Taking the family away on holiday can be stressful enough, especially if you’re undertaking a long-distance road trip to reach a European destination.
Then consider the additional strain range anxiety on top of all of this.
Yet the reality is electric car sales are growing at a rapid rate, meaning more and more motorists are using EVs for big-mile getaways. But is it practical for long-time petrolheads?
Paul Barker, managing editor at car sales website carwow, has been a journalist in the automotive industry for more than 20 years and driven everything with a petrol or diesel engine within that period.
So when the opportunity arose to take a £123,000 BMW iX EV to France for a two-week family break, there was obvious trepidation. Here, he diarises his experience in the hope it casts some of the home truths about reaching a holiday destination using battery power.
Is it practical do take an electric car on a European road trip with the family? Carwow’s managing editor Paul Barker decided to find out. Here is his diarised account
The last time I was this nervous about a car journey it was the one that resulted in being handed my driving licence (first time pass, 15 minor faults, more than a quarter of a century ago).
But for some reason I’d ended up deciding that the perfect time for a virgin European electric car road trip is with a car loaded to the gills for a 572-mile-run family holiday trip to the west coast of France.
Complete with roof box (not great for efficiency and therefore reducing range), four bikes on the back and a family that may not be the most forgiving if things go horribly wrong, what’s the worst that could happen?
The electric car: BMW’s iX SUV
Model: BMW iX M60
Price new: from £122,775
Electric motors: 2x e-motors
Max power: 611bhp
Transmission: Single-speed auto
Drive: Four-wheel drive
0-62mph: 3.8 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
Claimed range: 348 miles (WLTP)
Max charging speed (DC): 195kW
Charging time 10-80% (DC): 35 mins
01:30: The ferry is booked for 5.05am. It’s one of those decisions that seemed wise several months ahead of actually having to set a 1.30am alarm on a Saturday morning and drag reluctant – yet excited – kids out of bed for the 90-minute run to Dover.
This provided the first chance to nervously eye the BMW iX’s range figure and how quickly the battery drops away as the miles tick on. Turns out it’s quicker than hoped.
Plan A comes into effect – a quick stop at the Ionity charger at Folkestone so we arrive at the ferry port with enough charge to do some decent mileage out of Calais before a late breakfast stop.
Yet plan A turns problematic almost immediately.
It starts with having to drive through the petrol station exit because the EV chargers are located on a forecourt that’s otherwise closed at 4am.
This quickly becomes the lesser of two problems when the Ionity charger flashes up as ‘Out of Order’ on the screen. There’s a lovely apology for any inconvenience that I didn’t fully appreciate at that time of day, but shifting across to the neighbouring point does at least give the car a surge of electrons.
The sight every EV owner dreads – a public charging point that is showing as out of order. Reliability remains one of the major issues with Britain’s network
The Barker family arrive at Dover in time to catch their 5:05am ferry to Calais
Loaded up with bikes on the back and a roof box, the additions will be a real drag on the BMW iX’s efficiency and range. According to the claimed figure, it should go for 348 miles between charges – but that’s not quite the same story when you’re mostly driving at motorway speeds
10:08: It’s daylight and we’re now travelling along semi-empty French autoroutes some 130 miles from Calais.
The BMW’s battery is down to just under 20 per cent, which is about what was expected, and an exhaustive Sunday afternoon of pre-trip research has found that many French supermarkets have high-powered chargers. So I’ve found a Carrefour in Rouen that seems fit for the job.
Cheaper than motorway service stations, and with the added bonus of sweets baguettes and, as it turns out, 20 euros worth of flip flops that my 12 year old claims are a necessity. Oh yes, and a wedding anniversary card thanks to a dawning realisation that our anniversary is the day before we head home.
By the time we’ve loaded up, the car is boasting the targeted 80 per cent charge, which is optimum because all EVs slow down their charge rate above that.
Paul says he did plenty of planning ahead of the trip, especially around charging locations. He used a couple of planning websites, with the expensive but usually reliable Ionity network as a back-up
13:35: Another 130 miles ticked off and the battery is back down to 20 per cent, so I’ve plotted another Carrefour supermarket with a 150kW charger close to Le Mans.
Despite keeping the speed down to a cruise-controlled 65mph on the Autoroute, we’re still only managing a comfortable 120 miles or so before the battery drops back down to the level where it needs a charge.
At least this one is aligned with lunch, so it’s crepes all round, and exactly 30 mins of charging gets us back up to the high 70 per cent mark.
We head out of town via the bit of the famous race track that’s a public road for the 51 weeks of the year that racing cars aren’t barrelling along it at over 200mph. Think I managed to convince Mrs B – who has now taken the wheel – that it was the most direct way out of town and not just a complete indulgence on my part…
Mrs B took to the wheel of the BMW for the most enthralling part of the journey on the roads that make up the Le Mans 24 Hour endurance race
15:51: By now we’ve been travelling for more than 12 hours.
Morale is still high, kids have had enough sweets, downloaded movies and audiobooks to keep us parents sane, but we’ve still got a couple of hours to go.
This wasn’t the point in the journey to get clever, so a motorway service station top-up seemed like the best plan rather than getting too clever by finding another more urban/scenic/commerce-related charger.
Motorway chargers are supposed to be the fastest and most reliable, right? A quick zap and dash, as you were.
Erm, maybe not.
After plugging into a charging point at a services somewhere outside Poitiers, restroom visited and ice creams acquired, we come out to find the car is charging at a measly 8kW. That’s less than I’d get at home! And it’s a heck of a lot less than the 150kW the charger could put out. Only a couple of miles of range had been added.
So we moved to a neighbouring charge point, and it jumped to 43kW.
Still not quite what we’d hoped for, but enough to give us enough for the final 115-mile dash, where pizza and a cold beer awaits.
Another 21 minutes sat in the sunshine by a petrol forecourt next to a busy motorway and I’d decided we had enough credit to not only make it to the final destination, the lovely Camping de Logis du Breuille, but with enough in hand to get where we needed to be, and make the next charge tomorrow’s problem.
Paul and family Barker arrived safe and sound at the Camping de Logis du Breuille – the location for their fortnight break in the sunshine
Following our arrival, the holiday can truly begin and the BMW’s next job is to cope with the daily rigours of vacation life with the infrequent need to top-up with electricity.
Charging points at supermarkets mean the car is only charging while we’re off doing things we would have done anyway. Which is mainly while in the supermarket buying large amounts of bread, cheese and other essentials.
In this instance, we tapped into a high-powered device at a local LeClerc.
It means the car is nicely topped up by the time the overflowing trolley of French goodies – and why does everything always look nicer in a huge French hypermarket – is being dragged back to across the car park.
Repeat three or four times, and there’s plenty of battery for trips to the beach.
Paul says that during the two weeks in France he only charged the BMW at supermarkets at times when they were visiting while food shopping
07:15: It’s nearing the end of our trip and time for the return leg to begin.
The journey home is never as exciting as the one at the beginning of a holiday. The car never packs itself as neatly, and a return to real life looms, admittedly another 600 miles up the road.
The plan: simply reverse the stops from the way down worked fine for the first instance. Surely there won’t be any issues with such a foolproof tactic…
Why is it that the return leg of a journey during a holiday that the same luggage that neatly packed into the boot en route now barely fits?
It was another early start to depart the French campsite as the Barker family faced their journey back to British shores
09:03: We arrive at the first charging stop – the service station on the other side of the road somewhere outside Poitiers. It was both more pleasant than before and delivered electricity at a more rapid rate.
Final baguette with butter and jam polished off, and the car was as fuelled as we were.
Paul says drivers should not rely on their sat-navs for charging point advice, as it can be incorrect… as he found out on the way home
13:10 The post-holiday blues kicked in hard by the time we encountered electricity stop number two, another two hours up the road and back down to 20 per cent of battery left.
The charging points that had served us so well on the way down had decided today was hissy fit day and glitched to the point of refusing to accept any polite requests for electricity. Less polite requests were also ignored.
The BMW sat-nav then told us about two more handy high-powered charging points.
The first one didn’t work with BMW’s charge card, which works across many different charging operators and pulls all the charging onto one bill,
The second? Well, that didn’t exist at all.
Plan D was to jump back on the motorway and head for a station I’d earmarked as an emergency backup.
16:11: Luckily the French have decided it’s helpful to put little EV charging logos on the services that have high-speed chargers [learn something from this Britain!], and a few miles down the road, slightly before the cold sweats of low charge began, we dived in and TotalEnergy has the car back up to 80 per cent in no time, in what was the fastest charge speed of the entire trip at 139kW.
Half an hour to grab an early lunch and the car was ready to go before we were.
Ditto the last stop in France towards Rouen, back to the Carefour and we were topped up for the final sprint to Calais. Which turned into a bit more of a sprint than intended as time ticked away – not helped by the earlier hunt for charging stations, and me conclusively proved that pushing the speed up from the sedate 65mph towards the 80ph limit absolutely decimates an electric vehicle’s battery and range.
It’s the same with petrol cars though; there’s a huge step in fuel consumption from 65mph to 80mph.
But we made the ferry.
Charging up to 80% battery at a ultra-rapid device should take around half an hour. But Paul found that not all the charging points en route were that fast
22:46: Back in Blighty and the BMW needs one last zap of juice to take us home.
Having endured almost a full day in transit, my wife won’t need reminding of the moment I told her we needed an additional late Saturday night top-up stop in Folkestone, via a certain drive-through fast-food establishment.
That was enough to get us home and bring to an end what was an eye-opening – though not entirely impractical – end to our epic trip.
A final stop off for electricity at Folkstone just before 11pm would be enough to get the Barker’s home after leaving France in the morning
The cost to charge…
Now, the question of cost.
Electric vehicles are cheaper to charge at home than the equivalent petrol or diesel car would be to run, but public charging blurs the lines and although things are clearer in France than the UK, it’s still an extra effort to work out how much you’re going to be paying to recharge an electric vehicle.
In isolation, charges of around £50 to get the car back up from 20 per cent to 80 per cent look eye-watering, but my basic sketched-out maths says the total journey cost was around the same as you’d spend using a fully loaded petrol SUV with four bikes and a roofbox.
It’s also fair to say that petrol or diesel car has the ability to shave significant time off the journey, but splitting the French element of the journey up into quarters of two hours each made it more pleasant for drivers and passengers alike.
Keeping the speed down was a bit frustrating, but you know it’s removing range stress so you get settled in and accept a stream of faster traffic.
Would I do it again?
Paul says he would embark on another European road trip in an EV, granted it has an ample range
I came away from my first continental electric vehicle road trip surprised by how easy it was – and the lack of stress.
The system wasn’t perfect, charging point failure is annoying, and chargers not delivering what is promised is almost worse. Plugging in, using the facilities and then finding electricity dribbling in at a pathetic rate is a little rage-inducing 12 hours into a journey.
But although charging points were busy at times, there was never a queue to get on one, the cost is certainly clearer in France – on apps and in person – than the UK can yet muster.
Yes it was a little slower than completing the same journey in a petrol or diesel car.
And the extra time to recharge is the key incentive to keep the speed down. For instance, a brief spurt up to the 80mph limit to make sure we made the ferry home had a pretty devastating impact on the range figure.
In a petrol or diesel car you increase the speed and accept fuel efficiency will drop, but you’ll never notice the extra time at the pump. In an EV it could mean an extra half an hour stop.
But accept a more relaxed pace and it’s a more enjoyable journey, and stopping every two-three hours with kids in the car is about right anyway, for everyone’s sanity, and bladder control.
Personally it’s another key milestone on my EV ownership journey. I’d now happily go across France without even stopping to properly plan the trip, and I’d be interested rather than trepidatious to explore further afield too.
Four tips for driving an EV to Europe
1. Do you research
I used a couple of Googleable planning websites, with the expensive but usually reliable Ionity network as a back-up, but it was pretty straightforward.
2. Is you EV really fit for such a trip?
The BMW iX is a brilliant car with a huge battery, and sitting at a cruise-controlled 65mph we were comfortably getting over 200 miles between charges, but even only charging to 80% (charging slows down from 80-100% to protect the battery) we were still on around 20% by the time we stopped. Although that was with the roofbox, four bikes on the back and every available space filled with something!
However, with some smaller EVs offering real-world ranges below 150 miles, I would seriously consider if these are the best options for long-distance trekking.
3. Do NOT rely on sat-navs
Using navigation to take you to charging points is still not good enough. One charger was having a glitch when we got to it, so I decided to trust the BMW nav to find us another. The first one didn’t accept BMW’s charge card, and the second didn’t seem to exist. So back to the autoroute and one of the well-signposted charging stations. The motorway service signs flag up whether there’s a full charging station at that site, which is really useful.
4. Have a couple of charging payment options
UK contactless cards can’t always be relied on to work. Between BMW’s own charge card and the French Fulli card we had pretty much everything covered, with just one exception in the two weeks and 1400 miles. Both are free – many manufacturers have their own version – and you pay for what you used at the end of the month
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