Tips and advice

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?

A major part of the UK government’s strategy to reduce overall CO2 emissions is to cut the amount generated by transport. One of the main goals is to encourage the majority of motorists to make the move to cars that have much lower emissions, such as hybrid and plug-in hybrid cars, or those which emit zero emissions from the tailpipe, such as electric cars. A ban on the sale of new non-hybrid petrol and diesel cars will come into effect from 2030 as a result.

That year is fast approaching and there is still work to be done to get the electric car infrastructure ready for widespread EV car ownership. It’s realistic to assume that hybrid petrol and diesel cars will continue to play a key role in the transitional phase to a fully electric motoring future until 2035.

Official: new petrol and diesel car sales will be banned from 2030

Manufacturers will still be able to sell vehicles capable of ‘significant’ zero-emissions driving beyond 2030 but by 2035, all new cars sold in the UK must emit zero emissions from the tailpipe all the time. Although standard hybrids will be phased out, it remains to be seen how long plug-in hybrids will continue to be sold.

It’s a common misconception that the ban is on the use, rather than the sale, of petrol and diesel cars. That’s not the case, so many drivers will still be filling up at conventional fuel stations for years to come.

Like many other motorists, you may have decided you’d like to make the move to a hybrid, plug-in hybrid or full electric vehicle, but it’s important to understand the differences between the three; their pros and cons, from practicality to running costs.

We’ve put together a guide to hybrid, plug-in hybrid and fully electric cars to help you determine which one is best for your current circumstances.

Hybrid cars

Hybrid vs plug-in hybrid vs electric cars

The Toyota Prius was famously the first mass-produced 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.

Basic hybrid technology hasn’t really changed drastically since the Prius came along, although there have, of course, been improvements in efficiency and implementation. The fundamentals still apply, and hybrid cars come with a petrol or diesel engine that works in tandem with a separate electric motor. They are able to drive with either the electric motor alone, combustion engine alone, or a combination of the two – the on-board computer calculates when and how the different power plants take over.

Top 10 best hybrid cars 2022

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.

Hybrid vs plug-in hybrid vs electric cars

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

Hybrid vs plug-in hybrid vs electric 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.

Top 10 best plug-in hybrids 2022

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.

Hybrid vs plug-in hybrid vs electric cars

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.

Electric cars

Hybrid vs plug-in hybrid vs 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. 

Top 10 best electric cars 2022

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 £1,500 off the list price of most electric models costing under £32,000. If you own a PHEV or EV and live in a flat or rent your place of residence, the good news is that you may qualify for the EV chargepoint grant, where the government will contribute 75% towards the cost of installing a home wallbox charger, up to a cap of £350.

Electric cars also benefit from extremely low levels of company-car tax, with Benefit-in-Kind set at just 2% in 2022 until at least April 2024.

Hybrid vs plug-in hybrid vs electric cars

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.

Read our guides to hybridsplug-in hybrids and electric cars here. 

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