Cockpit of the BMW i8
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AN electric car is a lot quieter than a petrol or a diesel – near silent at low speeds, with a gathering whine as the car gets faster. So what’s it like to drive an EV?

The power comes in much more instantly, giving electric cars very strong performance from rest, although the other side of the coin is that some of the less powerful models lack puff at higher speeds.

Most electric cars have a single fixed gear ratio, so you don’t have to change gear as you would with a manual and you won’t hear any gear changes as you would with an automatic.

what's it like to drive an EV?
BMW i3s controls: two pedals and steering column drive selector plus connected car display

There is usually some instrumentation that is specific to electric cars – for example, a display showing the battery’s state of charge, which takes the place of a fuel gauge, and there is usually no rev counter.

There is also normally some sort of trip computer that provides the driver with an estimate of the car’s remaining range and may also provide further information and analysis of how efficiently the car is performing.

It may take a bit of time for a new driver to explore these features but that doesn’t detract from the underlying simplicity of operating an electric car.

Having the latest technology also brings the latest driver aids, such as adaptive cruise control that keeps your car a set distance from the vehicle in front and prevents or mitigates rear-end collisions.

what's it like to drive an EV?
Leaf’s simple display with adaptive cruise control and power reserves display

One typical characteristic of an electric car is regenerative braking, by which the car harvests energy that is dumped back into the battery while slowing down.

The effect as far as the driver is concerned is similar to the engine braking that is felt when lifting off the accelerator in a petrol or a diesel, but it is usually more pronounced.

On some electric cars it is possible to choose between more and less aggressive settings for the regenerative braking system, and some like the new Nissan Leaf even have a “one pedal” mode – e-Pedal – that allows the car to be driven almost entirely on the accelerator without making use of the brake pedal most of the time.

And you can also have automatic parking… what could be easier?

what's it like to drive an EV?
Nissan Leaf gear selector, with drive display, e-Pedal selector and autonomous parking switch

But the motoring doesn’t finish when you arrive – you need to ensure you have enough charge for the next journey, whether to work or home again, and longer journeys require planning for chargers on route. And allowing time for the charging process, depending on the type of charger. There’s no “splash and dash” with EVs – or a ‘spare can’ of sparks in the boot!

Also in colder weather the battery range is reduced, the demand on it further reduced by use of heater, lights and wipers.

Electric cars – the pros and cons from a driving point of view

Pros

  • Electric cars are simple to drive, and most of the controls will be familiar to most drivers, especially those who have previously driven automatics
  • Electric cars have good performance, especially away from rest and at lower speeds around town
  • Electric cars are very quiet and smooth, with very little of what industry experts call NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) – that makes for a more relaxing, less fatiguing drive
  • While you can’t neglect checks completely – you still need to keep the washer reservoir topped up and keep an eye on the condition and pressures of the tyres – an electric car requires less day-to-day maintenance than a petrol or diesel car

Cons

  • The obvious drawback of electric cars – at least the early models with smaller battery packs – is limited range. Most owners get used to this and plan their journeys accordingly, which means that most of them don’t experience uncertainty about whether they will get to their destination – the dreaded “range anxiety” – but this is still a significant drawback.
  • A certain amount of discipline and adherence to routine is also required in terms of remembering to plug your car in overnight – given the amount of time it takes to charge an electric car, this sort of omission could easily put your EV out of action for the day, leaving you scrambling for a Plan B.
  • Of course, with a PHEV, you need to remember both to plug it in overnight and take it to a filling station occasionally if you are going to make the most efficient use of it.
  • The very quietness of EVs can be a slight drawback in an urban setting, and the chances of taking pedestrians, who are accustomed to being warned of the approach of a car by its engine note, are quite high. For this reason, some EVs emit a deliberately engineered artificial “engine noise” at low speeds.
  • Although an electric car is simple to drive, it can take a while to get used to certain characteristics such as the regenerative braking provided by the powertrain, which is much stronger than the engine braking on a petrol or a diesel car. Some of the displays and information systems can also seem a little complicated initially but these aren’t central to the underlying operation of the car.
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