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 30 PHEVs available in 2018 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 January 2018, PHEV sales numbered more than 85,000 and around two thirds 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 more than 30,000 units, making it the best-selling EV in the UK. After the all-electric Nissan Leaf in second place come the the Mercedes Benz C 350 e, the BMW i3 - with 70% of i3 models sold as REX PHEV version - and the BMW 330e in that order. Also in the top 10 are the VW Golf GTE and the Volvo XC90 T8 TwinEngine.
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 150-180 mile range before needing to recharge.
The cost of buying a plug-in hybrid car
In general, electric vehicles are more expensive to buy than their petrol or diesel equivalents. However, since 2011 the Plug-in Car and Plug-in Van Grants have subsidised the purchase of eligible cars, currently up to a maximum of £4,500; for vans, the amount is up to 20% up to a maximum of £8,000.
From 1st March 2016, a new modified system of Plug-in Vehicle Grants was introduced. While the grants still represent a significant subsidy, they are less than the £5,000 previously available for eligible plug-in vehicles. Two new rates have been introduced with the level of subsidy for plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) falling by 50 per cent from a maximum of £5,000 to £2,500. All-electric models are also affected, although to a lesser extent than for PHEVs, with the PiCG for full EVs reducing by £500 to a maximum of £4,500.
The new PiCG rates are awarded using a new EV classification system, each EV being classed depending on the level of CO2 emissions and the EV-only capable range: • Category 1: CO2 emissions <50g/km and a zero emission range of at least 70 miles • Category 2: CO2 emissions <50g/km and a zero emission range between 10 and 69 miles • Category 3: CO2 emissions of 50-75g/km and a zero emission range of at least 20 miles
Category 1 vehicles benefit from the full £4,500 grant while Category 2 and 3 vehicles receive £2,500. The current grant scheme will run until March 2018 or until a certain number of each grant has been awarded.
A price cap was also introduced in March 2016. Category 2 and 3 models with a list price of more than £60,000 will not be eligible for the PiCG, though all Category 1 vehicles will be able to have the full PiCG no matter what their cost.
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.
As EVs 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 fuel tax (electricity only attracts 5% VAT for private use); the Ultra Low Emission Discount Scheme (ULED) effectively exempts EVs from paying the London Congestion Charge; and car tax is discounted for alternatively fuelled models too.
Car tax is also lower than usual, with the First Year Rate for PHEVs either zero or £15 (depending on CO2 emissions), thanks to the £10 Alternative Fuel Discount. This also reduces the annual Standard Rate for PHEVs to £130 from £140.
While PHEVs vehicles may be more expensive to buy or lease than petrol or diesel cars, all plug-in hybrids are eligible for the £10 Alternative Fuel Discount on its Vehicle Excise Duty ('car tax'). This reduces the First Year Rate to either zero or £15 for the majority of PHEVs, and also knocks £10 off the £140 Standard Rate tax each year.
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.