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Six times cheaper than petrol, no car tax and no Congestion Charge – but are electric cars practical?

The Nissan Leaf - Would an electric car save you money?

For the last seven days I’ve swapped my Vauxhall Zafira for a fully electric Nissan Leaf.

Moving to an electric car is particularly appealing just now, as drivers have never been so stretched. Fuel prices have rocketed in recent years and insurance premiums continue to climb.

In fact, a poll found that 43% of respondents have had to reduce how much they drive because of the cost, while 6% had been forced to give up their cars completely.

So I wanted to see if an electric car could save me money but I also wanted to test how practical it would be. I’m a busy mum, so I need a reliable car - preferably one that fits a baby seat, pushchair and the piles of other junk you need to cart around when you have a toddler.

Could an electric car meet all those demands as well as saving me cash?

[Gallery: The Nissan Leaf I've been testing]

How much does an electric car cost?

The Nissan Leaf that I have been trialling is available from £23,490, although that includes a £5,000 government subsidy. That’s a lot more than the £9,795 you can pick up a entry-level new Ford Fiesta for (the UK’s best-selling car last year and similar in size) but a little less than the £23,620 on the road price for a 1.4 litre Volkswagen Golf GT.

However, there are several popular electric cars on the market and so prices vary considerably. For example, Renault’s Twizy is available from £6,795, although you don’t own the battery you rent it from them. It’s also a two-seater city car that looks more like a golf buggy, so it’s not as practical as the Leaf.

[Related link: New and used Nissan Leafs for sale]

Is it cheaper to run?

There are several incentives for driving an electric car. A big one if you live in the capital is that you wouldn’t have to pay the Congestion Charge, saving you up to £9 a day – which could explain why 16% of all UK electric cars belong to Londoners.

You also don’t have to pay car tax on fully electric vehicles – a saving of as much as £475 a year.

When it comes to insurance, you are likely to pay more for an electric car than a comparable petrol engine – but it’s usually cheaper than insuring a hybrid.

I compared car insurance premiums for my current vehicle and was offered a best price of £239 from around 80 insurers. However, only eight providers offered policies for an electric car and the best price was £420. Of course, that difference is more than offset by paying no car tax.

But what about the cost of actually driving the thing around? The difference here is pretty incredible – it costs about 2p a mile to power the Leaf, compared to 13p a mile for a similar-sized petrol car.

That’s an amazing saving and a big incentive to drive an electric car. If you travel 10,000 a year then you’d pay £1,300 for petrol or just £200 for battery power.

If you owned it for 10 years, then that brings the price under that of the Fiesta, not counting the road or Congestion Charge tax savings. If you drive more than that, or in London, then the savings could be huge.

[Related link: Check now to see if you could save on car insurance]

So what’s it like to drive?

Having never been in an electric car before, I sort of expected that the Nissan Leaf would feel a bit like riding the dodgems. But it turned out the only similarity was how much fun it was to drive.

The Leaf looks smart and is surprisingly nippy. When I first took it onto the motorway I had no problem getting quickly up to speed. Even when you put it into ‘eco mode’ and it slows down, the Leaf is still a responsive and fast car.

There are no gears (a side-effect of being powered by an electric motor) and is packed with modern gadgets that my Zafira lacks – such as built-in SatNav and a rear-view camera for when you’re reversing.

And it’s not a small car; I could easily use it to drive around two or three children. The boot isn’t huge though, and you need to store the charging lead there, so I couldn’t fit my pushchair in. However, if you don’t have kids or they are old enough to do without a pushchair then this car would be as practical as it is fun.

The only real difficulty I had was how silent it is. Apart from a faint whirring when you accelerate, the Leaf makes no noise and so quite often pedestrians simply walk out in front of you. Because of that, I had to be extra careful when driving in car parks and through the suburbs.

How far can you go?

This is a question that must put many people off an electric car; what’s its range? When my Leaf was fully charged, the dashboard said it had a range of around 90 miles. It needed to remain plugged in for around eight hours to achieve full charge.

As soon as I got behind the wheel that fell considerably as it adapted its estimate to my driving.

Once I had adjusted my driving style, for example, turning off the blowers and slowing in advance rather than braking, I was confident that I could drive at least 60 town miles on a full charge.

The Leaf helps you drive more efficiently by displaying a little tree on the dashboard. The more efficiently you drive, the taller the tree gets – it feels a bit like a computer game.

However, the range drops terrifyingly fast on the motorway. We drove the Leaf over to a nearby city for a birthday party – a round trip of around 40 miles. We left the house with a full charge, but then used up well over half the charge just on the way there.

On the way home, we had to crawl along the motorway at 55 miles an hour, as that was far more efficient than climbing to 60 or above. We didn’t dare use the radio, the SatNav or any heating. We made it home, just, but it was a close run thing.

So, if you’re ever stuck behind an electric car doing 50 on the motorway, have some sympathy. It may be going slowly but the driver is potentially on a white-knuckle ride to see if they can make it home.

Isn’t charging it a hassle?

Until I’d driven one for a week, I didn’t really understand how electric cars charged. Did you trail extension leads out of your window? Spend six hours at the garage?

It has turned out to be amazingly simple, as long as you have the right set-up. The Leaf simply plugged into a socket in our garage and would achieve a full charge in around eight hours from empty.

However, if we were to actually buy an electric vehicle, I’d probably want to install a home charge point – we didn’t like to leave the car plugged in overnight without one. There are several companies selling these for around £425.

Of course, charging at home would be far less easy if you didn’t have a garage or lived in a flat.

There are public charge stations, even outside the big cities. My small town’s ASDA has charging spaces right next to the door and many service stations on the motorway provide charging bays.

According to Nissan, it takes around 12 hours to charge from empty at a public charge point and around eight hours at home. However, at a Rapid Public Charge unit, you can charge from empty to 80% in just 30 minutes.

You can also buy cards that you top up with cash, so that you can simply plug your car in at a public charge point, swipe your card and start charging.

I was a bit scared about charging it in the rain, and we had a lot of rain during the last week (not to mention snow, sleet and hail). However, the Leaf is safe to plug in, even in bad weather.

Would I buy one?

I love this car; it’s fun, fast and family-friendly. But I’m not planning to buy an electric vehicle any time soon. I don’t just need a car to pop to the shops and around town; I need one that can cope with motorway miles.

Because of that, I couldn’t consider an electric car until the technology has improved and the batteries can go at least twice as long – or until the infrastructure is there and I could charge it in most car parks.

That chimes with AA research from last year, which found that almost a third of people say they are interested in a hybrid or electric vehicle but need the cost to fall and the technology to improve.

However, if you’re a driver who only uses their car for a middling commute or around town – especially in London - then this could be a great next car. The right driver could potentially save thousands of pounds by investing in an electric car next time.

But I’d strongly recommend renting one first to see if you could cope with the battery life limits.

What do you think? Have you ever driven an electric car? Would you consider buying one? Share your thoughts with other drivers in the comments below.

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