Plug-in hybrid car buying guide
In the last few years, the number of plug-in hybrid (PHEV) models on the market has shot up. One of the newest drivetrain classes around, there were only two PHEVs available in the UK in 2011. Now there are more than a dozen PHEVs available in 2015 with more on their way as manufacturers make a long-term commitment to developing the hybrid technology.
With models from small family cars to luxury SUVs, there are a wide variety of PHEVs to choose from. This buying guide will give you an overview of the key points to consider when looking to buy a PHEV, including whether a PHEV is right for you, ownership and running costs and the range of models available to buy.
Who should buy a plug-in hybrid car?
With many of the benefits of conventional hybrids and the additional option of being able to recharge directly from an electricity supply, plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) can be considered by most car buyers as a real option. The electric-only mode available can provide around 15 to 40 miles of zero-emission motoring improving running costs, with their higher purchase price the only real caveat.
In hybrid mode, PHEVs perform particularly well in urban start-stop driving conditions, with the battery recouping some of the energy that would otherwise be lost during braking. In electric-only mode they also offer zero-emission driving while, with a conventional fuel tank, there are none of the range worries that buyers can get when looking at electric vehicles.
It should be noted, however, that in order to make the most out of the electric drive, you ideally need access to a garage, drive or other off-street parking area in order to recharge the electric motor overnight. Recent research suggests that around 80% of UK car-owning households already have access to a garage or other off-street parking facility. Importantly, it is never advisable to trail an electric cable across pavements or other public areas to connect a car parked on-street with your household electricity supply.
The only type of driving not particularly suited to PHEVs is regular long-distance runs, as typically covered by a company car. At high constant power, the plug-in hybrid power-train adds little to the efficiency of the engine; the car will also be used well beyond its electric-only range. For these types of journeys, a fuel-efficient diesel with a particulate filter would be a better option.
What PHEV models are available now?
Plug-in hybrid cars (PHEVs) have played a significant part in the recent surge in electric vehicle (EV) sales over the past couple of years. As of February 2015, PHEV sales numbered around 14,000 and half of the models listed in the top ten EVs sold in the UK are PHEVs. With more flexibility than pure battery electric vehicles, combining an electric powertrain with a petrol or diesel engine, you can see why they are proving popular.
The Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV is a case in point as, since it arrived in the UK in 2013, it has sold around 10,000 units, making it the best-selling EV in the UK. BMW’s i3 comes in third after the all-electric Nissan Leaf, while other PHEVs including the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, Vauxhall’s Ampera and the BMW i8 all feature in the top ten list.
As hybrid models continue to be rolled out and pure-electric cars become more widely accepted, increasing numbers of PHEV models will be launched for drivers who want the capability of all-electric emission-free motoring, but not be restricted to a 150 mile range before needing to recharge.
The cost of buying a plug-in hybrid car
The purchase prices for most plug-in hybrid cars are higher than for their non-hybrid petrol and diesel equivalents, the additional cost being a reflection of the price of the plug-in hybrid drive-train which adds complexity and requires a high quality, large traction battery.
However, since 2011, the Plug-in Car and Plug-in Van Grants have subsidised the purchase of eligible cars by 25% of the cost of the vehicle up to a maximum of £5,000; for vans, the amount is up to 20% up to a maximum of £8,000.
Both private car buyers and fleets are eligible to receive the grants, which are administered by the Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV) – no application forms are required as the dealership completes all the necessary paperwork on the buyer's behalf and the grant is automatically deducted from the vehicle price at the point of purchase.
PHEV buyers should be aware of changes to the Plug-in Car Grant (PiCG) which came into effect on 1st April 2015. Buyers of eligible electric cars are now able to claim 35% of the vehicle's OTR price as opposed to the 25% previously offered. However, as the PiCG remains capped at £5,000, these changes really only affect electric vehicles with an OTR under £20,000.
To take account of rapidly developing technology, and the growing range of ULEVs on the market, the criteria for the Plug-in Car Grant has also been updated. From April 2015, eligible ULEVs must meet criteria in one of the following new categories:
Category 1: CO2 emissions less than 50g/km & a zero-emission range of at least 70 miles;
Category 2: CO2 emissions less than 50g/km & a zero-emission range of 10 - 69 miles; Category 3: CO2 emissions 50-75g/km & a zero-emission range of at least 20 miles.
Under the scheme, vehicles in all categories will continue to be eligible for the full grant of up to £5,000. This has been guaranteed by the government to continue until 2016.
As PHEVs tend to have a high purchase price but low running costs, leasing may be a better proposition – indeed, some models (or battery packs) are only available on lease for this very reason. Leasing also removes some of the uncertainty about the resale value after 3-4 years – although this uncertainty is reflected in the leasing prices which tend to be higher than for similar conventional cars.
PHEV running costs
The higher capital costs are mainly offset by lower fuel costs due to the high fuel economy of the vehicles (in hybrid mode) and the ability of the cars to run on low cost electricity. For example, the official combined fuel economy figures for the diesel-powered Mitsubishi Outlander and Outlander PHEV are 53.3 MPG and 148.7 MPG respectively. To see how much you could save in fuel bills, visit our Fuel Cost Calculator
Three significant financial incentives significantly reduce the costs of running a plug-in car or van: Zero-rated car tax (Vehicle Excise Duty); Zero-rated fuel tax (electricity also only attracts 5% VAT for private use); and the Ultra Low Emission Discount Scheme (ULED) which effectively exempts EVs from paying the London Congestion Charge.
While PHEVs vehicles may be expensive to buy or lease, all plug-in hybrids with CO2 emissions of 100 g/km or less are exempt from Vehicle Excise Duty ('car tax'). Owners of PHEVs vehicles will therefore save around £145 per year compared to an average conventional petrol or diesel car (VED Band F).
For drivers in and around London, the other major running cost to consider is the Congestion Charge. All plug-in hybrid cars are currently eligible for the Ultra Low Emission Discount Scheme on the London Congestion Charge, giving them a 100% discount on the Congestion Charge (although vehicles need to be registered and pay an annual £10 fee). With a standard £11.50 payable daily charge without the discount, this could provide a potential annual saving of over £2,000.
Charging your PHEV
As previously mentioned, in most cases, plug-in hybrid vehicles are most suitable for people who have reliable access to charging facilities at home or at work. When travelling further afield, PHEV owners will either need to rely on the growing public charging network, or just run on petrol or diesel once the vehicle's electric range is exhausted.
For further information on all the network operators across the UK, including area of operation, costs and access arrangements visit the Zap-Map public charging guide.