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Electric Cars Buying Guide

1. Introduction

Of the top 5 most popular cars in Australia, not one of them is electric. This trend however, will not continue as electric cars are fast becoming more available in the same designs and offering the same or better features as their petrol counterparts. Australia is on the cusp of an electric vehicle revolution with the number of plug-in vehicles doubling in the past year, with more new models ready for release.

We’ve gathered the most up to date and relevant information for Australians when it comes to buying an electric car. We asked the experts where the industry is headed and got top tips for buyers. This Ultimate Guide to Buying an Electric Car will take you through the benefits of electric over petrol, the types of electric vehicles available, how to charge an EV and how long you can expect to drive before needing to plug in. This guide will also let you know just how much money you can expect to spend and what you need to consider before purchasing.

2. How Electric Vehicles Work

We asked Chris Jones, Vice President of the Australian Electric Vehicle Association (AEVA) to explain exactly how electric cars work.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are cars or motorcycles which use an electric motor and a sizable battery pack to store energy. Pure EVs use only batteries, while plug-in hybrid EVs, or PHEVs use a small petrol engine to extend the cars range. Most modestly sized EVs have a 16 to 24 kWh battery, while a full sized electric sedan like the Tesla Model S has a 60 or 85 kWh battery. The bigger the battery, the further you can drive, but the more expensive it is.

Perhaps the best thing about EVs is their maintenance schedule – check the brakes once a year and rotate the tyres every 20,000 km. That’s about it! With just one moving part – the rotor – electric vehicles are particularly simple and very robust. PHEVs have a more extensive and expensive service schedule as the onboard petrol engine needs oil and air filter changes.

3. Types of Electric Vehicles

The different types of electric vehicles available differ depending on the extent to which they use electricity as their energy source. Hybrid cars were once the favoured type of electric vehicle but with the adoption of battery technologies used in mobile phones for powering cars, there is now a huge interest in producing pure electric vehicles (BEVs) with no internal combustion engine at all. The type of electric car you choose will vastly depend on its range, your use and of course price.

Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEVs) – Hybrids have been on Aussie roads for well over 10 years, they use petrol as their sole external energy source but are supplemented with electric energy obtained from the braking system and stored in batteries. HEVs start using the electric motor, the petrol engine then cuts in as load or speed rises. Operation of the two motors is controlled by an internal computer which selects the most economical combination for the particular driving task. HEVs typically use fuel saving tricks including low rolling resistance tyres, low drag bodies, regenerative braking and idle stop. The Toyota PriusHonda Civic Hybrid and locally-produced Toyota Camry Hybrid are all hybrid vehicles regularly seen on Australian roads.

Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) or Extended-Range Electric Vehicles (EREVs) – PHEVs or EREVs use both electrical energy and petrol from external sources. This type of electric car varies greatly depending on choice of primary energy source, for example the Holden Volt favours electricity while the Toyota Prius favours petrol. In EREVs the petrol engine does not drive the wheels directly and extends the range of the car by charging the battery as it gets low. PHEVs on the other hand plug-in to the mains in order to charge the battery directly.

Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) – BEVs are fully electric vehicles, meaning they only use electricity as their energy source. Both BEVs and PHEVs are known as Plug-in Electric Vehicles as they use plugs to source electrical energy. BEVs available in Australia include the Mitsubishi i-MiEV and the Nissan LEAF which produces zero CO2 tailpipe emissions, in fact it doesn’t even have a tailpipe, instead depending on advanced lithium-ion batteries.

4. How to Convert a Car to Electric

In 2010, Western Australia began Australia’s first ever electric vehicle trial, a 3 year trial to find out whether electric cars were a good fit for Australia. While they found few technological barriers to the adoption of electric vehicles there were no electric cars from major manufacturers available in the country at the time. So instead, they used converted Ford Focus’s for the study.

Each converted car was equipped with a 23 kWh batter pack, a 27 kW DC motor and a 1000A motor controller. These cars were then used in the study as regular fleet vehicles to find their usability for everyday driving. These converted vehicles achieved a road-tested driving range of 131km on a single charge (dynamometer testing resulted in a 143km range) which significantly exceeded the driving range of a Mitsubishi i-MiEV which only achieved a 112km range under identical road-test conditions.

This study, while only in an effort to prove Australia could easily adopt electric vehicle technology, also goes to show just how proficient converted electric cars can be.

DIY Electric Car Conversions

We asked the Vice President of the Australian Electrical Vehicle Association to shed some light on converting cars to electric in Australia.

Up until very recently, if you wanted an electric car or motorbike, you had to build it yourself. The technical challenge of removing the petrol engine and replacing it with a motor, controller and battery has kept many backyard workshops lit up at night. It’s also a great way of preserving an old or unique car for which replacement parts are hard to find. However it will be difficult to come up with a vehicle as refined as a production model, and certainly not at the same price point. It’s always best to start with a quality donor vehicle you are comfortable with, as it will only ever be this good. Get in touch with your local Australian Electric Vehicle Association (AEVA) branch for more advice on the electric car conversion process.

5. Benefits of Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicles offer a huge range of benefits, especially when compared to conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Some of the benefits include:
  • Lower operating costs
  • Higher efficiency
  • Lower maintenance costs
  • Greenhouse gas emission reduction
  • Air quality improvements
  • Reduction of traffic noise
  • Employment benefits through the use of domestically produced electricity
  • Feels like any other car to drive
  • Less vibration while driving
  • Exemptions from stamp-duty and
  • Reductions in registration fees (see Let’s Talk Money for details)

We asked Ian Hooper of ZEVA about the benefits of Electric Vehicles.   Electric vehicles offer many advantages over petrol-powered vehicles – on a personal, national and even global scale. On a personal level for the owner of an electric vehicle, they have the advantage of much lower running costs. The electricity to charge an EV works out around a third as much per kilometre as buying petrol for an equivalent vehicle. Maintenance costs are also much lower, since an electric motor requires virtually no servicing over the life of the vehicle. (There will still be some maintenance of parts of the car such as tires, suspension and brakes, like any other vehicle.) On a national level, electric vehicles can help with Australia’s energy security. At present Australia is highly dependent on other countries for petroleum imports. Electric vehicles are easy to power from domestic energy sources, reducing our dependence on foreign oil. Being zero emission, electric vehicles can help reduce air pollution in our urban areas. Australia isn’t too bad, but in many cities around the world – notably in China – poor air quality poses a very serious health problem. And of course on a global level, electric vehicles can mean reduced CO2 emissions which lead to climate change, which may be humanity’s greatest challenge this century. This is of course contingent on how the power used to charge the vehicle was generated. Here in Western Australia our mains electricity comes predominantly from coal, which makes EVs charged from regular mains power almost as CO2-intensive as regular petrol powered vehicles! But this will improve as more renewable energy is introduced to our grid in the coming years, and in the meantime you can opt-in for Green Power to ensure the electricity you use comes from renewable sources – or install solar panels on your roof to charge the vehicle from.

Environmental Benefits of Electric Vehicles

When run on renewable energy, electric vehicles provide significant reductions in total lifetime greenhouse gas emissions, especially considering that these benefits increase alongside the increase to ‘stop-start’ city driving. Impacts from vehicle operation dwarf those from vehicle production and disposal is expected to be relatively small. According to a paper released in 2012 by the Department of Transport, an electric vehicle operating on renewable energy could provide a net benefit in terms of lifecycle carbon emissions within just three years of operation and savings more than 50 per cent across a 20-year average Victorian vehicle lifetime.

The report also concluded that up to 6 battery replacements would be possible over a vehicle life before the greenhouse emissions benefits would be lost to a petrol vehicle. Not only is the operation of electric vehicles more environmentally friendly, we’re also seeing a trend towards more eco-friendly production and materials of the cars. Take for example the Ford Focus Electric, considered the most fuel efficient compact car with savings of up to $9,000 in 5 years. The Ford Focus not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions but is also made up of recycled materials and the padding is made out of bio based material. Similarly the Nissan LEAF’s interior and bodywork are partly made out of green materials such as recycled water bottles, plastic bags, old car parts and even second hand home appliances.

6. Charging Electric Vehicles

There is a slower adoption of battery only vehicles in comparison to hybrid models as charging creates both issues and opportunities. As they contain large batteries charging can take hours however, many models can also be charged quickly (around 30 minutes) through high-voltage quick chargers and some can also swap out the depleted battery for a fully charged replacement.

Some pointers from the Australian Electric Vehicle Association:

Production electric cars typically come with two charging options – slow and fast. The slow charge option is the most commonly used as you will no doubt plug in at work or at home. This takes a standard 240 volt AC, 15 amp supply and the vehicle’s on board charger charges the battery. The rate of charge will depend on the onboard charger – 2.5 kW to 7 kW is typical. So at 2.5 kW, a Nissan Leaf will be fully charged overnight. The fast charge option involves a publicly accessible ‘fast charger’ or ‘supercharger’ which provides power directly to the battery. Fast chargers may put out anywhere from 25 kW to 135 kW and can charge a depleted battery in under 30 minutes. Expect to see more of these around the country, typically located in towns so you can enjoy a coffee break. Converted electric cars typically come with a simple 15 amp plug, however there are now several automotive standard kits out there which allow you to use public charge points.

Can Your Home Support the Addition of an Electrical Vehicle Charging Load?

Another charging factor to consider before purchasing is your homes energy supply as many dwellings (especially those built before 1970 that have not undergone significant renovation in the interim) may not have a sufficient electrical supply to support the addition of an electrical vehicle charging load and are more likely to be in need of an electricity supply upgrade. In an interview with about why Tesla’s electric car had its plug pulled, Greg Bryant, Master Electricians Australia spokesman stated “It is highly unlikely the mains cable coming into the home switchboard will be adequate to carry the extra 40 amp load to recharge the car.” As the maximum single phase electrical load across Australia is between 20 and 40 amps, Bryant said in a worse-case scenario customers may be required to pay up to $50,000 to upgrade and “if there is not enough electrical capacity in the street, the power upgrade may not even be approved.” Unlike most electric cars in the Australian market, the Tesla cannot be charged through a normal power point and requires a special charger to be installed. Due to demand in the market, Tesla now provides a unit that delivers 40 amps of power and hooks up to the house. Tesla spokesman, Heath Walker has stated that “We’re taking a two-pronged attack in Australia: our supercharger network and also new hotel partnerships where we’re putting high powered wall units in different hotels – both single and three phase.” These units are already up and running in The Darling Hotel in Sydney and the Marriot in Melbourne. While there’s a good chance if you have a modern home that you will be able to support charging the average electric vehicle it’s very important to contact your local energy supplier before purchasing to make sure you know your needs and costs first.

7. How Far Can Electric Cars Travel?

Some pointers from the Australian Electric Vehicle Association: Depending on how you drive and what the conditions are like, your range will vary quite a bit. Long mountain climbs, sustained high speeds, strong headwinds, three passengers and luggage – all of these situations will see a reduction in economy and therefore range (exactly the same as in petrol vehicles). But the upshot is long descents and tailwinds will vastly improve your range. The ‘fuel’ economy of a battery electric car is typically quoted in watt-hours per kilometre or Wh/km. Expect an average of 135 Wh/km for a compact EV. PHEVs will have a modest electric-only range of between 50 and 100 km, before the petrol engine kicks in. Due to the added weight and complexity, the electric-only range of a PHEV will generally be worse than a pure EV, but still plenty for most daily needs.

We broke down the approximate range for the top 10 electric cars on the market:

1. Tesla Model S500 km
2. Nissan Leaf170 km
3. BMW i3160 km or 300 km with range extender option using petrol
4. Kia Soul148 km
5. Honda Fit132 km
6. Chevrolet Spark132 km
7. Ford Focus Electric122 km
8. BEV Electron120 km
9. Mitsubishi i-MiEV99 km
10. Holden Volt87 km without petrol / 600 km with full charge and petrol generator

Electric car ranges are getting better and better as newer models hit the market. The next-gen Nissan Leaf should be able to handle 300 km on a single charge. However as most motorists drive around 35 – 70 km per day and the average range of electric vehicles is currently around 100 – 150 km, EVs are definitely a good option for most drivers. For those travelling longer distances quick charge stations and swap-and-go battery exchanges are becoming more widely available across the country with Tesla recently announcing plans to launch 16 high powered supercharger stations between Melbourne and Brisbane by 2016, 10 of which are on track for completion this year.

8. How Much Do Electric Cars Cost - Let's Talk Money

We asked the Australian Electric Vehicle Association about EV prices in comparison to petrol cars: Most automakers are not currently tooled up to manufacture large numbers of electric cars, so the low production runs are more expensive. Also, most automakers rely on finance arrangements and regular service schedules for revenue. With a substantially reduced maintenance regime, you can expect a higher upfront cost. A new Nissan Leaf is about $39,000 and a new Tesla Model S (P85) is about $150,000. But bear in mind you will be driving around at less than 3 cents per kilometre, while a similarly sized petrol car might cost you about 12 or 14 cents per kilometre. So it’s worth considering a loan to start you off, to receive a better overall price. If you drive an average of 14,000 km a year for six years, you will have spent as much overall on your electric car as if you’d been driving on petrol. You’ll also break even sooner if you charge off-peak or charge from roof-top solar.

Household Charging Infrastructure Costs

According to the Victorian Electric Vehicle Trial Mid-Term Report household charging infrastructure costs around $1,750 for the charging circuit and up to $2,500 for a fully featured dedicated EV charging outlet. Based upon the trial experience home charging outlets can vary in price from less than $100 for a standard wall socket, up to $500 for an entry level dedicated EV charging outlet and up to $2,500 for a more advanced unit with a range of features. Certain service providers include the charging outlet at no extra cost to the household under the terms of their ongoing service provision. The cost of the charging circuit also varies greatly according to the needs of the household.   Breakdown of Approximate Upfront and Annual Fuel Costs of the Top 10 Electric Vehicles:

Make and ModelUpfront CostAnnual Fuel Cost
Tesla Model S$100,000$650
Nissan Leaf$40,000$600
BMW i3$63,990$500
Ford Focus Electric$37,665$600
Mitsubishi i-MiEV$48,800$550
Honda Fit$40,000$500
Chevrolet Spark$27,000$500
Kia Soul$40,000$600
BEV ElectronModel: S $45,000 / R $28,000 
Holden Volt$59,990 

Further Reduced Expenses for Electric Car Owners

  • Electric vehicles registered in the Australian Capital Territory are exempt from vehicle stamp duty
  • EVs registered in Victoria receive a $100 reduction in registration fees each year

9. 10 Things to Consider Before Buying According to the Australian Electric Vehicle Association


1. Is it right for me?

If you regularly drive more than 200 km a day and need to haul a trailer full of tools up steep mountain passes, an electric car is probably not for you just yet.  However most Australians will drive less than 40 km in a day, and many households have a second car in the garage.  Consider swapping the ‘runabout’ with an EV. Alternatively, you can hire a petrol car for those long trips out of town.

2. Convert or buy an OEM?

Modern electric cars are of outstanding quality, and often come with comprehensive warranties.  If economics are your main motivation, a production EV from the sales lot will offer the best bang for buck.  However converting an otherwise sound car can offer a rewarding challenge and the option to create something truly unique.

3. New or used?

As more new EVs hit our shores, the second hand market will grow, offering an affordable entry to the electric driving experience.  However apart from all the usual things to look out for in a used vehicle (rust, worn tyres, money owing, ANCAP ratings) used EVs have a few unique things to watch out for, especially the health of the battery.  Converted cars with DC motors lack regenerative braking, so the brake pads will need replacing sooner.  Also, check to see that the vehicles licensing and compliance paperwork is up to date.

4. Range baby, range

Throughout normal use, batteries will see their useful capacity and power decrease over time.  Range reduction in the current fleet is still fairly uncommon, but you can reasonably expect about 80% of the quoted maximum range after about 5 years of regular use.  If you drive less than 40 km a day this is a non-issue, however if you are counting on being able to make a 100 km stretch from time to time, you might need to plan carefully!  Arrange a test-drive with the seller and rack up a good 80 km or so, with the final destination being a fast charger.  Then do some laps of the neighbourhood until the warning lights appear.  By ending the trip at the fast charger, you can be confident you’ll get home without a tow-truck.  If it struggles to get most of the claimed range, try to negotiate for a better deal.

5. Battery health and warranty claims

If you are buying an ex-demo or used EV, you need to get some idea of the general health of the battery, so a range test as described above is essential.  Batteries slowly lose capacity over time; this is normal, but can make warranty clauses rather interesting. Most production EVs will have a separate warranty clause specifically for the battery. Make sure you understand and are comfortable with the battery warranty as it is different to most standard car warranties. Vehicle data readers are available which plug into the onboard diagnostics port (OBD-II) under the dashboard which transmit vehicle data, including economy, battery and motor temperature, cell voltages and more to your smart phone or laptop computer.  A graphical display of the cells will indicate if the pack is out of balance or shows signs of overheating.

6. Beware the guess-o-meter…

All production EVs come with a ‘Range Remaining’ display, and this will often give a rather optimistic distance first thing after a charge.  However it can only base its estimate on your most recent driving patterns.  If the last 10 km of your drive were uphill, it’s going to give a fairly pessimistic value.  The only way to know for sure is to set yourself a mental limit; for example, two bars remaining on the gauge, or, no further than 85 km.  Satellite navigation is a nice touch on most production EVs, and it can be very useful when searching for a public charge point!

7. Software/firmware/hardware upgrades

One of the great things about modern production electric vehicles and their drive trains is the ease with which control software and firmware can be upgraded.  The Tesla Model S is famously upgraded over-the-air at regular intervals, often improving the driving experience through bug fixes and new settings.  Check to see that the latest upgrades have been made before making a purchase decision.  Other EVs are less sophisticated, but upgrades are possible all the same.  Older models will soon have the option of fitting new parts like onboard chargers, motor controller power settings and eventually, whole battery upgrades will be possible.

8. Charging requirements

Does your home have an undercover parking spot?  Is there a power point nearby?  Most new EV sales will come with the option of a dedicated EV charger from the dealership to be mounted on the garage wall.  While these are convenient, there may be cheaper options.  An ‘occasional use’ charging lead may be used, provided the power point which supplies the electricity is up to the task.  These leads often come with a 15 amp plug which has a larger earth pin – this is to ensure you only plug it into a 15 amp rated socket which has its own circuit breaker.  Consult your electrician to be certain.  Also consider if the onboard charger is sufficient for your needs.  If you find yourself needing to head out soon after getting home, consider the option of a more powerful onboard charger.  This will ensure you get as much charge in as possible during a short stay.

9. Public charging options

Check the charge port on the vehicle, and whether or not it is compatible with any public charging infrastructure you think you are likely to use.  For example, some 2010 Mitsubishi i-MiEVs come with a standard single phase charge port for slow charging, but are unable to use some public charge points due to this safety interlock feature (all later models are compliant, so ask if the upgrade has been fitted).  Most production EVs will come with a DC fast charging option.  The BMW i3 uses the SAE combination, which not every DC fast charger currently supports.  Converted cars are unlikely to have a connector which allows use of any public infrastructure, unless it’s a humble 15 amp outlet.

10. Charge from renewable power!

Many self-appointed geniuses will insist that EVs are still polluting because they’re powered from grids dominated by coal and gas. Unlike petrol cars (which can only run on imported, liquid fossil fuel) EVs can run on electricity generated from the sun, wind, waves, or hydro schemes.  If you purchase green power from your electricity retailer, they are required by act of parliament to provide you with renewable energy.  If they can’t deliver, consider charging your EV from a rooftop solar array (see Australian Solar Quotes); even with stingy export tariffs, you will be charging your car directly from the sun, so no grid power will actually enter the battery.  Off-peak charging is also cost effective, with a full charge costing about as much as a cup of coffee.

10. Conclusion

As a matter of energy security, environmental responsibility and economic progress, Australia must decrease its dependence on imported liquid fossil fuels for transport.  Electric vehicles will play a major role in cleaning up our cities, in conjunction with better urban planning, improved mass transit and more liveable spaces.  As an EV driver, you need to be prepared for lots of interest and plenty of questions from onlookers wherever you go; so allow a few minutes per trip for these “EV chats”.  Also make sure you get in touch with your local branch of the Australian Electric Vehicle Association. To find more new and used electric cars for sale, click here.