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Everything you need to know about hybrid cars

There's no denying that the future of motoring is electric. But what if you're looking for a new car now?

Toyota-Prius-Hybrid

The government is planning to end new petrol, diesel and hybrid vehicle sales by 2035 – or even sooner – as the country pushes for a net zero carbon emissions figure by 2050.

This target date presents a whole set of challenges – not just for car manufacturers, but also to create an infrastructure able to cope with tens of millions of electric vehicles (EVs).

At the end of 2019 there were close to 265,000 EVs on the UK’s roads, following a strong 12-month period that saw more than 72,700 electric vehicles sold. However, that accounts for a tiny percentage of registered cars.

In the meantime, hybrids, which are partially electrified vehicles and still use an internal combustion engine, are a good stepping-stone between 100% electric cars (many with limited range) and conventional petrol and diesel-powered vehicles.

The origins of the hybrid car

Hybrid cars may have recently rocketed in popularity, with enquiries for hybrid car insurance rising 243% in the last seven years, but this type of car has actually been around for more than 100 years.

The first hybrid car was invented in 1898 by Dr Ferdinand Porsche, who combined both electric and petrol elements into one engine for a prototype coach. Dr Porsche designed this coach using fuel to generate power for four electric motors (one for each wheel), and in the process accidentally created the first hybrid engine concept for a car. 

But just as hybrid cars were being built at the start of the 20th Century, Henry Ford started mass-producing his famous fuel-powered cars. These were far cheaper to buy than the hybrid model, which was soon overlooked. 

Hybrid cars took a backseat in car manufacturing until the 1990s when they started to creep into the market once more. Toyota was the first to break the market and introduced the Toyota Prius to the public in 1997. 

This was swiftly followed by Honda’s Insight, which was launched in America and Japan two years later. Both models featured a petrol engine that was used to power an electric motor, allowing the car to run on dual efforts. 

These days the market for hybrid cars is a multi-billion pound industry, with more and more people choosing to go green with their vehicles. 

Choosing the right green car for your lifestyle

There was a time when driving an electric car meant you had to pootle around in odd-looking micro vehicles. Now they come in all shapes and sizes, from city cars to hatchbacks and SUVs to sports cars.

It's estimated that three out of five journeys under five miles are currently made by car, ideal for pure electric cars and plug-in hybrids, which often have an electric-only range of around 30 miles.

Most affordable 100% electric cars, including the Renault Zoe, Nissan Leaf and Hyundai Ioniq, have a real-world range of around 150 miles. If you want to approach the 300-mile mark you'll have to pay closer to £60,000 or above for premium cars such as the Tesla Model S and Jaguar I-Pace. 

For many, hybrids are a good compromise between 100% electric cars with limited range and traditional petrol and diesel-powered vehicles.

Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid

Different types of hybrid cars

In theory, hybrid cars are capable of unbelievable economy and low CO2 emissions, but in the real world they’re only zero emission for short trips and rely on their less efficient combustion engines for longer journeys.

What makes hybrids a little more complicated is there’s three different types:

  1. Mild hybrid
  2. Self-charging hybrid
  3. Plug-in hybrid (PHEV)

Mild hybrids

A mild hybrid is the most basic form of electrification where cars use a small battery and electric motor to assist the combustion engine. The battery is recharged via harvesting power otherwise wasted during deceleration. A mild hybrid can’t be driven using electric-only power, unlike a self-charging or plug-in hybrid.

Examples of mild hybrids include versions of the Suzuki Vitara, Ford Puma, Land Rover Discovery Sport, Fiat 500, Range Rover Evoque and Kia Sportage. 

What’s it like to drive a mild hybrid?

A mild hybrid is much the same as a conventional car to drive. You might notice the engine stops more often thanks to the assistance from the electric motor, while the power boost from the electric motor results in better acceleration. 

In fact, you may notice it’s a little smoother because pulling away from a standstill is easier, and the motor assistance makes gear changes in some hybrids slicker.

Self-charging hybrids

A self-charging or full hybrid is a vehicle that’s equipped with an electric motor and a slightly larger battery than a mild hybrid. The technology seamlessly selects the best power source on your behalf (petrol/diesel or electric). 

They can usually be driven for a mile or two in electric-only mode, and again, the battery is charged during braking.
Examples include the Toyota Corolla, Lexus UX, Honda CR-V, Kia Niro Hybrid, Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid.

What is it like to drive a self-charging hybrid?

Again, very similar to driving a conventional petrol or diesel car. Simply start the engine, select D for Drive, pull away and enjoy the drive. Depending on which manufacturer you choose, you may also have drive mode options to focus on economy or sportier handling, for instance.

Plug-in hybrids

A plug-in hybrid vehicle, or PHEV, has a larger battery pack which can be charged during braking and coasting, as well as at home or via public charge points. They can usually be driven for some 30 miles in pure electric mode, meaning you use no fuel on short commutes.

Examples include the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, BMW 330e, MINI Countryman PHEV, Audi Q7 e-tron, Mercedes-Benz A 250e, VW Golf GTE.

What’s it like to drive a plug-in hybrid?

Again, a PHEV is just like driving a standard petrol or diesel car. Depending on the car you choose, you can keep it simple or learn to use regenerative braking to slow the car in non-emergency situations (as your approach a roundabout, for instance) to increase the amount of charge going back into the battery. And of course, in electric mode it's just like driving an EV – no tailpipe emissions and whisper quiet.

To find out more about specific EVs and hybrids, read our reviews: 

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV close up

The benefits of hybrid cars

Environmentally-friendly

On average, hybrid cars produce 90% fewer emissions than traditional models. This is because these vehicles have twin-powered engines, so they consume less fuel and emit less CO2 compared to diesel or petrol powered cars.

Consequently, hybrid cars are cleaner than petrol or diesel engines and have better fuel mileage, making it an environmentally-friendly alternative to conventional models.

It’s worth noting that new research has found a key problem with plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) is drivers not keeping them charged. Without regular charging, you might as well just have a petrol or diesel car as you aren’t benefiting from the electric motor. 

Driver behaviour also affects a hybrid’s green credentials. Accelerating hard can cause the engine to kick in on some PHEVs. 

Nick Molden, of Emissions Analytics, said: "If you always charge the battery and tend to do lots of short journeys, [PHEVs] have very low emissions. If you never charge the battery and drive very aggressively then they can have significantly higher emissions than the equivalent petrol or diesel model."

Better fuel economy

Mild hybrids don't use as much fuel as regular cars at certain points during a drive, so they can improve fuel efficiency.

Self-charging hybrid tech reduces the effort the petrol/diesel engine needs to make while accelerating, cutting fuel consumption.

PHEVs are great if you have a short commute – if you can just use battery power, a plug-in hybrid uses no fuel. On longer journeys the electric motor assists the engine, resulting in a lower overall MPG.

Cheaper to run

Hybrid cars are considered to be more affordable to run than their conventionally-powered counterparts.

This is because they have an electric motor and battery, in addition to an internal combustion engine, so they use less fuel and, as a result, you can make significant savings on fuel costs. 

As well as saving money on fuel, lower CO2 emissions could also mean a reduced road tax (VED) rate and lower benefit-in-kind (BIK) tax for business users.

When PHEVs run on battery power your journey costs less because electricity is much cheaper than petrol or diesel. PHEVs are also Congestion Charge exempt until October 2021.

Use less energy

Hybrid vehicles are typically made up of lighter materials, meaning less energy is required to run them. The engines of hybrid cars are also lighter and smaller, which also saves a lot of energy.

Easy driving

It's just the same as driving a conventional car, but with lower running costs. Assistance from the electric motor means the engine doesn’t have to work so hard, resulting in a quieter journey, while the extra power results in smoother acceleration.

When they're running in EV mode, PHEVs are super quiet inside, making for a relaxed atmosphere. 

Disadvantages of hybrid cars

Suited for city driving

Hybrid cars run on twin-powered engines, meaning the petrol or diesel engine is significantly smaller than a traditional internal combustion engine from a single engine powered car.

The electric motor is also low power. In fact, the combined power of the petrol or diesel engine and the electric motor is often less than a traditional engine, making the hybrid car better suited to city driving, and less ideal for those in rural areas.

Higher maintenance costs

As hybrid cars have a dual engine and advanced technology, it can be difficult for mechanics to repair these vehicles, or for hybrid car owners to even find a mechanic with the relevant expertise.

Prices therefore are higher than for traditional vehicles – however, as increasing amounts of hybrid vehicles hit the market, these costs should go down.

Price 

Hybrid cars are more expensive than regular petrol or diesel powered cars, which can put many people off buying them. However government grants are available to help cover some of the cost of brand new low-emission vehicles. Currently the maximum available for cars is £3,000.

You don’t need to do anything – the grant goes straight to the dealer, which means it’ll be factored into the car’s price.

The higher price of hybrids can usually be counterbalanced by the lower running costs – so if you can afford the initial outlay, you’ll often be better off.

Financing a green car

The buying process for an Ultra Low Emission Vehicle is similar to a conventional car. You have the same basic options – buy new, buy used or lease.

Hybrids are now considered mainstream and are widely available. The only consideration when buying a plug-in is: can you charge your car at home overnight? The good news is you can get up to £350 (including VAT) off the cost of installing a charger at home through the Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme.

Even if that’s difficult because you live in a flat or a terraced house without a garage, you may still be able to benefit from owning a PHEV if you can recharge at your workplace, for instance.

Buying a pure electric car isn’t quite the leap in the dark that it was. As prices become more in line with petrol and diesel vehicles, manufacturers are coming up with plans to give more peace of mind with long warranties and battery leasing deals, for instance.

Just as car finance deals such as PCP (Personal Contract Purchase) and PCH (Personal Contract Hire) are increasingly popular ways to run a conventional car, the same goes for EVs.

Find out more about eco driving

For more information on hybrid and electric cars, take a look at our myth-busting eco-driving hub. Or if you have your eye on a new hybrid model, use our eco-friendly car comparison tool and see which cars are right for the environment, and right for you.

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