Hybrid vs plug-in hybrid vs electric cars
What’s the difference between the three types of electrified car, and which is best for you?
As the world tries to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and move to renewable energy, one of the biggest changes is already happening to the types of car we drive. The long-term goal is that most, if not all, drivers will be in electric cars (EVs), and the UK government intends to ban the sale of non-hybrid petrol and diesel cars by 2030 to help achieve this.
The year 2030 isn’t far away and it’s going to take a long time to build sufficient infrastructure for everyone to use an electric car, so it seems we’re set for a longer transitional period where petrol and diesel hybrid cars remain part of the motoring mainstream.
All new cars sold in the UK must have zero tailpipe emissions by 2035, so from 2030 until then, manufacturers can sell new vehicles that can be driven a ‘significant’ distance – so far unqualified – with zero emissions. That means plug-in hybrids could remain on sale for quite a while, even if standard hybrids will be phased out.
If you haven’t taken much notice of these issues until now, it can be a little confusing. Some people have assumed that the ban on petrol and diesel cars is on their use, not of their sale, but this isn’t the case. That means many of us are likely to be visiting fuel stations for many years to come.
However, if you’re considering whether now is the time to take the plunge into hybrid, plug-in hybrid or fully electric motoring, then it’s worth having a basic understanding of what the different terms mean, and what to look out for in terms of running costs and practicalities.
Read on for our guide to the differences between hybrid, plug-in hybrid and fully electric cars to see which would suit you best.
The Toyota Prius was famously the first mass production hybrid car to hit the market. It went on sale in 1997, yet plenty of manufacturers are still playing catch-up and only just adding hybrid models to their ranges.
The basic technology hasn’t changed much since that first Prius appeared, although naturally there have been advances in efficiency and implementation. However the fundamentals still apply, and a hybrid car is one with a petrol or diesel engine that works in combination with a separate electric motor. They can drive using either the electric motor alone, just the engine, or a combination of the two; a computer decides when and how the different elements take over.
The on-board battery that powers a hybrid car’s electric motor is relatively small, which means the battery in a hybrid can easily be charged up on the move, either by the engine or electricity generated when the vehicle is coasting or braking. Some people refer to these cars as ‘self-charging hybrids’ for this reason, and the term is an easily understandable way to differentiate them from the plug-in hybrids discussed further down the page.
Mild hybrids arrived later and are slightly different. They have smaller electric motors – usually an adaptation of a petrol/diesel engine’s existing starter motor – that help to provide an acceleration boost when necessary but can’t power the vehicle by themselves.
The pros and cons of hybrid cars
Because hybrid cars can drive only a short distance on batteries alone, and usually not more than a mile or so, they tend to make the most sense in town. Stop-start conditions mean you can creep along in traffic jams in electric mode without adding to the smog but when the congestion eases the engine kicks in to do most of the work.
When you drive out of town the electric motor still helps out during acceleration, and this means you should get more miles out of every gallon of fuel. However, if you tend to drive quickly the advantages can be relatively marginal because the engine will still be working hard.
That’s why many hybrid drivers find their real world mpg figures are less than they might have hoped, although careful hybrid drivers really can benefit. The same principles apply to mild-hybrid drivers, too.
Although manufacturer claims for mpg and CO2 emissions in hybrids may prove optimistic for many, the low official emissions figures can be hugely relevant to company-car tax payers thanks to the reduced Benefit-in-Kind liability. Government incentives mean you can pay a lot less company-car tax for the hybrid version of a traditionally powered car of equal value.
One other clear additional advantage of hybrid and mild-hybrid models is that you don’t have to change your habits. They still need to be filled up at the fuel station, and you don’t have to bother with plugs, cables or getting to grips with EV battery charging systems. Hybrid cars are also typically less expensive than plug-ins or EVs and because they’ve been around a while, there are lots to choose from.
Plug-in hybrid cars
The main elements of a plug-in hybrid vehicle (PHEV) are very similar to a standard hybrid car, in that you have an extra battery and electric motor to support the work of a petrol or diesel engine. The main difference is that the battery is bigger, allowing a PHEV to drive much further on electric power alone. The battery’s size means it can’t be recharged by the car as it drives along like a regular hybrid. Instead, just like a fully electric car, you have to plug in a PHEV in order to recharge the battery.
On a full charge, a PHEV will typically allow you to drive between 20 and 50 miles on its battery alone, depending on specification. Once the battery is empty you have to rely on the petrol or diesel engine to continue your journey. You won’t get any significant help from the battery and electric motor until you’ve had a chance to plug in for several hours to recharge but a PHEV will happily drive all day on its petrol or diesel engine.
That is the PHEV’s major selling point; it offers drivers the opportunity to benefit from low-cost and carbon-efficient electric power, without always having to rely on the UK’s still-developing charging networks to complete a journey.
Pros and cons of plug-in hybrid cars
As you can imagine, a PHEV can look tremendously clever if your daily commute is shorter than the electric-only range provided by a fully charged battery. In that case you could simply charge your car every night at home and never use a drop of petrol or diesel except for occasional longer journeys.
If you do make lots of longer journeys, the battery becomes a dead weight when it’s flat, reducing your car’s performance and costing you more in fuel than a standard petrol car might. Under those conditions a PHEV may not look so clever, especially as the plug-in components can weigh enough to affect the car’s handling.
Talking of performance, lots of PHEVs – like fully electric cars – offer startlingly rapid acceleration. The tech is still relatively expensive and it tends to get fitted to range-topping models, so it’s a great way for manufacturers to offer pricey high-performance cars to business users, as the extremely low emissions figures mean PHEVs attract even lower company car-tax rates than standard hybrids.
Official CO2 and MPG figures are extremely attractive because they’re based on fully charged batteries, and of course that involves the extra hassle of cables and chargers.
If, as predicted, in a few years we have lighter, faster charging batteries and a greatly expanded charging network, then it’s likely the PHEV ‘stop-gap’ solution may become less attractive. For now, for the right type of journeys, PHEVs are a useful halfway house in the move to fully electric cars.
The number of electric cars is already increasing rapidly on UK roads, so there’s also an increasing amount of choice as manufacturers seek to cash in on demand. These days you can get everything from city cars and superminis, family hatchbacks, executive cars and even SUVs with pure-electric drivetrains. While that means there’s an electric car to suit a wide range of budgets, they’re all linked by the fact that you can’t go anywhere without charging up the battery.
Charging times depend on the size of your car’s battery and the rate at which you can charge it, whether at home or using a public charge point. Your driving range is limited by the size of your car’s battery too, so it’s vital to find a model that will meet your own needs.
Pros and cons of electric cars
Zero tailpipe emissions is where cars are headed, so while hybrids and PHEVs are a step in the right direction, you’ll need a fully electric car to meet the government’s – and many drivers’ - ultimate objective. While successive governments have incentivised both hybrid and EV models, only pure-electric vehicles now qualify for the government’s plug-in car grant, which offers up to £2,500 off the list price of most electric models costing under £35,000. The government will also contribute £350 to the cost of a wallbox at home if you have a PHEV or EV.
Electric cars also benefit from extremely low levels of company-car tax, with Benefit-in-Kind set at just 1% in 2021, and 2% in 2022.
Compared to traditional models, EVs can look relatively pricey to buy but as an electric car owner, you’ll benefit from ultra-low running costs, as well as the relaxing and near-silent drive. You will have to get used to the rigmarole of dragging a cable across your garage, drive or sometimes the pavement to keep it charged. However, with EV range from a single charge seemingly increasing with every new model, some EV drivers already only need to charge their car once or twice a week. If your car will drive 300 miles on a full charge and your commute is just 20 miles, why not?
On longer journeys, ‘range anxiety’ and the issue of finding a charger can still make driving an EV stressful. There are over 30,000 public charging points available around the country as we speak, and more installed every day, but charging still requires extra planning and more time spent plugged into chargers than you would refilling a car with petrol or diesel at a fuel station.