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Hybrid cars: What you need to know and when they will run out of road

Hybrids in hot demand: These were the best-selling HEVs and PHEVs in 2022, according to the SMMT's official vehicle registrations records

One of the headline stat from the latest UK car sales report is that ‘conventional’ hybrid electric vehicle purchases have grown a surprising 40 per cent year-on-year so far in 2023.

Over 28,000 new ‘self-charging’ hybrids (those that cannot be plugged in) have hit the road in January and February, which is 8,000 more than this time last year and represents one in seven of all new cars registered in the opening two months of the year.

Why is this such a shock, you might ask? Especially considering hybrids are often looked upon as a stepping stone between traditional combustion engine motors and fully electric vehicles.

Firstly, it’s because these self charging hybrid cars are seen as somewhat old hat compared to plug-in hybrids. Secondly, in the eyes of the Government, hybrids’ days are numbered – and most of them will be banned from sale in 2030 alongside petrol and diesels.

Here’s everything you need to know about hybrid cars, from the different types, their pros and cons, which hybrids are most (and least) economical and the UK’s best sellers.

Hybrids in hot demand: These were the best-selling HEVs and PHEVs in 2022, according to the SMMT's official vehicle registrations records

Hybrids in hot demand: These were the best-selling HEVs and PHEVs in 2022, according to the SMMT’s official vehicle registrations records

What are the different types of ‘hybrid’ car?

There are three different types of hybrid car on the market currently. Here’s a brief overview of each, how they differ and why one SHOULDN’T technically be considered a hybrid…

1. HYBRID ELECTRIC VEHICLE (HEV)

Also known as: Hybrids, conventional hybrid, self-charging hybrid

Conventional hybrids are those with a combustion engine (typically a petrol) with a supplementary small battery and electric motor. They cannot be plugged in and generate electric power from their own movement and regenerative braking

A Hybrid Electric Vehicle has an onboard battery and electric motor to supplement a petrol or diesel engine. However, it can’t be plugged in to be charged, so all of the electric power is generated by the movement of the vehicle.

Batteries are far smaller than those in fully electric cars and for this reason can only typically provide a handful of miles of range using electric power only. 

They’re often referred to as conventional hybrids as they were introduced to the market ahead of plug-in hybrids (which we will come to shortly), with the Toyota Prius being the most renowned model.

Because of their limited electric-only ranges and need to be charged by the car itself, these hybrids are seen as more outdated and are expected to give way to more plug-in hybrid cars. Except, as we noted above sales are booming.

2. PLUG-IN HYBRID ELECTRIC VEHICLE (PHEV)

Also known  as: Plug-in hybrids

Mercedes has confirmed it is pulling back investments into combustion engines and plug-in hybrid technologies by 80% between 2019 and 2026

Plug-in hybrids commonly have a larger battery than a conventional hybrid and can be charged via the mains, a wallbox or public device. They offer longer electric driving ranges than HEVs, but only if you plug them in to replenish batteries

Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles also use an internal combustion engine – usually petrol but occasionally diesel – and an onboard battery and electric motor(s). But the big difference is that they also have a charging socket.

The battery can be charged by plugging into the mains, a domestic wallbox or public charging device. Like HEVs, they also have energy regenerating brakes and systems that help to trickle a little extra capacity to the battery on the move.

The battery pack is not as large as those in fully electric cars but is bigger than units in HEVs. This means that plug-in hybrids can be driven on electric power alone, with proponents arguing this makes them perfect for short-trip urban driving. When fully charged, a plug-in hybrid can provide anywhere between 25 and 55 miles of range using just electric power. 

For longer journeys – or any trip where you’ve used up to electric driving capacity – the vehicle will become reliant on the petrol engine to take you to your destination. 

Almost all manufacturers have introduced plug-in hybrid options, whether that’s a Ford Kuga, Audi A3, or a Bentley Bentayga.

3. MILD-HYBRID ELECTRIC VEHICLE (MHEV)

Also known as: Mild hybrids

Mild hybrids are the latest form of 'hybrid' car to hit the market. However, at no time does the system power the wheels like an HEV or PHEV

Mild hybrids are the latest form of ‘hybrid’ car to hit the market. However, at no time does the system power the wheels like an HEV or PHEV

One of the most confusing recent terms introduced to the sector is the Mild Hybrid Electric Vehicle (MHEV). These are a middle-ground between a petrol/diesel car and a HEV and are becoming increasingly common in showrooms.

While they do have some electric capacity, to use the term ‘hybrid’ does muddy the waters. 

They have a very small battery and motor-generator – usually no bigger than 48 volts – to supplement the combustion engine under the bonnet. However, the big difference to a HEV or PHEV is that the battery and motor does not provide all-electric propulsion at any time whatsoever.

Instead, the motor-generator uses stored electricity to supply additional torque to the engine, boosting its output without burning additional fuel to make the combustion engine more efficient.

Some mild hybrids also use the generator to enable the car’s engine to be turned off for up to 40 seconds when coasting, automatically restarting when acceleration is called for. This is said to offer greater fuel-economy from a petrol or diesel engine.

Examples, of cars that come as mild hybrids include the Ford Fiesta, the Jaguar F-Pace and Volvo XC60. 

How popular are hybrid cars compared to other fuel types?

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders this week confirmed that 28,609 HEVs have been registered in January and February. That’s a year-on-year increase of 40 per cent and the biggest growth across all fuel types – more than double that of pure electric cars.

It means one in seven new cars registered in Britain so far in 2023 are conventional hybrids. In contrast, just one in 13 new motors entering the car parc in the first two months of the year are diesels. 

HEV sales are also double that of PHEVs, of which 13,832 have been registered in January and February.

That is something of a surprise as it is represents a much greater degree of outselling plug-in hybrids than in recent times.  

This is only a fraction of the demand for petrol cars, though. They continue to lead the way in terms of fuel type with a 57 per cent share of the market (including MHEV petrols) in 2023. 

HEVs sales have accounted for one in seven new car registrations so far in 2023 with demand increasing more than 40% compared to a year ago. This has come as a surprise, given the Government’s push for drivers to switch to fully- electric BEVs

Looking back at 2022 full-year sales, just one in ten new models bought in Britain were HEVs (187,948) while PHEVs accounted for around one in 16 registrations (101,414).

Demands for hybrids paled in comparison to pure electric cars last year. Some 267,203 Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV) were bought in 2022, which represents one in six of the 1.6million motors sold last term.

When will new hybrid cars be banned from sale?

When former Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced in November 2020 that new petrol and diesel car sales will end in 2030 as part of his ‘Green Industrial Revolution’, there was – and remains today – some confusion around the future of hybrids.

At the time, Mr Johnson said hybrid cars that can ‘drive a significant distance without emitting carbon’ would be allowed to remain on sale beyond 2030 – but would eventually be axed from showrooms in 2035.

Some new hybrid cars will be allowed to remain on sale after the ban on petrol and diesels at the end of the decade - but all hybrids will be axed from showrooms from 2035

Some new hybrid cars will be allowed to remain on sale after the ban on petrol and diesels at the end of the decade – but all hybrids will be axed from showrooms from 2035

So, what is a ‘significant distance’ in the eyes of MPs? 

Despite promising to launch a consultation to define which hybrids can remain on sale beyond 2030, we still don’t know.

This is Money asked the Department for Transport for an update on the matter.

They said: ‘We will end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030, and all new cars and vans will be fully zero emission by 2035.

‘If not fully zero emission, all new cars and vans sold between 2030 and 2035 must have significant zero emission capability (SZEC).

‘We will set out further details on this, in due course.’

When the government outlined its ‘Road to Zero’ strategy in 2018, including a proposed ban on new petrol and diesel cars a decade later from 2040, it said only hybrid cars ‘capable of covering 50 miles or more’ using electric power alone would remain on sale beyond the deadline.

At the time, 98 per cent of hybrid cars on sale failed to meet those criteria.

With HEVs only capable of very short distance in electric mode, it is widely expected that none will meet the Government’s criteria (whatever than ends up being). It means only some PHEVs will be allowed to remain in showrooms until the middle of next decade.

What were the best-selling hybrid cars last year?

Toyota's Yaris Hybrid was the best-selling HEV in 2022. Some 22k were bought by Britons last term. Prices start from £22,110

Toyota’s Yaris Hybrid was the best-selling HEV in 2022. Some 22k were bought by Britons last term. Prices start from £22,110

 In terms of HEVs, Toyota has a real stronghold on the market.

That’s not much of a surprise given that the Japanese brand was one of the earliest adopters of the technology, with the Prius launched pre-2000 still today considered the poster boy for hybrids cars – though the new version will not be sold in the UK due to a lack of customer appetite.

The Toyota Yaris Hybrid was 2022’s best popular HEV with 22,051 registrations, ahead of the Corolla (18,594), C-HR (17,440) and Yaris Cross (14,599) from the Japanese company’s model range.

As for PHEVs, the Ford Kuga was the best seller with 10,074 registrations, ahead of the BMW 3 Series (6,805), Volvo XC40 (5,719) and Range Rover Evoque (4,171).

Are hybrids more expensive than petrol and diesel cars?

The RAC says both HEVs and PHEVs are more expensive to buy than their petrol or diesel counterparts, in some cases up to 20 per cent pricier.

However, due to their higher resale values, buyers are likely to recoup a lot of this extra cost when they decide to sell.

How economical are hybrid cars?

To determine the fuel economy figures for HEVs and PHEVs, manufacturers are mandated to put them through the same laboratory test used for petrol and diesel cars.

Despite being a repeated cycle in controlled conditions, it isn’t entirely fit for purpose for hybrid cars. This is because the gradual acceleration, steady braking and slow speeds during the test run to measure emissions and fuel economy isn’t representative of real-world driving and plays into the hands of hybrid cars, allowing them to use their electric power more often that consumers usually would on the road. 

electric cars special section

This is why official fuel economy figures for HEVs and PHEVs need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

And those figures don’t reflect the MPG that you will get on a long journey. Instead, they are skewed by the ability to drive mainly on electric power over short distances, albeit these make up most people’s journeys most of the time.

That said, if you buy the right hybrid model you will benefit from low fuel bills. That’s according to What Car?, which tests real-world fuel efficiency of HEVs on sale in Britain.

The most fuel-efficient HEV it has put through its True MPG test is the Toyota Yaris Cross 1.5 Hybrid, which starts from £24,840 and was found to return an impressive 60.1 miles per gallon.

On the flipside, the previous-generation Lexus 450h SUV – which is a much bigger and heavier car – managed just 30.8mpg when tested by What Car?. 

What Car? says it doesn’t test PHEVs. This is ‘due to the difficulties with the powertrain and getting a representative MPG across all makes and models as there’s no real way of measuring it consistently,’ a spokesperson told us. 

What Car? has tested the 'True MPG' figures for most self-charging hybrids on the market. The one with the best return is the Toyota Yaris Cross, which managed 60.1mpg in real-world conditions

What Car? has tested the ‘True MPG’ figures for most self-charging hybrids on the market. The one with the best return is the Toyota Yaris Cross, which managed 60.1mpg in real-world conditions

The most and least efficient HEVs tested by What Car? 

BEST TRUE MPG TEST RESULTS

1. Toyota Yaris Cross 1.5 Hybrid – 60.1mpg

2. Toyota Yaris 1.5 Hybrid – 59.9mpg

3. Honda Jazz 1.5 i-MMD Hybrid – 56.0mpg

4. Renault Clio 1.6 petrol hybrid 140 – 51.6mpg

5. Toyota Prius 1.8 VVT-i – 50.5mpg

6. Suzuki Swace 1.8 Hybrid – 50.3mpg

7. Kia Niro Hybrid – 50.1mpg

8. Toyota Corolla Touring Sports 2.0 hybrid – 49.4mpg

9. Toyota Yaris 1.5 Hybrid (previous generation) – 49.2mpg

10. Toyota RAV4 2.5 Hybrid 2WD – 49.0mpg 

WORST TRUE MPG TEST RESULTS

1. Lexus RX 450h (previous generation) – 30.8mpg

2. Toyota Highlander 2.5 Hybrid – 34.6mpg

=3. Kia Sorento 1.6 T-GDi HEV – 37.1mpg

=3. Toyota RAV4 2.5 Hybrid (previous generation) – 37.1mpg

5. Lexus UX 250h – 40.4

6. Toyota Camry 2.5 Hybrid – 41.1mpg

7. Lexus NX 350h – 41.3mpg

8. Lexus ES 300h – 44.7mpg

9. Kia Niro 1.6 GDi HEV – 46.2mpg

10. Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid – 46.9mpg

Source: WhatCar? True MPG 

Should you consider a hybrid today – or have they run their course?

– FOR HYBRIDS

Generally speaking, hybrid cars do offer fuel-saving benefits over conventional petrols and diesels. 

Mike Hawes, chief exec of the SMMT, says hybrids are there for those not quite ready to make the switch to full EVs

Mike Hawes, chief exec of the SMMT, says hybrids are there for those not quite ready to make the switch to full EVs

They can also be driven (for varying lengths of time) in zero-emissions electric mode and – unlike fully electric cars – won’t ever give you range anxiety. They also benefit from lower vehicle excise duty (car tax) and are an attractive low-tax option for company car drivers.

It’s for this reason they are often considered a bridge between cars with internal combustion engines and full EVs.

Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive, said: ‘Manufacturers have invested billions to offer a range of technologies and give every car buyer options to reduce their emissions. 

‘Hybrid technologies have a crucial role to play on the road to zero emission transport, especially as they can act as a steppingstone for those who aren’t quite ready to make the switch into a fully electric car.’

– AGAINST HYBRIDS 

As well as taking their official fuel economy claims with a pinch of salt, green transport groups have said that the claimed CO2 emissions quoted for hybrids can be far from how much they pollute when used on the road. 

Green campaign group Transport & Environment – which refers to plug-in hybrids as ‘the car industry’s wolf in sheep’s clothing’ – recently released a report stating that its own tests found PHEVs emit up to three times their claimed CO2 emissions during real-world driving. 

And its views of HEVs are equally critical.

Richard Hebditch, UK director at T&E, said: ‘The cars we buy now are still going to be hanging around well into the 2030s. The performance of hybrids in real world situations – whether self-charging or plug-in – shows they’re still emitting plenty of CO2. 

‘The reality is that they’re a distraction from going fully electric and getting the carbon savings we actually need to meet the UK’s climate targets.’

Fiona Howarth, CEO of Octopus Electric Vehicles, also believes hybrids have run their course and should be overlooked entirely in favour of 100 per cent electric cars.

‘Hybrids have long been a stepping stone for drivers on their journey to using full electric vehicles,’ she told us. 

Fiona Howarth, CEO at Octopus Electric Vehicles, says hybrids are 2010s tech and an no longer needed to bridge the gap to EV ownership

Fiona Howarth, CEO at Octopus Electric Vehicles, says hybrids are 2010s tech and an no longer needed to bridge the gap to EV ownership

‘Their familiarity allows drivers to feel like they’re taking a small step rather than a leap into the unknown. But a stone isn’t a steppingstone until you step off it.

‘I loved my Nokia and Blackberry, but with tech advances these have been replaced by the smartphone. Hybrids were also great when batteries were more expensive, car makers are getting up to speed and the infrastructure wasn’t there – but they are tech of the 2010s.

‘In just the last five years, the EV models we can offer have gone from five to more than 80, and the rapid public charging network is six times bigger. There are now over twice the number of charger locations for EVs as there are petrol stations – and yet EVs are less than 2 per cent of cars on the road. Plus many drivers can charge at home, work or local chargers – with the possibility of saving over £1,000 a year versus filling up with petrol, despite the fact that electricity prices have increased.

‘They might once have considered hybrids as a bridge to fill the gap. But why settle for less?”

CARS & MOTORING: ON TEST

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