Smarter services make electric cars more tempting

2 December 2013

Vauxhall Ampera charging

Electric vehicles may still make up only a tiny fraction of overall car sales in the UK, but there’s no denying that the sector is warming up and the benefits of proper competition are starting to be felt. An increasing number of car makers are now following the trails blazed by Nissan, Renault and Vauxhall, and bringing new plug-in cars onto the market. Next year will see a host of new arrivals from the new Volkswagen e-Up city car to the brawny Mitsubishi Outlander plug-in SUV.

And it’s equally clear that many of the drawbacks of electric car ownership are gradually being erased, if not through the march of technology then through the ingenuity of improved service provision.

Vauxhall Ampera

Vauxhall’s Ampera was among the first of a new breed of smart-looking electric cars to come packaged with a persuasive set of answers. The Ampera and its Chevrolet Volt sibling eradicated electric-car range limitations through a sophisticated petrol-electric design, effectively carrying an on-board power station for those journeys beyond the point, at up to 50 miles, where the initial battery charge runs out. Range anxiety is never an issue when you can choose to stop and recharge or simply rely on petrol power and carry on indefinitely.

The belt-and-braces approach of the Ampera, carrying both an engine and a full set of batteries, inevitably brought a premium price, which Vauxhall has sought to match with an upmarket service. The car is sold and supported by a selection of 24 specially trained dealers around the country, but customers don’t have to worry about whether one lies conveniently nearby. Regular servicing or accident repairs can be arranged by contacting a dedicated MyAmpera Services helpline, with pickup and return of the car included free of charge. A dedicated MyAmpera representative at each dealership is also on hand to field any queries that might arise due to the car’s unusual underpinnings.

BMW i3

BMW has taken a similar approach with its new i3 electric car, ensuring it has a positive to throw at every negative. Firstly, the car is available as either a pure-electric car or a petrol-electric, range-extended combination. The optional generator in the boot provides a very robust answer to the question of how far an owner can reasonably travel, but even for those who choose a battery-only i3 there is still light at the end of the 80- to 100-mile range.

Owners of the i3 are automatically enrolled into the BMW Access scheme, which allows use of other vehicles on a temporary basis. An annual allocation of 700 points is enough to borrow a 1-Series hatchback for a week, or a 5-Series Touring for four days away. Additional time will cost extra, at the rate of £54 for every further day in the 1-Series, for example, but should still be preferable to joining a car-club or simply renting for those occasional long journeys.

Renault Zoe

Renault, meanwhile, has pioneered the buy-plus-rent option for electric cars, removing any worries about the long-term reliability of the battery or the potentially large cost of replacing it. Instead, the owner of the car signs a lease on the battery running for 12 months to three years.

Factoring out the battery has brought some temptingly low entry prices for cars like Renault’s Zoe electric supermini, with the drawback of inescapable monthly costs.

Renault has cited multiple reasons for taking the leased battery approach, with one important factor being the ability to extract and recycle the battery properly at the end of the car’s life – which is a significant issue given the value of the raw materials and the carbon footprint wrapped up in a big lithium-ion battery. Perhaps as a consequence, it doesn’t offer the option to buy the battery and car outright.

By contrast Smart, which offers an electric edition of its ForTwo city car, has elected to give buyers the choice of either buy-plus-rent or buy outright.

2013 Nissan Leaf

Nissan’s Leaf has become the UK’s best-selling electric car to date, with more than 2,000 examples sold, a level of success partly achieved through Nissan’s adaptability. When it arrived in 2011 the Leaf was sold only outright, but shortly after the Zoe landed early this year an option to rent the Leaf’s battery quickly appeared. And now the arrival of the i3 has triggered another me-too.

Late last month Nissan announced a range of additional benefits for Leaf owners including the welcome facility to borrow a petrol or diesel car for up to 14 days per year, free of charge (excluding fuel and insurance), for the first three years of ownership. Free breakdown cover, free charging at dealers and Nissan-owned charging points, and an extended battery health guarantee are also now part of the package.

Eventually, all these innovations will start to sink in. The primary barrier to electric car ownership – high pricing – has steadily eroded over the past few years. Running costs are below or at least on a par with conventional cars, and the issue of range anxiety is also being tackled in multiple inventive ways.

Government figures show that fully one third of UK households run more than one car, and many families might find an EV an ideal second vehicle, with range becoming much less of an issue when there is another option on the driveway. Indeed data from Renault confirms that about one third of supermini-sized cars in Europe will never venture out on a journey of more than 150km (about 93 miles).

Add in the benefits of zero taxation and free access to the London Congestion Zone, and a plug-in car can make a lot of sense.

Given the improvements in both the choice and value offered to electric car buyers, it’s no surprise to see 2013 sales figures for EVs at their highest ever level in the third quarter of 2013, running 25% ahead of the previous three months across the UK. The share of the overall car market may still be a tiny fraction of less than 1%, but that proportion now seems more certain than ever to grow.

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