Ideal for city driving, we compare five of the best small electric vehicles
If you are looking for an eco-friendly urban driver, then small electric vehicles are perfect with a nimble chassis and smooth, nippy acceleration ideal for negotiating narrow, busy streets and small parking spaces. For years, the Nissan LEAF had the electric compact hatchback market to itself, but now there is an entire range of small electric vehicles on sale – we test five of the best to find out how they fair in terms of range, practicality, performance and affordability.
The Renault ZOE is the cheapest EV on the market in the UK, but most of them are sold without their batteries (only vehicles badged ‘i’ have them included), so you will need to lease the battery each month at an additional cost (from £59 a month) which will vary according to how many miles you drive.
It first appeared in our showrooms in 2013 and it has been regularly updated over the years, but the 2017 facelift added a new Z.E 40 battery upgrade, providing another 100 miles of range, making it the biggest driving range of any sub £30,000 EV with a total distance on a full charge of 186 miles.
The new R110 engine replaces the Q90, providing 108hp, a maximum torque of 166lb-ft and top speed of 84mph. While it definitely means greater performance and versatility for urban driving and will get you up to 70mph quicker, more powerful rivals such as the Nissan LEAF and BMW i3 are better suited to motorway driving, especially when it comes to overtaking.
This five-door hatchback may be small, but it is definitely not short of space and that is because it is purpose built. Designed around its battery, which is mounted beneath the floorplan, the ZOE is agile when changing lanes and cornering, has a nice tight turning circle and is good at absorbing the bumps, too.
Compared with any petrol or diesel rival, the ZOE is quiet, however by electric standards that subtle whine, combined with wind and road noise, makes it less refined than the LEAF.
Inside it feels well packaged but there is a lot of cheap plastic on show – a LEAF is smarter inside, and the BMW i3 classier. It does come with plenty of standard equipment (including a wall-mounted 7kW charger installed at your home), and there are three trim levels available – Expression Nav, Dynamique Nav and Signature Nav – with the entry-level Expression Nav the only model available with the shorter-range 22kWh battery. The other models get the 41kW version, along with the option of the Q90 quick-charge motor.
The ZOE is among the smallest electric vehicles on offer, but does not lack when it comes to range and practicality and providing you lease the battery the entry-level model is an attractive buy.
Launched in 2010, the Nissan LEAF has had a head start on rival brands when it comes to affordable electric vehicles. Moreover, while the Renault ZOE is the best-selling electric vehicle in Europe, the first-generation LEAF is the world’s best-selling EV, and its successor, introduced earlier this year, has built on its achievements.
It uses an updated version of the original chassis, and houses a battery that is the same size but now has a capacity of 40kWh. Thanks to a new invertor, the electric motor produces much more power at 148hp and 236lb-ft of torque, propelling it from 0-60mph in 7.9 seconds. Combined with a range of 168 miles it makes the LEAF a useable and appealing proposition.
One of the best points of the LEAF is Nissan’s innovative e-Pedal system, which increases the level of regenerative braking. This means you can drive the car by just modulating the accelerator, as there is enough regeneration to bring it to a halt and it tops up the battery with more energy.
The LEAF is far more comfortable than the ZOE or BMW i3, in fact on the motorway and A-roads the ride is hard to fault, and on twisty roads, it is very composed. An electric car in this price bracket will never be match for most premium hot hatches, but overall it delivers well on handling.
Inside it is smarter than the ZOE, with more appealing textured plastics that feel more solid, and there is more rear legroom and boot space than in any direct rival. It is available in three different trims (Acenta, N-Connecta and Tekna), equipment is generous across the range and all UK customers get a 7kW Wallbox.
The Gen 2 is impressive, it delivers punchy performance and a decent range, it is well equipped and spacious, and it is fun to drive. It is no wonder Nissan currently claims a 94 per cent satisfaction rating among LEAF owners.
Just as we have seen battery capacity and range improve significantly on the Renault ZOE and Nissan LEAF over their lifespan, the BMW i3 has not stood still either. Introduced in 2013, it was subject to a model-year revision in July 2016 adding 50 per cent to its battery capacity, and now it has received a mid-life update with styling and equipment changes as well as technical refinements.
For starters, the BMW i3 is now an electric-only model in Europe, as the range extender versions, which use a two-cylinder 650cc petrol engine to provide additional charge to the battery, have been removed from the line-up. The new 120Ah lithium-ion unit replaces the 94Ah battery and brings a 9.2kWh increase in energy capacity at 42.2kWh.
This move takes the i3 model range down from four variants to two, the standard i3 and i3s. The latter produces an additional 13bhp and 15lb-ft from its electric motor, with 184hp and 199lb-ft propelling it from zero to 62mph in an impressive 6.9 seconds. It also adds more aggressive styling, sports suspension with a widened front track and 20-inch wheels.
The i3’s steering is quick and more weighted compared to the ZOE and LEAF, but the upright body profile makes it feel unsettled when you hit a bump mid-corner, making it a better cruiser than a B road blaster. That said, yhe lower ride height, Optimised Dynamic Traction Control (DCT), Sport steering and wider tyres for the s variant, all combine to help to deliver more grip, balance and a generally greater feeling of confidence.
The interior of the BMW i3 is still forward thinking and fashionable – with its futuristic design and recycled materials. Like the Peugeot iOn, the large windscreen makes the car feel more light and spacious, but it is worth noting that rear legroom is tight even by supermini standards and the rear-hinged back doors are a little awkward for adults.
You get a good amount of standard equipment to go with the high list price, and as one would expect from BMW a lot of optional extras, too.
The EV market over the last five years has significantly changed and offers several options with more useable range and better practicality than the i3, many of which cost less. For those looking for a cross breed however, it is a great mode of city transport.
The e-up! was launched in 2014 and received an update in 2017 to keep it looking fresh, but nothing mechanical changed. It is a car that has been converted to electric power and as a result it has had a big impact on the little Volkswagen’s price. Fitting batteries and electric motors to their existing High Up trim car has almost pushed the price up to a much larger LEAF but there are a few benefits.
The 81hp, 155lb-ft electric motor sits up front, while the 18.7kWh battery pack lies under the back seat ahead of the rear axle, so it barely has any effect on the car’s manoeuvrability and with instant power from the motor, as soon as you press the accelerator, it's perfectly suited to town driving.
While initial acceleration is good, the e-up! really begins to struggle beyond 45mph, and with a 0-60mph time of 12.14 it’s one of the slowest of our vehicles on test – although not as woeful as the iOn. At higher speeds, you get a lot of wind noise and tyre roar without an engine note, too.
While the regenerative brakes do grab a little, similar to what we experienced in the ZOE, it is every bit as fun as the petrol-powered model, with nimble handling and minimal body roll through the corners. It is also one of the best in class for dealing with bumps and potholes.
It is surprisingly practical too, with 250 litres of boot space, the same roominess for passengers and the interior fittings are near identical to standard, save for the charging and eco-orientated instrumentation obviously. It is also well equipped, with heated seats, parking sensors and climate control as standard.
The range is less impressive with VW claiming 83 miles in optimum conditions, and while you’ll be spending less on fuel bills it won’t even come close to making up the difference of the huge price premium over a petrol version (which you can buy for £10,000 less). It is a real shame as the Up! – designed for urban use – works so well as an electric car.
The Peugeot iOn is effectively a re-badged Mitsubishi i-MiEV, but Peugeot has undertaken its own developmental work. For starters, it has fitted ESP, seatbelts, warning sounds, new bumpers front and rear and a few body structural changes in order to achieve a four star Euro NCAP rating.
They have also made changes to the trim and colour options, and the automatic gearbox has just a single gear, compared to the iMiEV’s three making it incredibly smooth, while adjustments to the regenerative braking system have improved the car’s range by 30 per cent apparently.
It has a 67hp electric motor powered by lithium-ion batteries (as with all the vehicles here) stowed behind the rear seats. The iOn can be fully recharged in seven hours from a standard 13-amp socket providing a range of 93 miles (in lightly trafficked urban conditions that is, without the heater or air con on), which is more than enough for the average daily journeys.
The motor is certainly not the quickest but with 133lb-ft of torque it is adequate to keep up with traffic flow making it perfect for nipping around town, especially when coupled with its compact dimensions and low running costs. Where it does struggle is on the open road and motorway where you might not want to pull off any overtaking manoeuvres.
Like the i3, its rear-wheel drive meaning it has a tight turning circle. Ride quality is pretty good, with the soft springs doing a great job of absorbing uneven road surfaces, and the steering is light and accurate but the skinny tyres and tall, narrow body shape make it unwieldly in the corners.
The plastics are hard and cheap and in terms of overall interior quality, the car does not fare as well as rivals, but it will sit four adults relatively comfortable.
Equipment levels are quite comprehensive, but there are only two interior trim levels and while it is one of the cheapest small EVs in our group test (with Peugeot reducing costs since launch) it is an expensive option for a car with little range. It has also never had a mid-life cycle upgrade and it is seven years old now.
|Renault ZOE||Nissan LEAF||2019 BMW i3 and i3s (120Ah)||Volkswagen e-up!||Peugeot iOn|
|Price||From £18,420 (including plug-in car grant, but not mandatory battery hire)||From £23,190 (including plug-in car grant)||From £30,945 (including plug-in car grant)||From £19,615 (including plug-in car grant)||£16,995 (including plug-in car grant)|
|Top speed||84mph||89.5mph||93mph (i3); 99mph (i3s)||80mph||81mph|
|0-62mph||11.4 seconds||7.9 seconds||7.3 seconds (i3); 6.9 seconds (i3s)||12.14 seconds||15.9 seconds|
|Driving range||Up to 186 miles||168 miles||177 (i3); 192 miles (i3s)||83 miles||83 miles|
|Charge time||7-8 hours (using a 7kW charger) or 1 hour 40 minutes 0-80 per cent (using a 22kW charger)||7-8 hours (using a 7kW charger) or approx. 60 minutes 20-8- per cent (using 50kW rapid charger)||5 hours 0-80 per cent (using a BMW i Wallbox) or 42 minutes 0-80 per cent (using a DC Rapid charger)||6 hours (using AC charger) or 30 minutes (using DC charger)||8 hours (230V AC) or 30 minutes 0-80 per cent (330V DC)|
For families that need over 150 miles of range, the Nissan LEAF is the best electric car, but if you are looking for the best small premium EV, the BMW i3 takes the crown. While it may turn heads with its futuristic looks it is expensive, and in that respect, it cannot compete with the ZOE, which is a lot more practical as a five seater and safer, receiving a five-star score from Euro NCAP. The e-up! is great for short commutes, but sadly offers very little compelling financial reason to choose it instead of its petrol equivalent and even against our other electric vehicles it does not compare favourably. While the Peugeot iOn is fun to drive, the range is low and purchase cost high. While the multi-award winning Nissan LEAF ticks a lot of boxes and may have appeal to a broader swathe of buyers, the ZOE offers strong value for money against all of its competitors and is our favourite small electric car.