Is a #PlugInHybrid or #Hybrid really worth it? #phev #hev

I was one of the first to own a plug-in hybrid in the country. I first bought a hybrid car back in 2012, when London was hosting the Olympics. That year only 992 plug-in hybrids were sold out of a total of 2’044’609 of new car sales. Back then I had a thirsty two seater convertible sports car and it was costing a fortune in fuel – plus it didn’t have enough seats for the family. I decided to go all “green” and buy not only hybrid, but also get one that you could recharge and use on electric only mode. It was only a short range, 10-15 miles was quoted, but for the school and nursery run, and the odd run to the shops it was ideal – only took an hour and a half to charge. With the back-up of a normal petrol engine for the longer journeys it was, on paper at least, perfect.

That was back in 2012 and since then I have owned another three hybrid cars. The others have all been “self charging” (as the advertising now calls it) – effectively with a very small range of a mile on battery only that uses regenerative breaking to get the battery topped up.

The hype suggests that you can get really good miles per gallon (mpg) of our a hybrid. They also say how quiet they are and how the performance is very little in difference to a “normal” car. I will address each one of these point below and show long term, real world, facts.

Quiet Car?

Firstly I will start with how quiet they are. Yes, in the most part they are pretty quiet when around town. Any plug-in will be most at home during the city runs, only really needing to hit into petrol (and introducing some noticeable noise) when the battery runs low or if you give it some welly with the accelerator. This is when the problems kick in. Most hybrid vehicles are using CVT (continuous variable transmission) gearboxes – this means that they have no gears unlike a normal car. Basically they run like an automatic. Now, to get the CVT to do anything useful the onboard computer normally needs to get the engine to rev high, very high. Also hybrid engines tend to be slightly different to “normal” engines… they have a special valve adjustment that kicks in to save more fuel but also reduces torque. Because of both high revving engines and the lack of torque, it means that to get acceleration you need to have an engine that is being maxed on the rev count – It is not a nice noise and it is also a very loud! I have personally owned a 1.4, 1.8, 2.5 and a 3.5 litre hybrid vehicles. Out of all of them, the only pleasing sounding one was the 3.5 litre. The others were all disappointing annoying bee noise, most pointedly the 2.5 litre sounded dreadful.


Performance is mixed but broadly it’s pretty good. The smaller engines really benefits from the battery power – specifically the torque it provides. On the 1.4 litre engine you find its really nippy around town and pulling out when turning left and right, really quite good. The 1.8 was also fine (but that had a very large 4 kWh lithium battery to help it shift along). 0-60 was in the 10 second territory and overtaking had all the horrible noise and fanfare mentioned above – but it wasn’t as bad as the bigger engine. The 2.5 was a bigger and heavier car, and sadly the performance wasn’t good. It wasn’t much different to the 1.8 litre and made more noise and produce little in the way of oomph. The 3.5 litre has been by far the best. The powerful electric engines coupled with the battery and the large efficient engine moves a very large card (5 meters long) very briskly along the road.

With all of these cars there is always a mild delay when pulling out, mostly to get the engine to rev to the right amount to get the CVT to provide value, but in the most the battery covers it and there are no issues – its just not as quick as petrol and more similar to a diesel waiting for the turbo to kick in.

Miles Per Gallon?

If you see the adverts on the television, this is where they try to sell a hybrid hard. Let’s state something very clear from these start, under the “old” way of recording the MPG of a car the showroom stats were NEVER EVER going to be achieved – it was scandalous they were allowed to get away with it for as long as they did. The new, more modern measure (WLTP) is much more realistic, and sometimes beaten, but on average it’s not quite as good in the real world as it is on paper – but its bloody close. All in all there is a lot of variance when driving a hybrid and there are a few reasons for this… and its mostly down to how much you use the battery and (strangely) how cold it is!

Short town journeys use the battery a lot more, and all the cars fair really well when popping in and around town. Easily beating their pure petrol and diesel counterparts.
When hitting the motorway or going down empty country lanes it becomes a different matter. The high revving engine kicks in a lot, and in doing so you lose a lot of the benefit of the battery. Suddenly you are driving a high revving low torque (slightly thirsty!) car. Hit traffic and again you are fine, but on long runs hybrid cars can’t match a diesel … not a chance.

The second issues comes in winter. Yes, that pesky time of year when the temperature drops and you need to put on the car heater. In the UK this starts in October and runs until April – which is a pretty big chunk of the year!
There are two problems cold weather brings. Firstly, as soon as you put on the heater the engine needs to turn on to get the car warm – and in doing so you find that the car never runs on battery only… it keeps the engine running to get it up to temperature to use that heat in the cabin. Thus you end up with your hungry low torque high revving car again and not a hybrid.
The other thing, and this is one of the most annoying, and it should be mentioned when you buy a hybrid (but they accidental to mention it!) is to do with the battery itself. It’s a bit technical, but in summary the chemical reaction in the battery reduces in efficiency and it therefore reduces the much “help” it provides. When it’s cold and the battery isn’t warm you find that the range drops by at least 10%. In a car that could go 10 or so miles can now go a little under 9. Doesn’t sound a lot, but when you buy a car with a bigger all electric range, these things start to make a difference. 400 miles down to 350 is miles is quite a drop!
Lastly hills… yep, hills. In a petrol car you don’t really notice it, but in a battery car they really really really eat up the kWh of reserve. Again, you can see a drop of easily 2 or 3 miles from range by going up hills. Energy recovery does help when you go back down, but anyone with a GSCE in physics will know that you can’t regain the same energy you put in going down as you did going up hill…

Don’t live anywhere cold, with hills and open roads and you will be fine! 😉

Doesn’t sound great – is it worth it?

I have owned four of them – and if you buy the right one then you will be fine. Are they worth it? Well, they certainly hold a lot more value than the diesels did over the same period. Easily each car has returned c.50% return on value at seven and four years old respectively. Secondly, they are pretty good in the summer, with lower mpg and when the battery comes into its own around town. They aren’t sporty, well most on the market aren’t (see i8 if you want sporty) but all in all they are comfortable and easy to drive, especially around town.

If you go into buying one with your eyes open, and driving it in a way that eeks out the maxium mpg (coasting is an example – but in a good way, not a bad way, and leveraging the regenerative breaking as much as possible as well) then you are on to a winner, but please, do not be fooled, they are no like normal cars and they need to be treated in a certain way to get the true value from them.

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