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Everything you need to know about hybrids

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Looking to move into the world of electrification? Here’s everything you need to know about hybrids

With all the talk of electrification of cars and everyone looking to reduce their carbon footprint, hybrid models have become more and more popular with buyers.

If you’re looking to take the plunge but you’re in the dark about what they are and what different types are available, we’ve got you covered.

What is a hybrid?

Before we get into the nitty gritty of the different types of hybrids that are available, the first thing to cross is exactly what a hybrid is.

As the name suggests, it’s kind of like a hybrid of an electric vehicle and an internal combustion engine (usually powered by petrol or diesel). It will have a battery-powered electric motor that will work in conjunction with the combustion engine to power the wheels.

Generally, the idea is that the electric motor takes care of the driving at low speeds or while accelerating, because that’s when a combustion engine is at its most inefficient. Then, once up to speed, when the engine can run at low effort to keep things ticking along, it takes over.

The result is better fuel economy and fewer trips to the pump, which is always a good thing!

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Types of hybrid

Mild hybrid (MHEV)

(Volvo)

The mild hybrid, as you might expect, takes the principles of a hybrid but utilises them in the mildest of ways. They typically have a small battery and an electric motor that can take over running the car’s ancillaries, such as the headlights and air conditioning.

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This is particularly useful, because it means the engine can be turned off to save fuel at times when it is not needed, such as when decelerating or when stopped. The important distinction here, too, is that the wheels cannot be powered by the electric motor.

While it tends to mean the engine isn’t being used at times when it’s not being particularly inefficient anyway, the economy gains are fairly small. However, on the plus side, it’s the batteries that tend to add cost to hybrids, meaning mild hybrids tend to be less expensive to buy than other models.

Hybrid

(Lexus)

While all of these models are hybrids, when you hear a car referred to as simply a ‘hybrid’ alone, it tends to mean that it has the capability to run on pure electric but the batteries can only be recharged through regenerative braking.

This is when motors in the wheels ‘harvest’ energy that would normally be lost when decelerating and braking and uses it to replenish the battery charge. You might have heard the term ‘self-charging hybrid’, and this is where the term comes from – you never charge the vehicle from an external source, it recharges itself through regeneration.

The positive side of a hybrid is that they’re massively more economical than a mild hybrid, because you can drive on electric only, providing there’s enough charge, and they tend to be less expensive than plug-in models.

The downside is that, because they rely on deceleration to charge, if you do a lot of motorway miles at a consistent speed you could find the battery is dead once you get to a town where you could use EV mode.

Plug-in hybrid (PHEV)

(Mitsubishi)

Plug-in hybrids are the ultimate form of hybrid models, because, as you might have gathered, you can plug them into an external source of electricity to charge the batteries.

This is great, because you can top the batteries up overnight and have a full charge when you head to work the next morning (or even at public fast chargers). This means you can maximise the electric-only range, and if your daily commute is quite short, you might find yourself rarely calling on petrol power, saving you lots of money in the long run.

However, the downsides are that the charging technology tends to make PHEVs pricier than other hybrids. Meanwhile, if you have no means to charge the battery yourself, you might as well save that initial cash and go for a normal hybrid.

Frequently asked questions

What is a self-charging hybrid?

(Toyota)

You may hear the term ‘self-charging’ banded around with reference to hybrids. We’ll admit it’s a somewhat confusing way of describing these types of vehicles. In truth, there’s actually very little to separate a ‘self-charging’ hybrid from just a regular hybrid. They still use a single or pair of electric motors to assist the petrol (or in small numbers diesel) engine, and they can’t be plugged in to top up the batteries, either.

So how do you charge them? Most hybrids come with the option to use some of the engine’s power output to charge the batteries, therefore reserving some electric power for later use. In addition, nearly all hybrids harness the energy generated when braking and coasting, pushing this kinetic energy into the batteries. So really, if you hear someone talking about a ‘self-charging’ hybrid, they’re just talking about a hybrid car which can’t be plugged into the mains.

Would a hybrid benefit me?

A lot of people could benefit from making the switch to a hybrid, but it really depends on what type of journeys you’re making every day. For instance, those who do shorter commutes or trips day-to-day are definitely candidates for the swap to a hybrid; it’s on more compact trips that hybrids can run on all-electric power alone meaning that emissions are practically zero – while the car’s overall consumption of fuel will be kept as low as possible.

In contrast, if you’re travelling further afield more regularly while at higher speeds, then a conventionally powered car may still be your best bet. Hybrids struggle to run on electric power at motorway speeds and for long distances, after which the smaller combustion engine is left to deal with propulsion all by itself, resulting in higher emissions and poor fuel economy.

Are hybrid cars are reliable?

(Mercedes-Benz)

You might think that because a complex powertrain and a multitude of new technologies are incorporated into a hybrid’s setup that they’d be less reliable than a conventional car, but that’s not the case. In fact, many older hybrids have put big miles under their wheels with little to no fuss, and because of the stronger regeneration you get from a hybrid, there’s less stress on the brakes too.

Do you get a plug-in grant?

The short answer to the question of whether hybrids qualify for the government’s plug-in grant is, sadly, no. Back in March 2019 the government announced that it was axing the plug-in grant for hybrid vehicles following a surge in their popularity. Only all-electric vehicles now qualify for the grant.

Are they eligible for exclusion from low emissions zones?

Ultra Low Emission Zone
(PA)

Some hybrids are eligible for an exclusion from London’s low-emissions zone charge, but the rules are far more stringent than they previously have been. Now, only hybrid cars which emit less than 75g/km CO2 and have a minimum zero-emissions (or all-electric) range of 20 miles will be completely exempt from the charge. It means that older vehicles may not get the discount.

Plus, it’s worth remembering that in 2021, London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone is set to extend to the north and south circular, and hybrids – of all kinds – won’t be able to get an exemption from the charge.

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