Plugin hybrid a vital stepping stone to all-electric

It’s a much smaller step to go from driving around in your plugin hybrid to a full-electric model, than it is to make the jump to electric from petrol or diesel

Hybrids have been around for 20 years now. It was in 1997 that Toyota and Honda vied to get the first hybrid half-electric, half-petrol car on sale to the public, and it was Honda's egg-shaped and Kermit-green Insight that beat the first-gen Toyota Prius into dealerships by a matter of months. It can be said, though, that since then Toyota has had the better running of it, with millions of hybrid sales, hybrid variants of all but a handful of the cars it sells, and the kudos that has come with approval from Hollywood royalty.

Interest in hybrids is steadily growing. "It's not really a case of a dealer having to introduce hybrid into a conversation anymore with a customer in a way they would have had to do two years ago, customers are actively asking about hybrid because they are very aware of all the issues with diesel and the reduction in its acceptance as all manufactures move away from it and develop alternatives such as hybrid, plugin hybrid EV and ultimately hydrogen," Ian Corbett, the head of Lexus Ireland, told The Irish Times. "Our mix of hybrid sales this year is 30 per cent and we expect this to rise to 45 per cent next year. One of the key drivers of this apart from the benefits of ownership such as fuel economy, more relaxed drive, lower road tax and driving in EV up to 50 per cent of the time, is the residual value of diesel vehicles in future, this is a big issue now for customers buying a new car. This year specifically we have noticed a change in that customers actively want to change from diesel and petrol powertrains into hybrid without being prompted to discuss hybrid by the dealer."

This growth of interest in hybrids has come at a propitious time as Toyota has, at long last, got its hybrids working properly. Where once they were best kept strictly in town, and punished you with poor fuel economy if you dared venture onto motorways, now cars such as the Prius and C-HR Hybrid are much better all-round performers. Slightly worryingly, Corbett also told us that many customers still think that you have to plug a hybrid car in at night, and are somewhat relieved when it is learned that this is not the case. Which indicates a concerning lack of homework-doing for some buyers.

Oddly, there hasn't been an explosion of hybrids amongst other car makers. Honda had a brief go at matching Toyota with the second-generation Insight hatchback and the CR-Z coupe (both of which were rather better cars than they were given credit for) but aside from that, it has so far been something of a hybrid drought among rival brands. Hyundai has its Ioniq Hybrid and Kia its Niro Hybrid, but that's about it. And, indeed, at least one of those is not long for this Earth . . .


"We're launching very soon with the plugin hybrid version of the Ioniq, and after that you won't be seeing the hybrid version anymore. It's yesterday's technology." So said Hyundai Ireland managing director Stephen Gleeson to The Irish Times, in what can only be seen as a bit of a major shot across rival Toyota's bows. "Plugin will become much more the thing, and hybrid will begin to die out," Gleeson continued. "It just makes sense, as you can drive a plugin almost for free most of the time, but you know in the back of your mind that you have the petrol engine on board if you need it. It's also going to make the acceptance of pure-electric cars much easier. It's a much smaller step to go from driving around in your plugin hybrid to a full-electric model, than it is to make the jump to electric from petrol or diesel."

Paulo Alves, BMW Group Ireland's managing director, says that plug-in hybrids may be the best option of all at the moment. "There's a perfect opportunity with plugin hybrids right now," he said in an interview at the Predict Conference. "When you look at Co2-free emissions, you can get a range of 40-50km with a plugin hybrid on full electric, and that's really suitable for most people's commuting needs. So, you can get to work and back on electric, but you can still drive to the south of France on holiday, because the conventional petrol engine will take you to the end of the world and back if you so wish."

Plugin hybrids are rapidly growing in number, if not exactly in popularity. Audi, BMW, Hyundai, Kia (with the imminent arrival of the Niro plug-in), Mercedes, Mini, Mitsubishi, Porsche, Toyota (yes, a Prius Plugin – wonder how much that one confuses those customers), Volkswagen, and Volvo all already offer a plugin hybrid, or in some cases quite a few different ones. They will be followed, very soon, by all but a handful of other brands. Plugin hybrid is, it seems, the way forward and is, as Gleeson suggests, a vital stepping stone towards pure-electric acceptance.

Or, is it? The picture isn't quite so clear, once you start using one. There are some plugin hybrids, notably the BMW 330e and Volkswagen Passat GTE, which can achieve very decent everyday fuel economy figures when driving in their hybrid modes, with the batteries more or less flat. There are others (yes, BMW X540e, Volvo XC90 T8, and Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV) which simply don't. On a recent motorway run in an Outlander PHEV, we struggled to get the car to do better than 30mpg. Similarly, a BMW 530e, even when plugging it in and charging it up as much as possible, struggled to do better than 45mpg overall, compared to a claimed economy figure of 141mpg. Ahem, and indeed, cough. The 530e can't even boast the price advantage that the 330e has over its diesel counterpart, so it's doubly disadvantaged.

Oddly, the position of plugin hybrids now is rather similar to that of electric vehicles (EVs) powered just by batteries, in that you have to make carefully certain that your lifestyle fits their capabilities. If you live in or near town, don’t drive more than 30km in one direction at any time and can reliably charge at your destination, then they may eminent sense. If you see them as a long-haul replacement for diesel, prepare to be aghast at your fuel bills (although that difference does reduce the smaller you go in size, as per previous observation about the 330e and Passat GTE). And while some plugin hybrids cost about the same as an equivalent diesel (330e again, Ioniq, 530e) others cost a hefty amount more (VW’s GTE models especially).

All of which actually brings electric cars back to the foreground. True, they are not perfect. Also true, they suffer from staggering depreciation levels as daily news of improved models and increased one-charge range savages their retained value (an old Nissan Leaf, if you can live with the short-hop range, makes a tempting second-hand buy for a city dweller). And yet, they remain a tempting prospect, especially now that models such as the updated BMW i3, Hyundai Ioniq, Renault Zoe 4.0, and updated VW eGolf are now available. Yes, they are very, very expensive (the cost of a decently-specced Zoe will easily get you into a far larger diesel Kadjar, for instance) and still the Government is dragging its feet on offering proper electric car incentives (one year's free BIK? Come on) but to drive them is, almost without fail, to love them. Just make sure you buy one on a very sharp PCP deal, so that you can avoid those ravages of depreciation, and it's worth remembering that free public charging (assuming you can find a charging point that (a) works, and (b) hasn't been parked in front of by a 10-year-old diesel) won't be free for much longer, as the ESB is under pressure to sell its network as a commercial concern.

So, should you go for electric, hybrid, or plugin hybrid? The safest money is on a straightforward hybrid, for now. They’re more affordable (usually) than fully-electric or plugins, and entirely uncomplicated. And their residual values are not in doubt. Some of them are even quite pleasant to drive, these days…

PANEL: Running the numbers: Hybrid, Plugin Hybrid, or Electric?

Hybrid: Toyota Prius Hybrid. €31,450. Claimed fuel consumption: 3.0l/100km. Emissions: 70g/km. Tax: €170.

Plugin hybrid: BMW 225xe Active Tourer. €42,790. Claimed fuel consumption: 2.0l/100km. 46g/km. Tax: €170.

Electric: Hyundai Ioniq Electric. €28,995. Claimed fuel consumption: 0l/100km. Emissions: 0g/km. Tax: €120.

On paper, it looks like an easy win for the electric Ioniq. It’s the cheapest car here, saves you €50 a year in tax, and costs virtually nothing to “fuel”. Nothing? Well, not quite. At 15c per kWh (the current average price in Ireland, according to MoneyGuideIreland), you’ll pay €4.20 to charge the Ioniq’s 28kWh battery from flat. With a claimed range of 280km, that’s just 1.5c per km, which is generally speaking, pretty unbeatable.

There are some caveats to that, though. First off, 210km is actually a more realistic target for a full charge, and if you’re driving your Ioniq on the motorway with the heating or air conditioning on, that’s more like 160km. It’s a very impressive electric car, right now, but even Hyundai itself admits that most customers are buying it as a short-range second car, and there will be a steep depreciation curve as newer, more efficient models arrive on sale.

Does that give an advantage to the BMW? With claimed fuel economy of just 2.0-litres per 100km, it would, theoretically, cost just €1,608 in fuel over three years, assuming the usual average mileage of 20,000km. In reality though, it won’t be that good and unless you really do spend all of your time in town, and keep the batteries religiously topped up, the 225xe is more likely to return along the lines of 45-50mpg, or 5.7-litres per 100km overall. Not bad, but not what’s advertised.

And the Prius? In spite of looking like the old man, here, it’s actually probably the best all-rounder. A little more expensive than the Ioniq, true, but with much greater flexibility in its performance now. It’s, at last, as adept at a long motorway cruise as it is duffing around town, and Toyota’s new chassis means that it’s actually half-way enjoyable to drive. Plus, it returns a pretty reliable 30mpg, allowing it to go for as much as 1,000km on a tankful, and without the up-and-down economy of the 225xe plugin hybrid. And its residuals look pretty solid too. After all, there isn’t a taxi firm in the country that won’t snap up a well-kept Prius from you.

Eventually, this conclusion is going to be for the electric car – that’s all but inevitable, but until longer-range models arrive, and until there’s a proper network of reliable charging points (and plenty of houses and apartments with home chargers) the old-school hybrid can still teach plugins and EVs a thing or two.