Martin Gurdon

The trick to driving an electric car in the countryside

The trick to driving an electric car in the countryside
Image: Alamy
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As every electric car owner knows, driving an EV over long distances in Britain is not without its obstacles. Everyone has their own tale of getting stranded somewhere unintended after running out of juice. A lack of available chargers can turn even short trips into a logistical nightmare. So how easy is it to run an EV in rural Britain? And should drivers even try?

There are at least five electric cars in Kentish village where I live. Three of them belong to neighbours on my street, so I decided to ask them about the pros and pitfalls.

Gardener Mark Hughes and his partner Jo bought their ex-demonstrator MG5 estate five months ago. Jo, a human resources consultant, works from home and Mark uses an ancient Peugeot diesel van for his gardening, so the MG isn’t needed for regular commuting.

‘We don’t do many miles so hit on the idea of electric vehicles,’ said Mark. The pair live in a rented terraced house with some off street parking, and haven’t installed a domestic car charging point. Sometimes the car is replenished using a ‘granny charger’ with a three pin domestic plug (‘when the electricity is cheaper’) and the couple have become familiar with a wide range of public charging points, some in unlikely locations.

‘You can find them at some village halls,’ says Jo, who has emailed the local parish council about installing one in her home village. ‘We plug in and walk the dog,' Mark adds.

When travelling further afield they make use of the Zap-Map charging point locator app and concede that regular visits to coffee shops have resulted, increasing their caffeine consumption. Another cost increase has been the electricity that powers their car. ‘When we started we were paying about 39p per kWh. Now it’s as much as 57p,’ says Mark.

They’ve been frustrated by non-functioning charging points and apps that control many of them. Jo has a £20 credit with Pod-Point after one of its charging posts took her money and then shut down. Unsurprisingly, the couple approve of chargers that can read debit cards.

‘If you haven’t got a smartphone in rural areas then you’ve got a problem,’ says Jo, adding that thanks to patchy network coverage (‘you can’t use EE round here’) smartphone owners sometimes have difficulty too.

The couple live about five miles from the market town of Tenterden, where the local Tesco has a suite of chargers. ‘You can charge free for a couple of hours, and that gives us about 20 per cent,’ says Mark.

Both worry about range and have so far managed never to let the battery drop below a 30 per cent charge. The MG’s range varies. In cold weather it will take them 175 miles, but this increases to around 230 during the summer. The car has clocked up around 5,500 miles in a little over six months, including a trouble-free holiday in Northumbria. Its owners appreciate their battery car’s silence, economy and semi-autonomous driving aids.

‘There aren’t many negatives,’ said Mark Hughes. ‘The cars are expensive to buy and we could do with more charging points, but we’re definitely staying electric.’

His near neighbour, Ben Hebblethwaite, an architect, had spent eight years working from home, but having landed a staff job that involved a weekly 400 mile commute to Gravesend, decided that an electric Peugeot 2008 would make a cost effective travelling companion.

But the costs have still been higher than anticipated. ‘I thought I’d have to spend about £50 a week on fuel, but realised it was more like £75. Now it would be around £100,’ explains Ben. He reckons his battery Peugeot is costing between £100/£150 per month to recharge, although the app for his Pod-Point home charging unit claims monthly outgoings of as little as £55 - and Ben believes the figures it supplies could often be works of major fiction.

‘It doesn’t make sense. It will say I’ve used £16 worth of electricity in a week and £16 the following week when I’ve used three times as much. I’ve written to Pod-Point, but I’ve never heard back.’

Ben finances the car using a personal contract purchase agreement that costs £400 a month, a big jump from the £215 he was paying for a petrol car, but he thinks the battery Peugeot, in which he’s travelled 8,000 miles in four months, is still cheaper to run.

‘I’m rubbing my hands with glee at the money we’re saving,’ he admits. The car is charged overnight and usually sets off with an indicated 190 mile range. On his first electric commute, Ben had 160 miles officially in the battery bank and was horrified when the car got through 80 miles worth of juice after travelling half that distance.

A frantic lunchtime signing up session to a variety of charging apps nearer Ben’s office was followed by a trip to the nearest Lidl where he plugged in and added a pathetic 13 miles. 'I went really gently on the journey home (which takes in long stretches of the M2 and M20 motorways) and had 30 miles of range left. Like sea and land miles an "electric mile" doesn’t seem to be the same as a normal one,’ he says.

He now sets off with the maximum charge, and reckons the battery performance has improved as time has moved on.

The car has been used on a few longer non work trips that have taken Ben, his teacher wife Clara and son Stanley to Sussex, and a 250 round trip to Ludlow. This was a learning experience, which included discovering that a fast charger located at a Porsche garage wasn’t compatible with the electric 2008, necessitating a careful trip up the M5 to one that was. This worked but wouldn’t disconnect from the car. The journey took ten hours.

On the way back, he was ‘determined to nail it,’ time wise, and reckoned that if toilet breaks were avoided only one stop to use a charging post ‘at a pub near Basingstoke’ would be needed. Sadly, ‘a flashy Mercedes’ was already plugged in and apparently unoccupied.

‘We got really frustrated waiting for the owner to come back. Then we noticed a mobile phone on the dash and realised he’d been sleeping in the car all the time.’

The Hebblethwaites reached home after six hours, and Clara, who drives a hybrid Toyota Auris, suggested that they use that for long trips that involve more than one charging stop. ‘It’s a fair compromise,’ said her husband, adding that the protracted Ludlow trip cost £40.

Other than some issues over non-functioning digital radio apps and awkwardly sited cup holders, Ben Hebblethwiaite likes the way his car does things, particularly the infrequency with which the brakes are needed, and thinks that living in the countryside has not been a disadvantage. Quite the reverse, in fact.

‘I think it’s easier to have a charger and connect to your property out here than to have one in the city close to home, where few houses have off street parking. That’s certainly the case for a (town based) friend of mine.’

My third neighbour, Warren Stimson, has swapped a BMW 3 Series diesel estate for a Polestar 2 electric saloon. A director of a specialist soft furnishing business, he commutes daily into London, where he needs a car to carry specialist gear. He often travels further afield and reckons to have covered 6,500 miles in four months. He’s made the switch from necessity rather than enthusiasm.

Warren Stimpson with his Polestar 2 electric saloon

‘It comes with a whole bag of spanners. There aren’t enough chargers. I was in Birmingham the other week looking for one,’ he said. Pure economics made the change inevitable. His accountant said that the Polestar would save him £12,000 a year compared to the BMW.

‘Sadiq Khan is making it impossible to drive anything other than an electric car. The Congestion Charge was costing me £280 a month,’ he said (the Polestar is exempt). There are EV parking concessions too, and he muttered darkly about a 50 per cent loading of parking fees for diesel cars in certain North London boroughs. There’s no road tax to pay, he reckons to spend £60 a week charging the Polestar, and that its much-loved predecessor was costing £180 for diesel over the same period. Now he thinks it would be £200.

‘You have to plan. I leave fifteen minutes earlier and get home half an hour later. There’s a fast charger at the services near Maidstone which I use. If it wasn’t there I’d be in trouble,’ he said. Warren regularly stops there for a 20 minute coffee break, and spends the time answering emails and watching motorists shell out £150 to re-fuel their conventional cars. He pays around £22 per charge, admittedly to cover fewer miles. ‘The Polestar’s claimed range is 338 miles, but the best I’ve got out of it is 270,’ he said. On cold days the car does rather less than that.

Half full batteries will get him to his office, where there’s a wall charger that replenishes the car in three hours. He hasn’t bothered with a home charger, and doesn’t see rural living as getting in the way of owning a modern electric car, although a ten-year-old Nissan Leaf that needed a recharge every 70 miles would be different.

There are irritants. ‘Whatever the size of your wallet, triple it, because it will be full of EV cards,’ said Warren, adding that the apps that tell you where the nearest working chargers are aren’t always up to date.

He has become tuned in to the vagaries of the charging network, but reckons they don’t make for spontaneous motoring. ‘When you decide to go on holiday to Cornwall it all falls apart because of the infrastructure,’ he suggests.

Warren Stimson thinks petrol and diesel cars are more engaging to drive than the Polestar, but has nice things to say about its quietness and acceleration. He also thinks that unlike some electrics it’s styled like a normal car and is well made (‘I looked at a Tesla Model 3, but the quality was terrible’).

The Polestar is leased and he regards it as a working tool, and wouldn’t have bought it with his own money, nor entertained the idea of it being his only mode of transport, expressing concerns about battery life and re-sale value. He also thinks electric cars are too expensive for many drivers.

‘Someone driving a 2007 Ford Focus worth £2,500 can’t afford a £30,000 vehicle.’ As for the Polestar’s planet-saving credentials: ‘We can all drive around pretending were going to save the penguins, but the electricity (we’re using) isn’t clean.’

Nonetheless, he describes the Polestar as ‘the perfect company car,’ and although his dream replacement vehicle would have a V8 engine drinking synthetic fuel, he's staying electric for now.