While there were only two plug-in hybrid models available in the UK in 2011, there are now at least nine on the UK market with more models due to be launched in 2015 as more manufacturers make a commitment to plug-in hybrid drive-trains.
This buying guide provides an overview of the key issues to consider when looking to buy a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) which includes whether an PHEV is right for you, the availability and choice of plug-in hybrid models, and the impact on vehicle ownership and running costs.
Plug-in hybrids essentially offer most of the benefits of conventional hybrids, with the additional option of being able to recharge directly from an electricity supply and operate for between 15 and 40 miles in zero-emission, electric-only mode. PHEVs therefore can be considered by most car buyers as a real option – with the one caveat being their higher purchase price.
In hybrid mode, plug-in hybrids 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, during which time the car is driven solely on electric power.
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 plug-in hybrids is regular long-distance driving 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 well beyond its electric-only range. For these types of journeys, a fuel-efficient diesel with a particulate filter would be a better option.
The last two years have seen a remarkable surge in demand for electric vehicles in the UK with total registrations of plug-in cars now numbering over 25,000 as of February 2015. Around a third of these registered EVs are plug-in hybrids which offer more flexibility than pure battery electrics as they combine an electric power-train with a petrol or diesel engine.
Recent registration data shows the new Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV has made a dramatic entry to the UK market; the electric SUV is already in second position in the overall electric vehicle market with over 2,706 sales less than a year after its UK release. In third and fourth places are two more established plug-in hybrids, the Toyota Prius PHEV (with 1,226 registrations) and the Vauxhall Ampera (1,039 vehicles). The BMW i3 now ranks fifth with at least 1,029 UK registrations (454 all-electric and 575 range-extender variants).
As the number of conventional hybrid models continues to increase year on year, and all electric cars become more widely accepted, more plug-in hybrids will be launched for drivers who want a car that is capable of electric-only mode, but that is not limited to a 100-150 mile range, as is the case for most pure electric vehicles.
Use the electric vehicle search for a list of all the electric cars and vans available in the UK.
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.
To be eligible under the current grant scheme vehicles must satisfy demanding criteria including: it must be a new car; tailpipe CO2 emissions must be 75 g/km or less; pure EVs must have a range of at least 70 miles; plug-in hybrids must have an electric range of at least 10 miles; and vehicles must be able to reach a speed of at least 60 mph.
PHEV buyers should be aware of changes to the Plug-in Car Grant due to take effect on 1st April 2015, from which date buyers of eligible electric cars will be able to claim 35% of the vehicle's OTR price as opposed to the 25% currently offered. However, as the PiCG will remain 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 is also being 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, until 50,000 grants are issued or the end of the budget period, whichever occurs first.
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.
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.
Three significant financial incentives significantly reduce the costs of running an 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.