Is a hybrid car right for me?

By Tom Wiltshire

So, you want to switch out of your petrol or diesel car. There are plenty of good reasons for this – perhaps you’re worried about the environmental impact you’re having, or you want to take advantage of tax benefits for low emissions vehicles. Maybe you simply want to save some dosh at the pumps.

However, full-electric cars aren’t yet suitable for every driver, so a hybrid car might seem to be the answer – merging combustion technology with electrification to give, in theory, the advantages of both.

But is a hybrid car the right choice for you? Read on to find out…

Types of hybrid

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First of all, you need to establish what type of hybrid you’re looking for. First of all, there’s a mild hybrid. These use very small electric motors and battery packs exclusively to aid the engine, and never drive the wheels directly. Often, they’re virtually indistinguishable from driving a standard combustion-engined car, and manufacturers may not even signal that the system is there.

Next up, there’s the traditional or parallel hybrid – the original, popularised by the Toyota Prius in the late 90s. These use a larger battery pack and electric motor and are capable of travelling for a few miles on electric power alone. Often, the cars will set off on electricity, with the engine cutting in over a certain speed or throttle load. They can’t be plugged in, and gain all of their electric power from brake regeneration and engine power – earning them the somewhat-misleading nickname of a self-charging hybrid.

Plug-in hybrids are, as the name suggests, hybrid cars you can plug in to a socket or outlet. These use bigger battery packs and electric motors still and are usually capable of travelling at least 20 miles without using the combustion engine at all. The aim, of course, is that they be driven mainly on electric power, with the combustion engine cutting in for longer journeys or under heavy load.

Finally, there are range-extending electric vehicles. These are essentially electric cars with a combustion engine added to act as a generator, and are becoming increasingly rare despite their on-paper advantages.

What’s your mileage?

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High-mileage users would still benefit from a diesel over a hybrid car in most situations. The fact is, the electric motors on most hybrid cars don’t provide much, if any assistance over a certain speed. This means that on a motorway cruise, a hybrid car reverts to being a petrol vehicle – but one burdened with the weight of a battery and electric motor.

This is especially true of plug-in hybrids, which often shock motorists by posting enormous fuel economy figures when the battery is charged – then immediately dropping to substandard levels when running on combustion alone.

That’s not to say a high-mileage driver wouldn’t see the cost benefits of a hybrid compared to, say, a standard petrol car – but motorway users will still favour diesel.

Where do you drive?

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The benefits of a hybrid system are most keenly felt around town. Here, the electric motor can take the brunt of pulling away and low-speed work – where a combustion engine is at its most polluting – with the engine cutting in only when necessary.

Thanks to the electric motor’s instant torque, hybrids are particularly nippy off the line, and their acceleration – at least up to 30mph or so – may surprise a few more performance-oriented cars. If you take it gently, most hybrids will remain a full EV at these speeds, too, allowing for silent, relaxed, and somewhat eerie progress through crowded city centres. It’s actually a lot of fun.

Those same factors make hybrids a little less enjoyable on faster roads, though. Excluding performance hybrids such as the Honda NSX, most mainstream hybrid cars will use a CVT gearbox – these don’t respond well to heavy feet and will make faster progress downright uncomfortable as the revs spiral. The weight of a battery pack and motor often means hybrid handling is a bit ponderous, while the ultra-efficient low rolling resistance tyres don’t offer the last word in grip.

Where do you live?

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If you’re buying a plug-in hybrid or range-extending electric car, having somewhere to charge it at home is critical. These cars benefit most from regular charging, allowing owners to make the most of the electric-only range before switching on the combustion engine.

Most of these vehicles, with ranges of around 30 miles on battery power alone, will easily cover a regular commute without ever switching on their engines – and that’s a recipe for some serious cost savings.

If you own a standard hybrid – that’s one without a plug – then you’ve nothing to worry about. These cars don’t require charging and can be treated as a normal petrol or diesel vehicle.

Worried about the environment?

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There are a few environmental concerns surrounding hybrid vehicles. On long runs, a diesel will be both more efficient and emit less carbon dioxide, while the energy required to make batteries and mine the rare earth metals that make them up does contribute significantly to their environmental footprint.

However, when it comes to local emissions and air pollution, even a comparatively dirty hybrid will usually run rings around an equivalent diesel. A Toyota Prius, for example, emits just 78g/km of carbon dioxide under official testing – that’s miles below even the cleanest diesel car. The ability to run on electricity alone at low speeds also helps with particulate emissions.

Are hybrid cars reliable?

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In a word, yes. Hybrids have proven to outlast even the manufacturer’s wildest expectations in terms of longevity, and even the very oldest Toyota Prius and Honda Insight models from the 90s can still be going strong well into 2018.

If looked after, a hybrid’s battery pack will last the lifetime of the vehicle with no ill effects. There are also benefits to having that electric motor – with regenerative braking reducing wear on brakes and tyres, aiding maintenance costs. Just be sure you have the car serviced by a garage that knows what it’s doing.

How much do you have to spend?

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Hybrids do command a cost premium over their combustion-engined brethren, due to the added complication of adding the electric motor and battery systems. Many drivers will soon see the benefit, though – after all, there’s a reason virtually every private hire driver in London uses a Toyota Prius.

For example, the hybrid Toyota Prius comes in from £24,245. For that money, you could opt for a rather plush Volkswagen Golf fitted with a 1.5-litre, 148bhp petrol engine, in swanky R-Line trim. So choose carefully when thinking of the cost benefits, and decide whether your mileage will be sufficient to make the most of it.