Cars - electric

Ethical buying guide to electric cars, from Ethical Consumer

Ethical buying guide to electric cars, from Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

This guide is part of a special report on Transport and includes:

  • ethical and environmental rating of 18 models of all-electric and plug-in hybrid cars
  • top 10 green electric cars
  • where to charge
  • range and cost
  • company profiles

See also the guide to petrol, diesel and hybrid cars >

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Best Buys

as of July 2015


The best buys are the all-electric brands, rather than the plug-in hybrids.

If you do have the £54,000 necessary to buy a Tesla Model S, then it would be a best buy for you. 

For most people though, it will be the next group of manufacturers which offer more practical alternatives. 

Of these, the Citroen C-Zero, Mitsubishi i-Miev, Nissan Leaf, Peugeot iOn and the VW e-Up! and e-Golf all scored well on our Top 30 Green Car Models table.




Choosing an electric car


In 2008, when Ethical Consumer last looked at electric cars, there was just one on the market – a quadricycle called the G-wiz from the Indian company Reva. It didn’t catch on. In 2015 there are now 25 models of electric car on the UK market – either all-electric or plug-in hybrids (which have an electric motor and an internal combustion engine) - which represents a huge step forward in a relatively short space of time.

Almost all major manufacturers now offer an electric vehicle and many – such as VW’s e-Golf and the Ford Focus Electric – look indistinguishable from their petrol cousins. There are now around 35,000 electric vehicles on the road in the UK. The Nissan Leaf is the biggest seller, accounting for one third of all electric car sales. Electric cars aren’t suitable  for everyone though and there are three practical issues to consider: charging with renewables, range and cost.




Charging with renewables

image: electric car in ethical shopping guide


From an environmental point of view electric cars only really make sense if they are charged with electricity generated by renewables. Otherwise they are simply moving the pollution and CO2 emissions from the city to (mainly) conventional power stations.

This means that an electric car will only make practical sense if your home is supplied by a renewable tariff and you have access to off-street parking to charge the car.

In our product guide to Green Electricity Suppliers, Good Energy offered a 100% renewables supply and now Ecotricity do too.1 Co-op Energy offers a 68% renewable tariff.


Where to charge

Outside the home, from Next Green Car, is a website (and phone app) which provides information on all the (more than 8,000) publicly available electric car charge points in the UK.

According to Zap-Map there are three main EV charging speeds: 

  • Slow charging – (up to 3kW) which is best suited for 6-8 hours overnight 
  • Fast charging – (7-22kW) which can fully recharge some models in 3-4 hours
  • Rapid charging – (43-50kW) which can provide an 80% charge (enough) in around 30 minutes.


We can only find one national charging network that appears to supply exclusively renewable energy to charge with – Ecotricity’s Electric Highway – which has its own maps too. We think this is disappointing. The environmental arguments for owning an electric car begin to break down if charged with electricity generated from coal-fired power stations.




Most electric car models available today have a maximum range of about 100 miles before needing a recharge. Even this range may be difficult to achieve if there are hills or high speed involved. Nevertheless if you have regular journeys (often a commute) of below this distance, electric cars can be a good option.




Picking the right model


The Next Green Car website should definitely be part of anyone’s information gathering if they are looking to buy an electric car. It contains far more detail on different models than we can hope to include here. We used some data from them to compile the Top 30 Green Car Models table below.

Although electric cars won’t work for everyone, if they do for you, you might just be taking a step into the future. As we argue on our page on ‘Electrification and good regulation’, many environmental campaigners now see fully electrified cars, buses and trains powered by 100% renewable energy as offering a viable and properly sustainable future for everyone.

The Top 30 UK Green Cars table below lists electric car models showing their claimed range, and the Next Green Car website will have up-to-date data on all models.

One way around range concerns are plug-in electric hybrids, which also have petrol engines. Two of these, the Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid 1.8 VVT-i CVT and the BMW i3 Electric Car 127kW with range extender, scored well in the Top 30 Green Car Models table.


Top 30 UK green car models table


Another solution would be to choose a Tesla Model S which has a claimed range of 274 miles. This is the only electric car made by a non-mainstream manufacturer and we discuss Tesla in a bit more detail in our Company Profiles below. A good option perhaps, but only if you have at least £54,000 to spare.





The growth of electric cars in the UK has partly been down to subsidies where new owners can receive a government grant of up to £5,000 towards the cost of a new electric car or £8,000 towards a new van. At the time of writing all the electric cars in this report were eligible for the government grant as well as a few hybrid models. 

However, even after the government grant, electric cars cost around £20,000 each which is more expensive than many conventional cars. Prices appear in our Top 30 Green Car Models table. Their newness also means that there are very few second-hand models available at lower prices.

However three significant financial incentives reduce the costs of running an electric car or van: 

  • Zero-rated car tax (Vehicle Excise Duty); 
  • Zero-rated fuel tax (electricity also only attracts 5% VAT for private use); 
  • the Ultra Low Emission Discount Scheme (ULED) which effectively exempts electric vehicles from paying the London Congestion Charge. 

 A recent report commissioned by the European Climate Foundation found that owning an electric vehicle could deliver on average £1,000 of fuel savings a year per driver.2

It is also worth noting that, for businesses looking to run an electric car or van, leasing can make a lot of sense.

More information on the website.




Company profiles


Tesla Motors was founded in 2003 by a group of engineers in Silicon Valley who wanted to prove that electric cars could be better than petrol-powered cars. In 2012 Tesla launched Model S and it is said to have more than 50,000 vehicles on the road worldwide and has created a network of chargers which connect popular routes in North America, Europe and Asia Pacific. Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk also co-founded PayPal. In June 2014 he announced that Tesla Motors would open up its patents to allow the future development of electric cars.

Clicking on each individual company on the scorecard table will provide a deeper analysis of the companies compared. However, this information is reserved for subscribers only. Don't miss out, become a subscriber today.



References (viewed 15/5/15):
2 Cambridge Econometrics (2015) Fuelling Britain’s Future




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This guide is part of our special report on transport. See what is in the rest of the report. 



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