of going mainstream?

That's the question many people are asking as governments and growing environmental awareness thrusts EVs (electric vehicles) further up the agenda.

In fact, sales of alternatively-fuelled vehicles like electric and plug-in hybrid cars are already growing across the UK and Ireland.

They were up, for example, by a quarter in the UK in September compared to the same month a year previously.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders reported a 23% increase in sales of new petrol-electric vehicles across 2018 with 81,156 registered.

Plug-in hybrids - a mix of battery and conventional power - are the most popular of all types of electric cars. Battery-only electric vehicles accounted for 15,474 registrations in the UK in 2018.

So are we reaching a tipping point where alternatively-fuelled cars will really take off?

Yes and no. In the case of hybrid cars, we are closer to any tipping point than with pure EVs. Hybrid has effectively become mainstream.

The rise of pure-electric is slower, but will accelerate in the next couple of years as all the main manufacturers are now well down the road of 'decarbonising' their ranges. Sales of electric cars are already taking off, although from a low base.

They will reach tipping point when demand means economies of scale for manufacturers. The signs are already there that this is happening; several manufacturers are now reporting waiting lists for electric cars.

So how different are electric and plug-in hybrids?

The key difference is that electric cars need electricity to go, whilst plug-in hybrids can use both petrol and electricity.

A pure electric car will have large lithium batteries, generally concealed in the floor running from front to rear. This gives the car a low centre of gravity and helps with cornering.

Examples include the Nissan Leaf and Renault Zoe.

Pure electric cars are the best for the environment, and will likely end up the cheapest once sales become popular enough that the big manufacturers can produce them at scale.

There will undoubtedly be EU and government action on this to encourage or even force manufacturers and consumers down this route because of the significant health and environmental benefits of this.

Improving battery technology is improving the range of pure electric vehicle and the time will come, possibly in less than a decade, when then can out-range petrol cars, and also take advantage of a huge charging network that doesn't exist today.

The hybrid story is a little more complex. It's important to understand the three different types of hybrid on the market.

Electrically assisted: This is where an electric motor gives a little extra grunt to the engine going uphill or on acceleration. The motor is recharged by the petrol engine.

Plug-in hybrids: These have larger batteries that you charge from the mains, often overnight. There are different versions of plug-in hybrids, for example the Toyota Prius. They also have a petrol engine.

Range extenders: these run mostly on their electric motors, but have a small petrol (or, less often, diesel) engine to come to the rescue when needed. An example is the BMW i3 Range Extender.

What are the benefits of electric cars?

There are many. Full electric cars produce zero exhaust emissions and no harmful pollutants on the road.

This means air quality is much better - and given than emissions produced by cars are thought to contribute to the early deaths of more than 30,000 people in the UK every year, then it's a public health priority.

New research says even when the manufacturing process is taken into account, electric vehicles produce half the emissions of fossil-fuelled cars. So there is less damage to the planet.

Also of course, electric cars are exempt from certain taxes and levies being introduced in the UK.

Electric cars are also great to drive; they are fast, quiet and because they don't have a gearbox, there are no transmission gaps - just a continuous, long power surge. In fact the world's fastest street-legal production cars nowadays have electric engines.

Are electric cars expensive?

No - but they are currently a bit more costly than standard cars. This is mostly because they are currently made in smaller numbers so there is much less economy of scale in the manufacturing process.

However, the extra cost is usually offset by tax and fuel savings. If you do a lot of miles a year, pure electric vehicles will not yet be your car of choice, but plug-in electric cars are definitely an option.

It's estimated, for example, that an e-Golf costs 4p per mile to run versus 14p per mile for a petrol Golf.

There's also increasing evidence that alternatively-fuelled cars are retaining residual value better than fossil fuel models.

Are there advantages for company car drivers?

Yes, definitely. And from this April it gets better. New Benefit In Kind (BIK) charges means zero emission electric vehicle tax liability for company car drivers falls from 2% to 0% for the tax year 2020-21. Rates are also reduced to 1% for 2021-2 (down from 2%), before realigning to 2% BIK from 2022 onwards. This will further encourage sales of electric cars.

How far will pure-electric cars go?

The days when electric cars only did 70 or so miles are now in the rear-view mirror.

This is down to one simple reason - battery technology. So-called 'range anxiety' has been the biggest barrier to the uptake of pure electric cars by many people.

But family EVs are now coming on the market with ranges of up to 279 miles - not quite the 400-500 of many petrol cars, but technically enough to drive from Belfast to Dublin and back on a single charge. And some of the bigger beasts like the Tesla Model S have an official range of up to 393 miles (less in real world usage, of course).

These figures will improve in coming years, and when they do expect EV sales to start to go through the roof - and you'll see rapid charging points appearing at petrol stations, hotels, stores, train stations, and more.

Belfast Telegraph