Should you buy an electric car? The latest plug-in hybrid vehicles

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Should you buy electric car: Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV

With sales of new petrol and diesel cars likely to be banned by 2040, the switch to electric vehicles is inevitable – are you ready to plug in?

Ollie Marriage, Motoring Editor at Top Gear, explains your choices between hybrid and fully electric cars, and when you should make the change.

The way we power our cars is changing. Fossil fuels are on their way out, electricity is coming in. This is not recent news. It’s over 20 years since the first Toyota Prius arrived, heralding the age of the hybrid. Over four million have since been sold, and its success has inspired numerous others and helped push the technology. So is now the time to finally ditch your petrol or diesel?

Are diesel cars a good choice?

Let’s deal with diesel first since, thanks to government short-sightedness, it’s come under a huge amount of fire recently. Yes, particulate emissions from diesels are higher than petrols, but if you regularly do long journeys, diesel is still the most efficient, cost-effective way of powering a car. The problem is one of uncertainty – will my diesel be worthless in a few years time?

This is only a major concern if you own the car outright, and while we can’t offer reassurances on future values, given the number of diesels on UK roads (12.4 million currently) and the likely outcry from consumer groups and from manufacturers, it’s safe to assume a measure of backtracking will take place.

The last few years have seen car manufacturers invest heavily in cleaning up car emissions. Engine sizes have been reduced, start-stop systems have been introduced to shut engines down in stationary traffic, and there are clever systems that coast the car when you lift off the accelerator. The majority of these have more effect in the laboratory, where a car’s official emissions and fuel economy is measured, than they do in the real world.

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If an all-electric car such as the Tesla Model S feels like a step too far, a plug-in hybrid could be worth considering.

The truth about electric car range

It’s the laboratory testing that has helped give hybrids (cars that feature both fossil fuel and electric power plants) a boost, too. Put simply, while there’s usually a healthy difference between the claims and reality of petrol or diesels, that becomes a huge gulf when talking about hybrids.

The reason is that the old NEDC (New European Driving Cycle) tests were carried out on just a few miles of gentle running on a rolling road, which allowed hybrids to use their zero emissions electric motors more of the time. New WLTP (Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure) regulations come into law later this year and should provide a more accurate idea of what economy and emissions you will actually achieve.

In mixed driving, a hybrid is little more economical than a petrol or diesel. It’ll be better around town where it can make use of its electric motors, but when speeds rise and the engine is running, you’re carrying a lot of dead weight – batteries and electric motors are very, very heavy, and accelerating and braking that mass takes a lot of energy.

However, this is changing. Electric motors are already highly efficient at converting energy into movement, and – much more slowly – the battery technology is developing, so we’re getting better power density.

Competition is improving the breed. New cars such as the Hyundai Ioniq, VW Golf GTE, Volvo XC90 T8, Audi A3 e-tron and recently launched Mitsubishi Outlander have increased electric range and stronger motors. The efficiency gains are outweighing the weight gains.

But don’t forget that hybrids are a halfway point along the road to a fully electric future. The petrol or diesel support act is there to give you peace of mind until the charging infrastructure is fully up to speed.

Hybrids exist on a sliding scale from electric cars that use small petrol engines to charge the battery (so-called range extenders) at the most advanced end, down through plug-in hybrids you can charge at home and are mainly fuel driven, but electrically assisted; to what Lexus is rather cheekily referring to in its current advertising as a ‘self-charging hybrid’. All hybrids are self-charging because they recuperate energy under braking. What Lexus and others offer is a small self-contained battery barely powerful enough to move the car alone, mated to a big, comparatively inefficient engine. Buyer beware.

Should you buy an electric car: Golf GTE Advance

VW had to close down new orders for its Golf GTE hybrid due to unprecedented demand.

Cost savings of electric cars

A plug-in hybrid is probably the best introduction to this new world of car technology. You’re not reliant on plugging it in but, if you do charge it at home, even from a three-pin socket, then you’ll soon notice the benefits. Roughly speaking, a kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity at home will be costing you 15p, which will give you three or four miles of electric driving. So let’s say 5p per mile, whereas a car averaging 50mpg is costing upwards of 12p a mile, so you’ll be more or less halving the fuel bill for your car.

There’s another reason for going electric: currently the government is offering a £3500 grant towards a new fully electric car. Are you running two cars at home, with one of them only ever doing shopping, school runs and the like? Why not think about going fully electric? There are also grants for getting a charge point installed at home, you get to feel good about your environmental credentials and pure electric cars are smooth, silent, swift and simple to drive.

Should you buy an electric car: Hyundai Ioniq

New models such as the Hyundai Ioniq and Kona Electric have increased electric ranges.

Worried about electric car range?

If range anxiety is preying on your mind, this is understandable – with the exception of very expensive electric cars such as the Tesla Model S and Jaguar I-Pace, most electric cars struggle to travel more than 150 miles between recharges. So, step back to a hybrid. Weighed down with both petrol and electric motors they may be, but the ability to drop in at a familiar petrol station, to know that you have back-up, brings great peace of mind.

Best advice? Have a good look at the type of driving you do. If it’s mostly low speed, short journey, then a hybrid will work for you. Choose carefully – look at the size of the battery, how far the car can travel on electric alone, and take that figure with a pinch of salt. But if you make the switch, you’ll find there was nothing to be afraid of. Car firms know that modern hybrids need to appeal to people who just want a car, who don’t want to worry about learning their way around new technology. Seamless integration is the key. Just bear in mind that every so often the engine will switch off and yet you’ll still be driving as normal. And you’ll like this new sensation. Congratulations, you’ve just made the switch.

Best new cars autumn 2018: Jaguar I-Pace Jaguar’s all-electric I-Pace has one of the higher ranges among electric vehicles.

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