Should I get a hybrid, plug-in hybrid or electric car?

Should I get a hybrid, plug-in hybrid or electric car?

Introduction

Demand for hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric cars has never been stronger. 

In 2020, sales of pure electric cars grew by 185.9 percent to 108,205 units, while registrations of plug-in hybrids rose 91.2 percent to 66,877. This trend will continue as we head towards the 2030 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars.

To select the best option, you need to understand the differences between hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles. 

The difference between hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric cars


In simple terms, a hybrid vehicle (also known as a self-charging hybrid) boasts a small battery and an electric motor to boost efficiency. It requires a petrol or diesel engine as its primary means of propulsion, but a mile or so of pure electric range should be achievable in the city.

A plug-in hybrid goes a step further. It retains a petrol or diesel engine, but a larger battery delivers up to 50 miles of electric range, depending on the model. 

The battery can be recharged using a home charge point or by taking advantage of the expanding public charging network. You could see plug-in hybrids as a stepping stone towards fully electric vehicles because you’re able to do some driving on electric power, but you still have the safety net of an internal combustion engine to back you up.

Finally, an electric car (also known as a battery electric vehicle (BEV) or electric vehicle (EV) relies entirely on a battery pack as its means of propulsion. It must be plugged in when the battery is low on juice.

Remember this rule: in a hybrid you cannot plug in, in a plug-in hybrid you should plug in, and in an electric car, you must plug in.

Hybrid cars


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The Toyota Prius is arguably the most famous hybrid car on the planet. Launched in 1997, the world’s first mass-produced hybrid vehicle has become the brand generic for green motoring, loved by everyone from greenwashed celebrities to Uber drivers.

A hybrid car pairs an electric motor with a petrol or diesel engine. It means that the driver has access to three forms of propulsion: by the engine, pure electric or both. When used correctly, a hybrid should be as efficient and economical as an equivalent diesel car.

You may have seen cars advertised as mild hybrids. These aren’t electric vehicles in the practical sense – many owners will be unaware that they’re driving a mild hybrid car. A small battery pack with an integrated starter-generator is designed to improve efficiency and to deliver a smooth boost in acceleration, but a mild hybrid can never be run on electric power.

Hybrid cars: pros and cons

Pros

Familiarity

Familiarity is a key benefit of running a hybrid car. From behind the wheel, you shouldn’t notice much difference or have to worry about recharging the battery. 

Efficiency

The electric motor is there to improve fuel economy and overall efficiency, as well as delivering one or two miles of electric range. A hybrid will be more efficient than a petrol car, and more economical than a diesel in town.

A hybrid system will recharge the battery in one of two ways: by using the internal combustion engine or through regenerative braking. Energy that would have been lost under braking or when lifting off the accelerator pedal is diverted to the battery to power the electric motor. This makes a hybrid ideal for stop-start traffic.

Tax

There are also tax benefits associated with hybrid cars. Lower CO2 emissions mean lower VED (Vehicle Excise Duty) in the first year, plus an annual saving of £10 per year. Company car tax, while not as low as the rate for pure electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, will be lower than an equivalent petrol or diesel car.

Towing

It’s also worth noting that hybrid cars are currently the best choice for anyone looking for an electrified car for towing. The maximum towing capacity might be slightly less than in an equivalent petrol or diesel car, but it’s likely to be significantly more than in a pure electric vehicle. Indeed, many electric cars haven’t been granted type approval for towing.

Cons

Cost

It’s not all good news. Hybrids tend to be more expensive to buy than petrol or diesel cars, so the monthly payments will be higher. They’re also less efficient than a diesel car on a motorway, so a company car driver could see the tax savings wiped out by higher fuel bills. 

Range

Another factor working against hybrid cars is that they have very limited electric range.

Ban

The sale of new hybrid cars is to end in 2035, which may limit their appeal. This could be brought forward to 2030 alongside the sale of new petrol and diesel car ban, and hybrids could well be the target of further exclusions from clean air zones as the Government aims to go carbon neutral by 2050.

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Plug-in hybrid cars


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A plug-in hybrid vehicle, commonly referred to as a PHEV, uses batteries to power an electric motor (or motors), and either petrol or diesel to power an engine. As the name suggests, the battery pack in a plug-in hybrid can be recharged at home or via the public charging network.

Though not a new concept, plug-in hybrids have grown in popularity over the last decade or so, with the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV becoming the UK’s best-selling model.

Thanks to a larger battery pack, a plug-in hybrid will travel further than a hybrid on electric power. Typically, a plug-in hybrid car should deliver 20-30 miles of electric range, but up to 50 miles is possible in some models. An example is the BMW X5 xDrive45e, which offers a claimed 54 miles of range.

Plug-in hybrid cars: pros and cons

Some view plug-in hybrids as a convenient halfway house between a conventional car and an electric vehicle, while others see them as a compromise. 

Pros

Backup engine

For now, the petrol or diesel engine should provide electric sceptics with some reassurance, while banishing any lingering ‘range anxiety’ concerns. When the battery has run out, the car switches to the petrol or diesel engine, which is refuelled like a conventional car.

Less fuel consumption

Because a plug-in hybrid car will typically start in electric mode, you could find that you don’t require the engine to complete short trips. Indeed, with the average UK car trip being no more than 10 miles, a plug-in hybrid is likely to remain on electric power more often than not. The engine is there for longer trips.

Tax

Lower CO2 emissions mean the tax benefits are even greater, especially for company car drivers. Cars with lower emissions and decent electric range slot into the lowest BiK (Benefit-in-kind) tax bands, with some plug-in hybrids rated as low as eight percent in 2021/22.

Lower running costs

Aside from the need to plug them in, driving a plug-in hybrid should be as easy as a regular car. The combination of electric and petrol and diesel power delivers improved performance without the high running costs of a fast petrol car. It’s a small thing, but there are no concerns if you don’t have access to a charging point. Simply use the engine until you get home or find a charging station.

Cons

Upfront cost

Cost is one of the major drawbacks of plug-in hybrids, with purchase prices that rival a pure electric car. Take the Hyundai Ioniq. The hybrid costs around £24,000, while the plug-in hybrid and electric versions are priced at around £30,500.

Change in driving habits

You must get into the habit of recharging a plug-in hybrid. If you don’t, you’re simply paying extra to carry an expensive and heavy battery pack, which will make the car less economical to run than a petrol, diesel or hybrid vehicle. A plug-in hybrid car isn’t the best choice if you spend most of your time on the motorway.

Handling

A small point, this one. Although plug-in hybrids tend to be fast in a straight line, with plenty of torque for swift overtaking, the weight of the battery pack can have a slightly detrimental effect on the car’s ride and handling. They’re less comfortable over pitted roads and more cumbersome when cornering.

Limited relevance

Could their lifespan be limited? As advances in battery technology and investment in the charging infrastructure combine to make pure electric ownership a viable prospect for more people, we might see PHEVs phased out in favour of pure electric vehicles.

Electric cars


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After around a century of seemingly slow progress, the electric car has come of age in recent years. 

The days of limited electric range, a poor charging network and jokes about the G-Wiz are over, with electric cars fast becoming the coolest vehicles on the planet. 

Tesla helped to kickstart the industry, with most major manufacturers now offering a pure electric car of some description and more than a few pledging to phase out non-electrified models altogether.

An electric car features an electric motor (or motors) powered by a battery pack, which can be recharged at home or by using the public charging network. There are approaching 25,000 charging points at 15,500 locations, so finding somewhere to charge is getting easier by the day.

How far you can travel on a single charge depends on a number of factors, not least the size of the battery. For example, the 32.6kWh battery in the Mini Electric delivers an official 145 miles of electric range. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the 100kWh battery in the Tesla Model S offers around 400 miles.

The situation is only going to get better as manufacturers come under increasing pressure to reduce CO2 emissions. This, and tightening legislation, will deliver greater choice, an improved charging network and EVs with longer range estimates.

For now, the public charging network should be adequate for most electric car owners, but it makes sense to invest in a home charge unit. As well as being safer than using a domestic plug socket, these units deliver faster charging times and can be set to take advantage of cheaper overnight electricity tariffs.

Electric cars: pros and cons

Pros

Incentives

There’s never been a better time to buy an electric car, with the government offering a £2,500 grant towards the cost of new electric cars costing less than £35,000. 

A separate grant of £350 is available via the Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme when buying a home charge unit.

Tax

The savings continue after the initial purchase, with electric cars qualifying for free VED and extremely low company car tax. 

Thanks to a rate of just one percent for fleet users in 2021/22, a high-end electric car could be cheaper to run than a diesel supermini. Electric cars are also exempt from the London Congestion Charge and Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ).

Low running costs

An electric car will be cheaper to run than a petrol or diesel car. 

This is particularly true if you charge at home and take advantage of special tariffs for EV owners. Some electricity companies offer off-peak rates as low as 4.5p per kWh.

You’ll also benefit from cheaper servicing and maintenance costs since there are far fewer moving parts subject to wear and tear than in an internal combustion engine.

Air quality

Other benefits include zero tailpipe emissions and quieter running in towns and cities. Less tangible, but no less significant, is the sense that you’re doing your bit to improve local air quality.

Driving experience

As for the driving experience, the instant torque makes electric cars responsive and fun to drive. Some electric cars are quicker off the line than a six-figure supercar, but use the acceleration in moderation if you want to stay safe and preserve the car’s range.

Cons

Quoted range

Which segues neatly into some of the negative aspects of running an electric car. 

The range quoted by the manufacturer should be treated as a guide – you’re unlikely to achieve the official estimate in the real world. Cold weather, the use of accessories, topography and driving style are just some of the things that could put a dent in the electric range. Find out more in our guide to EV range.

Upfront cost

Cost is another factor. Although the running costs are lower, electric cars are significantly more expensive to buy, with even a humble city car costing £20,000. 

A figure of around £30,000 is more realistic, while some upmarket EVs break the £100,000 mark. 

The difference between an electric car and an equivalent petrol or diesel car is less when paying monthly, however. There are some competitive leasing deals for electric cars out there right now, with models like the Corsa-e and the MG ZS Electric even beating their petrol equivalents in price.

Charging

Anyone without access to a garage, driveway or off-street parking might struggle to charge an electric car at home, and while the public charging network is getting better rapidly, some areas remain underserved, and there are some reports of inoperative charging units.

Rate of development

Finally, the rapid rate of progress in the electric car industry means that a new EV in 2021 could be obsolete in just a few years. 

This is as much a positive as it is a negative, but you don’t want to be tied into a lengthy finance contract on a car that’s outmoded and worth significantly less than the price you paid for it. 

Conclusion


Should you buy a hybrid, plug-in hybrid or electric car? It all depends on your circumstances, so doing some homework is essential. A hybrid is a sensible alternative to a petrol or diesel car, especially for short trips and urban commutes. A plug-in hybrid is an excellent stepping stone to a pure electric car – but you must remember to plug it in.

Advances in technology and new legislation will quickly reduce any current disadvantages associated with electric cars in the coming years. Buy an electric car now and you’ll be ahead of the curve come the 2030 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars.

When you’ve made your decision, visit RAC Cars for a wide range of hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric cars, or check out our leasing deals.

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