Like any self-flagellating young(ish) inner-city couple, my wife and I had always assumed that our next car would be an electric vehicle (EV). This was the case even before the catalytic converter was stolen from our beloved old Honda Jazz last year. We always planned to nurse Jazzy into retirement and then upgrade to a shiny, Islington-friendly EV.
Partly our concerns were financial. We live in the capital’s ultra-low emission zone (Ulez). At the very least we needed a petrol/electric hybrid or other low-emission option to avoid bankrupting ourselves every time we left the house. But also, why not? They are the coming thing, after all. EVs are quiet, eco-friendly, increasingly stylish – the sleek Apple compared to the clunky old PC. Ideally, we would get a Tesla, I thought, providing one of us won the lottery between now and then. If not a Tesla, then perhaps a Nissan Leaf or Hyundai Ioniq or something smart like that. An executive kind of e-car, for an executive kind of guy.
I didn’t think we would have to make the choice for a while. Then, one night last autumn, my neighbours looked out of their window to see three men in masks attending to a car. Two lay underneath it, doing something with an angle grinder. A third stood vigil, waving a blowtorch at anyone who wanted to confront them. My neighbours didn’t fancy it. After a couple of minutes, the men ran off to a waiting van, carrying something bulky. Like baking banana bread and doing quizzes on Zoom, stealing catalytic converters became popular during Covid. Unlike those activities, it still is. Our sturdy old Honda Jazz was a write-off.
Since then, we have managed quite happily without a car. We take the Tube, bus and train. We save money and – even better – feel smug. But our second child has just arrived. A toddler on the Tube is tricky. A toddler and a baby is tricky squared. As we chaotically negotiated these small people and their baggage out of Finsbury Park railway station, we came to an inescapable conclusion: we need a car.
Yet as I begin to study the options, the choice only becomes more complicated. Once upon a time you had to think about make, model, mileage, depreciation and fuel economy. Now it seems like a matrix of different factors: all of the above plus charging costs, charger availability, the relative price of EVs and internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, Covid delays, the war in Ukraine, microchip shortages, the increase in road tax, and the 2030 ban on the sale of new petrol cars. Nasa put a man on the moon with fewer sums. As they become more widespread, electric cars by definition become less aspirational. Tesla’s reputation was once improved by its association with Elon Musk, but is that still true? Are EVs still cool?
Most importantly, do I still buy one or do I get an old banger and wait for EV costs to come down? Do I abandon the electric dream altogether?
“It’s a difficult question,” says Alex Robbins, this newspaper’s car-buying expert. “Things are changing rapidly. I’d have given you a different answer three months ago, partly due to the rising cost of electricity and changes in the cost of fuel. It used to be that you could say, ‘If you buy an EV, you’ll recoup the cost if you do enough miles.’ But given how much electricity has gone up in price, that’s less the case – not necessarily not the case. It’s nuanced and complicated.”
Where to charge?
One problem, in our case, is that our crowded terraced house does not have off-street parking. Quite often, it barely has on-street parking. If we had our own charging point, we could top up the battery quickly and cheaply. Without it, we’d have to rely on public chargers.
“The official line is that if you buy an EV with a long enough range, you can charge it while you’re doing the weekly shop at Tesco,” says Robbins. “Two problems with that. One is that it’s now hideously expensive to charge at the supermarket. The other is that you have to make sure you’re not going to use most of the remaining charge travelling to a charger. It’s not impossible, but it’s more difficult than if you had a home charging point.
“A lot of the advocacy for EVs is from people who have a driveway and can charge overnight. In this glorious era, when we’re being told EVs are the only way forward, I question whether we have the resources in place to allow people to make that change.”
Rising car prices
The price of new, or nearly new, vehicles is another factor. During the pandemic, shortages of everything, especially microchips, drastically pushed up the prices of new and used cars. As things return to normal, this will slowly even out.
Could it be worth buying an older petrol or hybrid car and waiting for a few years for prices to come down? Again, it seems, the answer depends.
“It isn’t a great time to be buying a new car at the moment, because of the waiting time,” says Robbins. “I’m generally an advocate for buying an old car and running it until the economics no longer add up, because it’s the automotive equivalent of recycling. But that’s a difficult one, because there is a carbon penalty. The car you’re driving will be polluting and likely to fall foul of the growing number of low-emission zones. The general thought process is that if you keep a car going rather than scrapping it, you’re doing a good thing, rather than expending the resources of buying a new EV, which involves the mining of rare metals. Then financially, even if you buy a banger and spend £1,000 a year running it, you’re still spending less than the depreciation on a brand-new electric car.”
Making a case
Jack Cousens, head of roads policy at the AA, when I put my case to him, said: “Price parity between electric and combustion is not quite there. We would like things to improve that.” The AA suggests removing VAT from the sale of new electric vehicles, to accelerate the take-up and prepare the country for the 2030 ban.
Despite all this, the case for me buying an EV remains strong, he says. “In terms of your mileage and the sort of trips you’d make, an electric vehicle would be perfect for you,” he says. “You wouldn’t have to charge it every night. There’s a misconception that you have to charge an EV every night. You don’t refuel your car every night, and it’s exactly the same principle.” Even the most expensive rapid chargers, he points out, are cheaper than putting petrol in the tank. That’s despite rising electricity prices and falling petrol costs after their high points earlier this year.
One thing seems clear: as EVs become omnipresent, their golden era as the cheaper, greener, cooler alternative to petrol cars is naturally coming to an end. By the time our children are adults, EVs will just be “cars”, while their polluting, gas-guzzling ancestors will be as antiquated as steam trains. Eventually, I will own one. As to when, exactly, I am no nearer an answer than when I started: never a good sign when it comes to a vehicle.