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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.

Hybrid cars are more fuel efficient than conventionally powered vehicles and have lower CO2 emissions – plus there's no range anxiety, which is the big problem with many EVs.

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)

For the rest of this article, we’re going to take a closer look at each type of hybrid. 

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 cannot 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, Kia Sportage. 

What are the benefits of a mild hybrid?

Lower emissions: because the mild hybrid system helps with acceleration, there's less strain on the engine, fewer emissions and cleaner air

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

Engine performance boost: systems vary, but in most mild hybrids the battery adds power during acceleration

Lower initial cost: mild hybrids are generally more affordable to buy or lease than self-charging hybrids and plug-in hybrids

Reduced running 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

No need to plug-in: mild hybrid tech works seamlessly, and the small battery is recharged on the move, so there's never any need to plug the car in

Easy driving: it's just the same as driving a conventional car

What is 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 slighter 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 are the benefits of a self-charging hybrid?

Lower emissions: the electric motor reduces the strain on the conventional engine, resulting in lower tailpipe emissions. At low speeds it can also take over altogether, reducing CO2 levels to zero for short periods

Better fuel economy: self-charging hybrid tech reduces the effort the petrol/diesel engine needs to make while accelerating, cutting fuel consumption

Engine performance boost: the assistance from the electric motor means the combustion engine gets more power and doesn’t have to work so hard

Easy driving: it's just the same as driving a conventional car – with lower running costs

Reduced running costs: as well as saving money on fuel, lower CO2 emissions also mean a reduced Road Tax (VED) rate and lower BIK tax for business users

No need to plug-in: a self-charging hybrid system works seamlessly and the battery is recharged on the move, so there's no need to plug the car in for a recharge

Relaxing drive: 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

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 that 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 are the benefits of a plug-in hybrid?

Lower emissions: when a PHEV runs in pure electric mode it emits no harmful tailpipe emissions. The electric motor/battery can also assist the petrol/diesel engine on the move, helping to reduce CO2 emissions

Better fuel economy: if you have a short commute and 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

Engine performance boost: the assistance from the electric motor means the combustion engine gets more power and doesn’t have to work so hard 

Lower initial cost: if you're not quite ready to go 100% electric, then a PHEV is the perfect halfway house. Broadly speaking they are cheaper to buy or lease than their long-range, fully electric counterparts

Easy driving: a PHEV is just the same as a conventional car, except in EV mode when it's as whisper quiet as an electric car

Reduced running costs: when running on battery power your journey costs less because electricity is much cheaper than petrol or diesel. PHEVs have reduced Road Tax (VED), lower BIK tax for business users. Plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEVs) are Congestion Charge exempt until October 2021

Relaxing drive: when they're running in EV mode, PHEVs are super quiet inside, making for a relaxed atmosphere. In conventional engine mode, the electric motor and petrol/diesel unit work together in a smooth and efficient way

Home charging: simply plug-in when you get home or at work and you'll have 30 miles of range in your car for a fraction of the price of fuel for the equivalent distance. Obviously, this assumes that you have access to charging facilities

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.

I'm an experienced journalist, digital editor and copywriter, now specialising in motoring. I’m editor of Automotive Blog and have worked across the media in newspapers, magazines, TV, teletext, radio and online for household names including the BBC, GMTV, ITV and MSN. I’ve produced digital content in the financial sector for Lloyds Bank, Nationwide and the Money Advice Service. I'm married with two children and live near Bath in Somerset.

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