One of the most frequent grumbles about electric cars in the early years was that the choice was very limited. The main options were the Renault Zoe, the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla Model S. These cars have all proven themselves and are still with us on the new car market a decade or so later; the Leaf and the Zoe have undergone heavy updates and now have much bigger batteries that make them more range-competitive with petrol cars, while the Tesla had decent range from day one.
Nevertheless, if you weren’t in the market for a smallish hatchback like the Zoe or the Leaf, or you couldn’t afford the steep price of the Tesla, there wasn’t really much for you. Popular product categories, especially the estates, crossovers and SUVs that are in such strong demand from families looking for practical transport, were completely unrepresented in the universe of electric cars.
That’s all changing now. SUVs, albeit those at the soft-roader end of the spectrum, are now probably the best-represented category in the electric car market, probably because their tall bodywork lends itself so well to accommodating an under-floor battery pack. And we now have an electric estate car in the form of the MG5 EV. Its styling may be a little dowdy, but it offers a combination of space, range and value for money that is hard to beat.
But the breadth of choice currently available in EVs pales into insignificance compared with what’s in the pipeline. I mentioned recently the efforts of the German Twitter user Stephan90 to track public information on every future electric car. At that time, his public spreadsheet contained links to news sources for almost 500 forthcoming model updates or introductions. Checking back just a few months later, I see that the list has grown to a total of 561, which gives some idea of the pace of development in the industry.
Given the enormous scale of this emerging choice, it’s tempting to think that there must be an electric car for everyone, or at least that there soon will be. That’s certainly true for buyers of new cars, and with modern methods of financing, more and more people can afford to make the stretch. But it’s worth remembering that far more people still buy used cars rather than new; the usual rule of thumb for the UK is that used car sales outnumber new by three to one. The choice that used car buyers enjoy is determined by what was on the new car market one, two, three, or five or more years ago, and this is where we have a huge mismatch. Not only was the variety of EVs much more limited a few years ago, but the number of new electric cars sold was far, far smaller as well. So, the three out of four car buyers who normally buy used are fishing in a pool in which electric cars still represent only a tiny percentage of the total number of cars available. It stands to reason that the vast majority of them won’t be making the switch any time soon.
And that mismatch grows ever greater as the cars that buyers are looking at get older. Given that even the most ancient electric cars are scarcely ten years old, there still isn’t really such a thing as an electric banger. The upshot of all that is that for a significant proportion of the population, including a lot of young first-car buyers, there isn’t really an electric option at all.
The prices of early Nissan Leafs, for example, now seem to have dropped below £5,000, but that’s for an early model with limited range, and still quite a stretch for buyers who may be used to paying only a grand. We don’t really have much direct experience of how electric cars will age with really long service, but many of the fundamentals seem to be favourable – with fewer moving parts, there should be less to go wrong, and the cost of electricity per mile is far less than for petrol and diesel. On the other hand, those lower running costs seem to feed back through into higher used car values, keeping the ‘entry price’ for electric vehicles higher.
So choice is already there in abundance for buyers of new and nearly new EVs – and for them, that choice is increasing. But it will be several years before the number of options are there for the majority of car buyers.