Best hybrid cars
Petrol-electric hybrid technology has become so ubiquitous that the cheapest hybrid cars can be had for the same price as a family hatchback
You’ll probably associate hybrid cars with the Toyota Prius because it was one of the very first mainstream hybrids back in the late 1990s - and the subsequent models have moved the game on again. These days, Toyota puts the Prius’ eco-friendly powertrain in several different models, including an SUV and a family hatchback, while other manufacturers have developed their own hybrid technology in an effort to cut harmful tailpipe emissions.
Now there are not only more hybrid models to choose from but different types of hybrid technology too. They all use a combination of a petrol or diesel engine and an electric motor. Traditional hybrids - the ones on this list, sometimes called ‘self-charging’ hybrids by manufacturers - use an engine as their main power source, and assistance is provided by an electric motor and a small battery pack, typically under acceleration and at lower speeds.
Most new models are plug-in hybrids (PHEVs), which manage a reasonable distance on electric power alone, and their bigger batteries need to be recharged from a socket. You can also buy mild hybrids and range-extenders, although these are far less common than they were a few years ago. Our guide to hybrids takes you through each type in more detail.
So which type of hybrid is best? That depends on your driving habits and budget, but all should save you money compared with a petrol or diesel model and tend to be less polluting. Check out our roundups of the best hybrid SUVs, best hybrid estate cars and the best hybrid and electric sports cars, or visit our guide to the best electric-only cars. And below is our list of the best hybrid cars overall you can buy today.
Toyota realises that not everyone who wants a hybrid wants a Prius, so it’s taken the Prius’ drivetrain and put it in a sharply styled family hatchback. The Corolla nameplate has returned, with a spacious estate and a four-door saloon too, and every model now comes with hybrid badges.
The battery and electric motor can be mated to a 1.8-litre engine (as per the Prius and C-HR) or a more powerful 2.0-litre engine. Inside, it feels as upmarket as the Ford Focus, if not quite the Volkswagen Golf, but there’s plenty of standard kit - the entry-level trim comes with luxury features like LED headlights and a reversing camera. Keen drivers might wish that the steering had more feel, but the Corolla is comfortable and handles well enough. While the hatchback isn’t that practical, the estate offers around double the boot space.
The Prius is seen by many as the original hybrid, and the fourth generation model is more efficient than ever. On the stringent new WLTP test cycle, it managed up to 67.2mpg, a figure only a couple of diesel engines can match. The Prius also impresses with its equipment levels (all cars get auto high-beam, adaptive cruise control and a rear-view camera) and its comfortable, relaxing driving experience. It’s not the last word in fun - as you might expect - but it handles tidily and doesn’t have as much body roll as previous versions.
There’s a plug-in hybrid model that’s more efficient but costlier and less practical, and we reckon the standard Prius offers good economy for most buyers. It’s worth mentioning that the Prius had a stellar performance in our 2019 Driver Power owner satisfaction survey; it was ranked the best car on sale by owners, and topped the charts for reliability too.
The latest incarnation of the Honda Jazz is only available with a hybrid powertrain that combines a 1.5-litre petrol engine and two electric motors but no gearbox. What’s important to know is that it’s quiet and relaxed unless you accelerate hard, and that it’s very efficient; nearly 63mpg is the result.
The latest Jazz gets a much better touchscreen than before, plus a rugged new Crosstar trim with a bit of SUV-influenced styling. It still has the cinema-style ‘Magic Seats’ in the back and plenty of room, so you’ll find it’s more spacious than the Ford Fiesta or Renault Clio. The Jazz still typically appeals to a different buyer than those two cars, but it’s certainly worth a look if you want a roomy, cheap-to-run car.
Honda is planning to electrify nearly its entire range by 2022, and its commitment to hybrid engines is highlighted by the absence of a diesel model in the CR-V range. That means it’s well-suited to town driving, where you can drive on electric power alone for short distances.
We like the car’s smoothness, especially compared to the petrol model with a CVT gearbox, and that it’s quieter than a number of rivals. The interior is well-built and smart, and even the base car comes with Honda’s Sensing driver aids package.
Toyota has always been at the forefront of technology, but has also gained a reputation for conservative design. Perhaps the C-HR is evidence its stylists have caught up, because not only does it have an advanced hybrid powertrain, it also looks like no other crossover. Sharp lines, hidden rear door handles and a swooping roofline disguise the fact the C-HR is almost the size of a Nissan Qashqai, and it looks far sportier as a result.
With the same underpinnings as the latest Prius, it boasts a 1.8-litre petrol engine and gets from 0-62mph in a reasonable 11 seconds dead. Taller bodywork means it can’t quite match the Prius for economy, but 58.9mpg and CO2 emissions of 86g/km does beat diesel rivals like the SEAT Ateca and Nissan Qashqai. The C-HR has neat handling and rides comfortably, with only the CVT automatic gearbox spoiling refinement somewhat by allowing engine revs to flare noisily.
The last Toyota RAV4 had bland styling and Toyota wanted to make sure this new one stands out. Its boxy arches and sharp face give a bolder look than many of the car’s rivals, and the car’s size is backed up by lots of interior and boot space. The RAV4 now gets Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard, which means you can bypass Toyota’s infotainment system, which we think is the weakest part of the car.
This time around, the RAV4 only comes as a hybrid, comprising a 2.5-litre petrol engine with an electric motor and a battery. The engine seems large but the whole system is economical - the RAV4 manages 45-50mpg - while it’s brisk too, hitting 0-62mph in under 8.5 seconds. It’s quiet and refined most of the time and, like the CR-V, you can travel short distances around town without disturbing the engine. A plug-in hybrid RAV4 will be part of the range by early 2021.
The Kia Niro is available in two flavours: a regular hybrid that sees the petrol engine and small electric motor working in concert to propel the car efficiently, and a more expensive plug-in version that offers the possibility of significant electric range. The latter will benefit company-car drivers in particular, but both are among the more affordable and practical hybrid cars you can buy right now, making them ideal for family motoring. There’s also a Kia e-Niro electric model with 282 miles of range.
Toyota’s styling department is on a roll at the moment, with the new Toyota Yaris sharing only badges with its predecessor. It’ll now attract buyers on its looks alone, rather than relying on the hybrid engine to steal sales from rivals. The new Yaris is exclusively offered as a hybrid but it’s no longer the only hybrid supermini, so Toyota couldn’t rest on its laurels.
Improvements in battery tech mean the Yaris can drive on electric power alone up to half the time at low speeds. As a result, Toyota claims up to 69mpg, which should help offset its slightly more expensive price compared to rivals. You won’t feel short-changed by the car’s refinement or comfort either, as both are impressive.
The Toyota Prius might be the default hybrid choice, but potential Prius buyers should also take a look at the Hyundai Ioniq. It has a slippery design like the Toyota, and a similar diesel-like fuel economy figure, but it’s a bit cheaper to buy and boasts a bigger load space. While the Prius is available in ‘full’ hybrid and plug-in hybrid forms, the Ioniq adds a third model to the line-up - a fully battery-powered Hyundai Ioniq Electric.
The Ioniq Hybrid model we’re talking about here has the smallest amount of electrical assistance of the three, but it’s still worth considering. It even undercuts many petrol and diesel-engined family hatchbacks, while it might well be the best option if you have limited opportunities to plug the car in - the other two Ioniq models both need recharging from the mains.
The UX is the newest and smallest SUV in Lexus' line-up, slotting in below the larger NX and RX. It shares underpinnings with the Toyota C-HR Hybrid, but Lexus' engineers have made it more entertaining to drive, as well as adding the brand's typically high-quality interior fit and finish. The UX makes a compelling alternative to German rivals like the BMW X1, Mercedes GLA and Audi Q2.
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