How to drive an electric car

How do you drive an electric car? Is it different from driving a petrol or diesel car? What should I be aware of when moving from petrol/diesel to electric?

These aren’t silly questions, despite what some might think. Even though, yes, driving an electric car is very similar indeed to driving an ICE (internal combustion engine) one, there are some key differences to note which do change the driving experience slightly – we think for the better.

Anyone can hop into an EV and get familiar with it pretty quickly, but we’ll run through a few of the key differences to bear in mind.

Someone getting into an electric car, ready to go for a drive

Steering and cornering

Electric cars are, generally speaking, heavier than their ICE equivalents. That’s because they’re carrying around a large battery pack all the time – unlike a petrol or diesel car, which burns its fuel as it drives. That meant early electric cars felt noticeably different when going around a corner.

The good news is modern electric cars are very well set-up to avoid roll through corners or feeling heavy and clumsy when steering through slow traffic. If anything, the better centre of gravity in most electric cars mean most stay relatively flat and stable when cornering, particularly at speed.

Of course, like ICE cars, all new EVs come with power-assisted-steering and mean you shouldn’t really notice a difference in that respect. If anything, city driving should be even better, as with no engine to get in the way the front wheels on some small electric cars can turn far more than you may be used to.

The Honda e and Smart EQ ForTwo for example, have extremely tight turning circles thanks to their electric motors being in the back of the car. The front wheels have more space to move, so you can make seriously tight corners – perfect for driving around the city.

Gears and clutch

All current electric-cars are automatic, meaning you don’t need to change any gears (primarily because they don’t have any!). The electric motor provides full power from 0rpm, unlike a traditional ICE, so you don’t need gears in order to make the vehicle move.

Which therefore, means no clutch to think about either. You just put the car in ‘Drive’ and go! Much like a normal automatic you may be familiar with.

But there are a few things to take note of:

The drive selector in a Renault ZOE showing R, N, D/B

 ‘Low’ gear modes

Some electric cars will let you adjust the ‘driving mode’ of the car using a specific button or switch in the car, usually near the gear lever. That said, others will include it on the gear lever itself, it depends on which one you go for (so do make sure you know how to activate them!).

Renault for example, have a ‘B’ mode on some of their drive selectors. 

You may remember on automatics of old you could tell the gearbox to hold the car in the first 2, 3 or even 4 gears, or have an ‘L’ or “low” setting. In those cars, it’s mostly to increase traction in poor driving conditions, like when you’re off-roading or dealing with snow.

In a road-going electric car however, the modes you see on a gear lever are more likely to do with the electric motor’s regenerative braking qualities (we’ll go onto that a bit more in-depth below).

In the Renault ZOE shown above, ‘B’ mode is great for city or stop-start driving, as it means you don’t need to rely on the brake pedal so much. That’s because the motor is programmed to slow down the car, recovering previously wasted kinetic energy when braking, when you lift off the accelerator. It’s not the same as a ‘low’ driving mode in an automatic of old.

Confused? Don’t worry, we’ve explained more below.

The drive selector in a Renault ZOE showing R, N, D/B

Accelerating and braking

This is where you’ll likely notice the biggest difference when transferring from driving a petrol or diesel car, to an electric one.

Here are a few things to notice when you take that first test drive:

Instant power

  • Because electric motors have full power from 0rpm, the acceleration is instantaneous and quick, unlike a traditional petrol/diesel engine which needs to operate at optimum RPM (revolutions per minute) in order to get the most power out of it.
  • This makes EVs great for city driving, being able to nip in and out of traffic with ease, but also for overtaking on longer journeys, as you’re not waiting for the gearbox to select the correct gear, or change gear yourself. Simple, efficient power always on tap.

A smooth build in speed

  • No gears mean no waiting to change gear, so the acceleration from 0-60mph and beyond in an EV (versus a similarly powered ICE car) is not only quicker, but smoother too.
  • Fed up of clunky gear changes or an uncomfortable driving experience when pulling away quickly from the lights? Going electric may be right up your street.

Regenerative braking

  • The big one, and something you may have heard about already. Regenerative braking, in short, is the act of using the EVs electric motor as a generator (essentially) to slow down the car. When you lift your foot off the accelerator, the car recovers the wasted kinetic energy and turns it into electricity.
  • Why is that useful? Well, it means you could extend your car’s range by adding power back into the battery as you drive. It also means you don’t need to use the brake pedal so much, which could save you money on brake pads and discs (as they’ll wear out slower).

Which neatly leads us onto…

One pedal driving

  • Some electric cars offer a ‘one pedal driving’ mode (called different things by different manufacturers) that means exactly what it says on the tin so to speak – you may only need one pedal to drive. We say may because, ultimately, sometimes you’ll need to use the car’s actual brakes.
  • One pedal driving uses the effects of regenerative braking to not only slow the car down but stop it completely. The FIAT 500e, for example, has a fantastic one-pedal mode that is great for driving around a city.
  • When you lift of the accelerator, instead of coasting (like in an ICE car), the vehicle uses regenerative braking to slow the car down, quite aggressively in some cases. In that respect, it can feel a bit like driving a huge dodgem – but that only makes it more fun. When you get close to walking pace, the car will automatically and seamlessly engage the usual brakes, bringing the car to a complete stop. It won’t then release the brakes, until you put your foot back on the accelerator and drive away again.
  • It can take some getting used to, but it does make driving through traffic an awful lot less stressful.

Driving modes

  • And, finally, most electric cars have different modes that let you alter the way the motor behaves when driving. Of course, some ICE cars have this to (particularly sportier ones with a “Sport” or “Dynamic” mode). Here, we’ll focus on the more common ‘eco’ modes.
  • EVs will usually let you choose between a ‘normal’ mode (which means the car will offer you full power and all the accessories in your car, like heated seats and air-conditioning) or ‘eco’ mode whenever you like. The ‘eco’ mode on an EV is designed to help you increase the range of your EV and can change the way it moves forward, or limit what accessories you can use, based on how the manufacturer has set it up.
  • The Vauxhall Corsa-e, for example, has an ‘Eco’ mode that reduces the motors power and limits the climate control to preserve energy and increase your range. Other cars’ eco modes may also switch off any other power-sapping goodies, like the heated seats or windscreen-demist. This is unique to EVs because, unlike in a traditional ICE car, you can actually “turn down” the power of the motor as you drive to save energy. It doesn’t sound like much, but if you’re in a pinch and want to get home without stopping to charge, this could well help you out big time.

Not so scary then, after all!

Not at all. Driving an electric car is really easy, great fun and not as daunting as it can be made out to be. Once you’ve conquered charging and you’ll be laughing!

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