Electric cars have come a long way in under a decade, and by 2021 analysts predict we’ll reach a tipping point that sees them take over as the mainstream choice. This year sees several carmakers’ first forays into the plug-in market – notably Audi and Mercedes-Benz – and in Tesla, we have a brand that does as much to propel us into the future as it does to entertain us along the way.
The switch to electricity is about more than ditching fossil fuels – it has the potential to revolutionise car design all over again, as we abandon a basic engineering structure that has been used for more than a century. And it gives drivers a suite of new advantages and concerns; quiet cruising and swift, torque-heavy acceleration must be weighed against range anxiety, slow charging times and developing infrastructure.
But whatever your personal pros and cons, the smug satisfaction of potentially never visiting a petrol station again holds a strong lure. They look the business, too. From executive saloons and SUVs to family runabouts and city superminis, with one bona fide hypercar sneaking into the list, here is our rundown of the best electric cars on the market right now.
Tesla Model S
Best for: Executives
It’s the car that did more than any other to change the public’s mind about electric cars. Say what you like about Tesla, or its real-life-Bond-Villain CEO Elon Musk, but the Model S is a game-changer. It brought a 1990s nerd mentality to performance motoring with ‘easter eggs’ like Ludicrous mode, which will take the P100D from 0-60 in a Ferrari-humbling 2.3 seconds, but remains a family car at heart. Now in its seventh year of production, it is being caught up by other manufacturers, but improvements to its charging system, headlights and air conditioning in 2016, plus regular over-the-air software updates, have kept it fresh.
Best for: Adventure
Jaguar was the first traditional manufacturer to get a premium all-electric SUV to market; some say it doesn’t look sufficiently like a Jag, but the emergence of the E-Pace and F-Pace have shown that Jaguar’s image is evolving rapidly. Head designer Ian Callum’s I-Pace looks sharper than either of them, with a distinctive snub-nosed body shape that hints at how cars can be designed when you aren’t hamstrung by the engine and powertrain placement. It’ll do just under 250 miles on a charge and, with a 100kw charger, can be 80 per cent recharged in 45 minutes.
Best for: First-timers
The Zoe manages something few cars in any category can: pairing good looks and a low price tag. As with all electric cars, it does command a premium over its combustible equivalents but the little Renault starts from just £18,170 after the UK government’s EV grant, and as with all the cars on this list, the money you claw back in petrol savings makes it an even better deal. Renault claims a range of 250 miles, and although it’s not exactly nippy, it is rewarding to drive – a benefit of having been designed from the ground up as an EV rather than adapted from an existing petrol or diesel model.
Best for: Design addicts
BMW’s “i” cars tick all the boxes you’d expect from the brand: premium tech on the options list, striking looks both inside and out and excellent build quality. While it’s the i8 that really turns heads, the i3 is arguably ageing better, balancing avant-garde details with elements that will feel familiar to anyone who’s driven a 3-series. From 2019, the i3 is only available as a pure EV, and the range has been upped by around 30 per cent to 153 miles. Carbon fibre elements in its construction and minimal overhangs at front and rear make it extremely nimble around town.
Tesla Model X
Best for: Over-achievers
Building on the success of the Model S, Tesla’s second model improves on practicality – seating seven with luggage – while retaining the same range of engines as its saloon sibling, and adds some new gimmicks in the form of gullwing doors (good for tight car parks but overengineered in most situations) and an enormous panoramic windscreen. You can add a tow bar and bicycle mounts, and even with a 1,000kg load behind it the 100D will retain 70 per cent of its 295 mile range. Assuming, that is, you ignore the fact that this family wagon will still out-drag most sports cars to 60mph.
Hyundai Kona Electric
Best for: Families
The battery-powered version of the Kona – named after a Hawaiian island – launched in 2018 with two choices of power pack. The larger will do 258 miles on a full charge (186 for the base model) which befits its go-anywhere image. In truth it’s more middle-of-the-road than off-road, but it will do 0-60 in a surprisingly brisk 7.6 seconds. The sales pitch focuses more on safety, with lane assist, driver attention monitors, automatic emergency braking and pedestrian alerts among the features on offer. And it’s big enough to swallow your family’s luggage with ease.
Best for: City living
Hold the Yorkshire jokes. VW’s Up is a brilliant budget option in any of its guises, and the e-Up is no exception. With an electric powertrain, however, it is pricier than the Renault Zoe – but it’s livelier at low speeds (4.9 seconds to 30mph won’t trouble any hot hatches but you’ll nip through traffic nicely). It’s also faster to charge – 30 minutes will see it 80 per cent full at a fast-charging point. Of course, that goes hand-in-hand with a shorter range than most – just 99 miles – but if most of your daily driving is local and urban, that won’t be an issue.
Best for: The school run
Is the Nissan Leaf going to fill you with excitement? Probably not more than an actual leaf. But it is the world’s all-time best-selling electric car for a reason. It’s well-priced (starts at around £26,000), practical, efficient and reliable. A new generation has just hit the roads that now looks a lot more dynamic than version one, and there have been technological upgrades as well, including increased range (226 miles) and Tesla-like software updates. Spec the top-level trim options and you’ll get Nissan’s Propilot lane assist and self-parking technology, too.
Best for: Everyday use
If all the futuristic stylings of the i3, I-Pace or Leaf leave you cold, VW’s e-Golf is there, waiting like the automotive equivalent of a favourite pair of trainers. There’s nothing edgy or weird about it; the appeal of a Golf has always been as the ultimate every-car, and VW doesn’t want that to change just because it’s lopped off the exhaust pipe. Inside it’s trimmed out similarly to top-end fossil fuel Golfs, and gets VW’s deluxe infotainment system as standard. Range was increased in 2017 (to 186 miles) and the car has been set up to drive with more eager responsiveness than some EVs.
Best for: YouTube drag racing
From $1.5m approx
And finally, the one that isn’t like the others. Chinese manufacturer NIO was only founded five years ago, but its flagship supercar has set lap records at some of the world’s toughest circuits, including the Nurburgring. It boasts a whopping 1,341 horsepower – a megawatt, in terms more suited to an EV – spread over four motors, one at each wheel. The car weighs 1,735kg, generates as much downforce as a Formula 1 car, and has a top speed of 194mph. With all that, you’d expect the batteries to run down in minutes, but NIO claims a 265 mile range and a recharge time of 45 minutes. Just sixteen cars have been made, each costing $1.2m.