We appreciate this question could be interpreted in two different ways. After all, plug-in hybrids are more expensive to buy than ordinary hybrids.
Consider the evidence. The cheapest Toyota Prius hybrid costs around £24,500, while the entry-level Prius plug-in hybrid weighs in at £32,000. It’s a similar story with the Hyundai Ioniq, with the plug-in costing around £6,500 more than the regular hybrid.
As if to cement the position, a Kia Niro hybrid will set you back at least £25,000, while the plug-in hybrid version breaks the £30,000 mark. There are good reasons for the price differences, which we’ll come to in a moment.
First, a note about the ‘self-charging hybrid’ term you may have seen used by the likes of Toyota, Lexus and Kia. It’s little more than a marketing tool to elevate a standard hybrid to a higher plain – there are no technical differences.
What is a hybrid?
In simple terms, a hybrid car combines a petrol or diesel engine with an electric motor. The most famous hybrid car in the world is arguably the Toyota Prius, to the extent that it’s become the brand generic.
In a hybrid vehicle, the internal combustion engine remains the dominant powertrain, with the electric motor on hand to improve efficiency, decrease fuel consumption and improve acceleration.
Hybrids are great in the city, where their regenerative braking captures kinetic energy, which is then used to recharge the batteries. Conversely, hybrids are less impressive on motorways, where there’s little opportunity to harvest lost energy.
They cannot be plugged in, so you’ll only see a mile or two of pure electric range. On the flipside, the car manages the flow of energy, so there’s a hassle-free attraction to running a hybrid vehicle. Go easy on the accelerator pedal and you could see some truly impressive fuel economy figures.
What is a plug-in hybrid?
As the name suggests, a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) can be recharged in the same way you’d recharge an electric car. The key difference is that the electric motor is paired with a petrol or diesel engine, removing any concerns over ‘range anxiety’.
There’s more, though. A plug-in hybrid boasts a larger battery pack and more sophisticated hardware and software than a standard hybrid, which helps explain the higher price.
Crucially, plug-in hybrids deliver a useful amount of pure electric range – certainly more than the 10-mile average daily commute in England and Wales. For example, the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV – the UK’s bestselling plug-in hybrid – delivers an official (WLTP) range of 28 miles. Meanwhile, the new BMW 330e is good for 35 miles.
Which one is better?
There’s no doubt that a hybrid is an appealing prospect. The key attraction is their ability to work straight away – there’s no need to worry about charging cables or plugging in. Modern petrol-electric hybrids are especially impressive, with the Toyota Corolla offering the smooth refinement of a petrol car with the economy of a diesel.
We’d also urge caution before buying a plug-in hybrid. If you don’t recharge the batteries, you’re essentially paying extra for a heavier and less efficient vehicle. The weighty battery pack puts a big dent in the economy when you’re not in electric mode.
Beyond that, a plug-in hybrid offers more than a regular hybrid. The ability to tackle the daily commute on electric power is an obvious attraction – you could find you rarely need to visit a petrol station.
There are also tax benefits associated with a plug-in hybrid. A Hyundai Ioniq hybrid emits 102g/km CO2, which results in a first-year VED rate of £145. Meanwhile, thanks to CO2 emissions of 26g/km, the plug-in hybrid is tax-free in the first year.
Company car drivers will see similar tax benefits, which is why plug-in hybrids are so popular in the fleet sector.
We’d also recommend a plug-in hybrid as a step towards an all-electric future. There are no range anxiety issues, plus you get the opportunity to familiarise yourself with the act of charging the batteries.
The next step would be a pure electric car, so we’d suggest using the pages of Motoring Electric to discover more.