How the EV revolution is killing the small family car

The age of cheap runabouts is probably behind us - Martin Barraud
The age of cheap runabouts is probably behind us - Martin Barraud

Of the many “firsts” that define our teenage years, it is often our first car that we remember most fondly. A pink trainee licence and a £500 banger from the classifieds represents independence, freedom, and the very beginnings of an adult social life – the ability to choose where and with whom we spend our time, without the need for mortifying lifts in our parents’ Espace.

Indeed, a first car paves the way for countless further firsts (both good and bad) while you and your mates are tearing around the countryside in a rag-tag assortment of tatty old hatchbacks, that first summer you all turn 17.

It’s a shame, then, that tomorrow’s teens will be denied this rite of passage. Because while cars are undoubtedly getting comfier, safer, more eco-friendly and generally better in every measurable way, they are also getting more expensive.

There are several factors fuelling the relative increase in the price of vehicles at this end of the market, most of which are quite boring, but one reason is the government-mandated shift towards cleaner, greener electric propulsion. Put simply, electric vehicles cost a lot and will probably always be more expensive – to some extent – than old-fashioned cars with pistons and cylinders.

Most of that added expense is in the battery, which might represent about a third of a small electric car’s total production cost. And while one would expect the cost of manufacturing these batteries to fall steadily over time, a lot of the expense is linked to materials such as lithium and cobalt, which fluctuate in price and availability.

The Fiat 500 has long been a popular choice for first-time buyers - ALESSIO PANUNZI
The Fiat 500 has long been a popular choice for first-time buyers - ALESSIO PANUNZI

Around 11 per cent of the world’s nickel, for example, is buried in Russia. And there just aren’t enough copper mines in the world to support the requisite level of EV manufacturing over the next 10 or so years.

Other components in an electric car cost around the same as in a petrol one (such as the interior) or a little more (like the chassis). So electric cars are exposed to volatility in commodities markets, while also costing about 45 per cent more to manufacture than comparable fossil fuel vehicles – a gap that might shrink, but not close.

That doesn’t matter too much in a big, upmarket car that costs £80,000, or even £40,000. But small cars, such as the ones that young people drive, don’t sell at those prices. Paul Philpott, chief executive of Kia UK, which manufactures some of the UK’s most popular plug-in models, has described small EVs as being “economically difficult” to bring to market, despite there being a clear and growing appetite for medium and large (read: pricey and very pricey) electric cars.

Clear difference

Collectively, British motorists have become accustomed to buying a decent runabout for about £14,000 new, or for as little as a couple of grand on the second-hand market. And it’s not clear if or when those kinds of prices will apply to the kinds of battery-electric cars that we will all be forced into within the next couple of decades.

The cheapest petrol hatchback you can buy today, the Dacia Sandero, costs about £13,000, but the cheapest electric car – Fiat’s 500e – while being smaller, slower and fundamentally less versatile, is still about £10,000 more than that. This difference is even more pronounced on the used market; a thrifty teenager can pick up a ropey but serviceable Fiesta, Mini or Corsa for under a grand, but the cheapest used EV – almost certainly an old Nissan Leaf or Renault Zoe – will be 10 times that.

In seven years’ time, sales of pure petrol and diesel cars will be banned in the UK, and by 2035 hybrids will be off the menu too. Which means that a child born this afternoon will turn 17 in the post-fossil fuel era, with petrol stations catering only to the existing – ageing, dwindling – supply of internal combustion vehicles.

This could become a significant problem. The idea that young people are anti-car is a long-standing misconception: in a study commissioned by Auto Trader, 95 per cent of 17 to 34-year-olds (perhaps a rather generous definition of “young”) say that having a car is important or very important to them, while 97 per cent of all adults in rural areas say the same. With around a thousand local bus routes cut in 2022, and a rail network pretty much always on strike, Britain’s reliance on the automobile – especially outside central London – shows no sign of changing.

New models

So, cruelly deprived of a mouldy old Citroen Saxo, but potentially priced out of the electric revolution, how will the cash-strapped but mobility-hungry 17-year-olds of the 2030s drive to school, or their girlfriends’ and boyfriends’ houses? The answer – as it is for first steps on the property ladder – is the Bank of Mum and Dad.

“Today’s first-time drivers are more likely to be behind the wheel of a nearly-new or brand-new motor than an old hand-me-down,” says Erin Baker, editorial director at Auto Trader.

“The biggest factor is the increased availability of finance products and ownership models, which is making it more affordable for younger people to access newer cars. Environmental concerns, scrappage schemes, and safety features which cater to safety conscious parents are all contributing to the change.”

It will come down to the parents having to buy or lease an electric vehicle for their children, knowing that by doing so they will be providing a far safer and more environmentally-friendly car. And as a further wheeze, they won’t even have to pay for fuel, either: 20-somethings are increasingly likely to spend more of their life living at home, where electricity is of course “free”.

What’s more, the myriad limitations of electric vehicles – aside from the high purchase price – are fairly irrelevant to young people. Limited range (you can expect a couple of hundred miles between charges in most small EVs at the moment) shouldn’t bother most teenagers, who are capable of making all their mistakes within half an hour’s drive of home or school.

Similarly, the growing disparity between the amount of electric cars on the roads and the number of public chargers – the UK is about a quarter of a million sites short of its 2030 target – should be no problem for young people whose lives are mostly conducted within their local area. And the soaring cost of refuelling electric cars at public stations is also largely irrelevant to kids who go back to base every night.

The cheapest petrol hatchback you can buy today, the Dacia Sandero, costs about £13,000 - Jayson Fong
The cheapest petrol hatchback you can buy today, the Dacia Sandero, costs about £13,000 - Jayson Fong

In fact, anyone shuffling between a handful of addresses in the same approximate area could make good use of a much more basic, lower-range EV, with a smaller-capacity battery and commensurate price tag – teenagers are well-placed to accommodate these kinds of limitations.

“Affordability is undoubtedly important for consumers today,” concedes Paul Willcox, UK managing director of Stellantis, which owns Peugeot, Citroen and Vauxhall, among others. “Localisation of production will help with this and that’s why we’re starting electric vehicle manufacturing in the UK at our Ellesmere Port plant in a few months.”

But Carlos Tavares, chief executive of Stellantis, has warned that the answer – from a consumer perspective, at least – may emerge from China.

“Regulation in Europe ensures that electric cars built in Europe are about 40 per cent more expensive than comparable vehicles made in China,” he said earlier this month. “If nothing is changed in the current situation, European customers from the middle class will increasingly turn to Chinese models. The purchasing power of many people in Europe is decreasing noticeably.”

MG, which is part of Chinese state-owned giant SAIC, has been selling popular (if dull) EV models in the UK for a couple of years, but more brands will follow. BYD and Nio, both huge overseas but relatively unknown in the UK, are launching competitively-priced new models here in 2023. So while Chinese manufacturers undercutting legacy German, French and Italian brands is bad news for the European car industry, it could be a godsend for people trying to buy cheap used EVs in 10 or more years’ time.

The age of cheap runabouts is probably behind us. It’s already difficult to buy a banger, with the average cost of a 15-year-old car reaching over £6,200 in December – up about £2,000 since before the pandemic.

Whatever happens, young people coming of age in 2035 and beyond will probably need to spend more of their (or their parents’) money to get on the road. But with falling production costs, competition from China, and the slow trickle of EVs finding their way onto the second-hand market, the highs and lows of first car ownership will certainly be enjoyed for generations to come.

Used electric vehicles for under £10,000

Renault Zoe


The Zoe is affordable, nippy, and chic in a way that only the French can pull off. Early models will go around 60 miles on a full charge.

Nissan Leaf

nissan leaf
nissan leaf

As arguably the first mass-market EV to reach the UK in 2009, there are plenty kicking around. You can pick up a first-generation with a 24kWh battery good for 80 miles.

Mitsubishi i-Miev

Mitsubishi i-Miev
Mitsubishi i-Miev

Thanks to falling prices on the second-hand market, the slightly dorky i-MiEV now makes sense as a runabout. The 16kWh battery should take you 50 or so miles.