I took an EV on a European road trip: here’s what I learnt

November 13, 2023 by

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Ever wondered what it’s like to do a European road trip in an EV? Well carwow’s Managing Editor Paul Barker has taken the plunge to find out…

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), four bikes on the back and a family that may not be the most forgiving if things go horribly wrong. Nervous.

Day 1

1.30am

Ferry is booked for 5.05am, another of those decisions that seem 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.

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, so Plan A comes into effect – a quick stop at the Ionity charger at Folkestone so we get to Dover with enough charge to do some decent mileage out of Calais before a late breakfast stop.

Plan A turns into problem number one, which 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. Which 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.

10.08am – Rouen, Carrefour number 1

Daylight, semi-empty French autoroutes and we’re over 130 miles from Calais. Battery is down to just under 20%, 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. 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% charge, which is optimum because all EVs slow down their charge rate above that.

13.35 – Le Mans, Carrefour number 2

Another 130 miles ticked off and the battery is back down to 20%, so I’ve plotted another Carrefour supermarket with a 150kW charger. 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% 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…

15.51 – A slightly shabby service station somewhere outside Poitiers

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. It 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 most reliable, right? Erm. Car plugged in, restroom visited, ice creams acquired, and we come out to find the car is charging at a pretty measly 8kW, which is less than I’d get at home, and a heck of a lot less than the 150kW the charger could put out. And only a couple of miles of range 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.

Days 2-14 – the holiday top-ups around LeClerc

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. High-powered supermarket charging points – this time at LeClerc, I’m not supermarket brand loyal – mean 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.

Day 15 – the final leg

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 to simply reverse the stops from the way down worked fine for the first instance, and the service station on the other side of the road somewhere outside Poitiers was both more pleasant, 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.

Then the post-holiday blues kicked in with stop two, another two hours up the road and back down to 20% 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 satnav 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, and the second didn’t exist. Which makes it less likely to charge the car. Plan D was to jump back on the motorway and head for a station I’d earmarked as an emergency backup. Luckily the French have decided it’s helpful to put little EV charging logos on the services that have high-speed chargers, 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% 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. Just don’t talk to my wife about the additional late Saturday night top-up stop in Folkestone, via a certain drive-through fast-food establishment.

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% to 80% 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.

I came away from my first continental electric vehicle road trip surprised by how easy it was. 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.

I was left feeling that I’d be significantly more confident and comfortable undertaking an electric car road trip the length of France than I would be heading the length of the UK.