Are electric cars fast or slow compared to petrol and diesel?

By Gavin Conway on July 26, 2011 12:15 PM

To use a phrase beloved of the BBC Top Gear broadcast, until fairly recently electric vehicle performance could be described as 'a little bit rubbish'. When the best the market had to offer was cars like the REVA G-Wiz and various other quadricycle-based micro-electrics, acceleration and top speed were only suitable for city driving. These cars were chosen by people who wanted or needed an electric car, not because they were good to drive.

Well, the revolution we’re going through has changed all of that for good. When the pure-electric Tesla Roadster rocked up – 0-60mph in 3.7secs, 125mph – the world began to apprehend that electric cars could be sensationally fast, and fun to drive.

But something much more important has happened in the last year with the advent of the Nissan LEAF - it’s the first mass-market pure-electric family saloon, and it heralds the coming of similar cars from Ford, Renault, BMW Audi and others.

Here’s what you need to know about the LEAF’s performance (and by extension, what to expect from those EVs on the way). The characteristics of an electric powertrain are dominated by massive torque from the moment you touch the accelerator – with the LEAF, spinning the front wheels from rest is a foot-flex away, and the car pulls with urge equivalent to a 2.5-litre V6. We reached 60mph in less than 12 seconds and indicated top speeds of just under 100mph. Acceleration even from 70mph is very strong. And with the weight of the batteries down low in the chassis, the car’s handling is remarkably nimble.

And that’s what we can expect when the others come to market. In fact, we would expect the Ford Focus Electric coming at the end of 2011 to be an even better steer than the Nissan. BMW, too, will likely raise the dynamic performance bar for electric cars even higher.

The significant thing to say about EV performance is that, like the petrol car market, EV powertrains are now being developed to address different needs. So if you want stratospheric performance ala Aston Martin, get on the phone to Fisker and order up a Karma. If you’re looking for a sensible family car, there’s the Nissan, the upcoming Renault Fluence ZE, Ford Focus, et al. So for the first time, you can get the EV performance you want in a package that suits your needs and desires. And this is just the beginning.