You may have come across a multitude of stories relating to electric vehicles (EV) in the media, particularly given the governmental changes to Vehicle Excise Duty in 2017.
More recently, Tesla founder Elon Musk brought electric cars to our attention, and with them, the inevitably astronomical price tag.
Step forward, then, the humble hybrid electric vehicle (HEV), also known as a “plug-in” hybrid electric vehicle, or PHEV. These innovative, economical automotive masterpieces first rose to prominence in the late 90s, but with more and more mainstream brands bringing out their own designs, these cheap-to-run cars now make up one of every 12 vehicles bought in the UK.
Rather than relying solely on electric power, or indeed just on the fossil fuel-powered diesel or petrol combustible engines, a hybrid has an electric motor and battery as well as a standard engine.
This helps to achieve better fuel economy as drivers can “switch” between traditional petrol or diesel fuel and electric power.
Of course, electric power does not last forever without needing a charge, so it is most advantageous to use during urban city driving when fuel economy in traditionally-fuelled cars is usually at its worst. For longer distances, drivers may wish to switch back over to their petrol or diesel fuel.
In more advanced hybrids, their batteries can be charged with a plug-in system, allowing drivers to charge up at an outlet and drive for considerable distances.
There are many benefits of hybrid cars, but firstly it’s important to understand that there is more than one type.
When you’re shopping for this environmentally friendly alternative, keep an eye out for the following labels:
You’ve probably heard of Toyota Prius hybrid cars – these run on a parallel system, and are one of the most popular choices of hybrids currently on the market. The wheels can be powered by three different methods – solely the electric motor, solely the engine, or by both fuel sources working in unison.
These are the most common type of hybrid, and the Toyota Prius is the most widely known example. The car’s wheels can be powered in three different ways: either directly by the engine, by the electric motor alone, or by both power sources working together.
Other models that favour this type are Toyota Yaris hybrid cars, as well as many other mainstream brands. Generally, for the “pulling away” power, that is, anything up to 15MPH, the car will use electric power only. That’s why you’ll never hear the engine when you first start the car in one of these.
Otherwise known as a series hybrid, these are slightly more sophisticated hybrids, and actually come in two further categories.
You might notice the term “range extender” in the marketing material for BMW i3 hybrid cards. In this type of hybrid, the traditional petrol or diesel engine produces electricity for the generator to power the electric motor, thus recharging the batteries.
This engine itself never actually drives the car – instead, it simply produces the energy to help it run. Within this category, you’ll find both “mild” and “strong” range extenders. A mild range extender has less battery capacity, meaning that a strong range extender will drive further on electric power alone.
This type of hybrid, using technology that can be found in models such as Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV hybrid cars, is the most sophisticated of all three options. Like the parallel cars, it can be plugged in at an outlet at home or in public, or, like the range extenders, it can also be charged while the car is moving.
These kinds of cars are actually closer to an all-electric vehicle in their design than other hybrids, as they have larger batteries which can support longer driving distances. Again, these would be perfect for low-cost commuting in built-up urban areas, as they can go for up to 30 miles on electric power alone. You may find this design in executive hybrid cars or even a hybrid MPV, depending on the target market.
Batteries in these environmentally friendlier cars come in three basic types – the lead-acid (which is slowly being phased out due to concerns about toxicity), the nickel-metal hydride and the lithium-ion, the least toxic of all three and the most popular.
The battery pack contains many smaller, low voltage batteries known as cells, which are stacked on top of each other to create a larger high voltage “stick”. These sticks are then connected to form a high voltage battery module.
These modules can both give and receive power, meaning that they can give power to an electric motor, while they can also receive power from the generator while charging. (This is affected by the engine design, as listed above.)
Batteries in hybrid cars are built to last – in fact, in models such as a Toyota, they come with a lifetime guarantee, separate from the warranty of the entire car itself. Of course, this all depends on how far you drive, but generally covers around 100,000 miles.
So, now we know how they work, just what are the pros and cons of a hybrid car? As they become more and more mainstream, they can be a cost-effective alternative to traditional petrol or diesel models, with less of a carbon footprint. However, there are some things you should be aware of before you buy.
While there are many reasons to get a hybrid car, the running costs are by far the most attractive to buyers. Many types offer “regenerative braking”, whereby the car will capture the energy produced by braking and feed it back into the engine. This results in reduced fuel-consumption and can even increase the life of your brakes!
You’ll also find that your car will have a much higher resell value than traditional diesel or petrol-powered engines, which generally sell for far less than they were worth when purchased.
As was the talk of the motoring industry in 2017, the rules in road tax in the UK have now changed in line with considerations for emissions.
For the first year, Vehicle Excise Duty is calculated based on emissions, making electric and hydrogen-fuelled cars exempt from paying.
However, as hybrids do still emit some harmful gases, they are still liable to pay – which is different from before 2017, when they were exempt. The payments are relatively small, however, and are incremental based on the amount of emissions.
For example, hybrids with emissions of 51-75 g/km of CO2 pay £15, whereas anything up to 50 is free. It is not until emissions start to reach 150g and up that the tax starts to become noticeably high – leaping from £195 to £505.
As mentioned above, there are some ongoing concerns about the environmental impact and toxicity of the materials used in electric cars, with some studies even suggesting they may be carcinogenic.
When buying, it’s best to do your research and look for a car with a nickel-metal hydride battery, or better still, a lithium-ion battery, to stay safe.
It is generally favourable to buy hybrid cars with smaller engines, as these are less demanding on power, but conversely, may not offer the kind of power for your driving needs.
Finally, as is to be expected with more sophisticated technology, hybrid cars do come with a price tag. Not only will you generally pay more to be environmentally friendly, you should also budget for higher maintenance costs.
So what are the best hybrid cars in the UK? Let’s break it down by features:
Toyota is a brand that comes up time and again as the cheapest hybrid car UK, not only in terms of outright price, but running costs too.
The Toyota Prius, for example, is exempt from paying the Congestion Charge in London. Similarly, the Yaris and the Auris have very low running costs.
While the Yaris comes out on top with price, around the £17,000 mark, expect to pay around £25,000 for the Prius and Auris.
As the latest hybrid cars reach near supercar status, it’s not difficult to come across a vehicle that offers both speed and fuel economy.
The BMW i3 has a limit at 93MPH but is very reasonable for a faster car, or if you want to throw caution to the wind, try the Lexus LC 500h, which can reach up to 155MPH.
If you’re looking for more of a family car, again, the Renault Grand Scenic Hybrid has bags of space. This MPV costs a very reasonable £26,880 and has a superior interior to the Prius, with more entertainment options.
So is it worth getting a hybrid car? For the environment - yes! But for you - it depends on your needs, so weigh up the pros and cons and see what will ultimately work best for you.