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Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles: everything you need to know

Thinking of going part-electric? Learn more about plug-in hybrid electric cars, how they work and what they’re like to drive

A grey Citroen plug-in hybrid (PHEV)

Plug-in cars: getting to know hybrid vehicles

If you’re debating whether to buy a plug-in hybrid car (PHEV) or have just moved over to the green side for the first time, you probably want to learn more about that added hybrid power.

Plug-in hybrid cars are a great first step before going fully electric and allow you to make short journeys with purely electric power. On longer trips, you’ll still have your fuel tank to fall back on.

Read our guide to learn how this mix of petrol and electric works, and whether a hybrid car might be right for you.

What is a plug-in hybrid car?

Hybrid cars use both a petrol or diesel engine and an electric motor to provide their power.

For many drivers, it’s an economical and easy-to-manage step towards switching to a fully emission-free electric car.

Standard hybrids recharge their electric batteries while driving along. They can only drive on pure electric power for very short distances, and usually at low speeds.

A plug-in hybrid vehicle is more advanced than this, but they can be more expensive to purchase.

The battery is bigger, meaning you’ll have more opportunities to drive purely using the electric motor.

The electric-only range differs between models, of course – typically it’s between 25 and 50 miles.

Do you have to plug in a plug-in hybrid car?

If you really want to make the most of hybrid driving, regenerative braking alone isn't enough. You'll need to plug in your hybrid car to give your battery a proper boost, otherwise you'll have to rely on fuel power alone.

What are the benefits of a PHEV?

A PHEV can be the perfect option for anyone who’s not ready to switch to a fully electric vehicle.

A plug-in hybrid provides many of the emission and economy benefits on short drives, with a failsafe backup of a fossil-fuelled engine for longer journeys.

That’s why sales of PHEVs are booming in the UK.

Plug-in hybrids make particularly sound buys for company car users as their tax rating is very low.

For urban commuters, plug-in hybrids often mean using no fuel at all on their daily journeys.

What are plug-in hybrid cars like to drive?

Plug-in hybrid cars won’t feel much different to drive than those powered by petrol or diesel.

You’ll use your battery power at slower speeds, then the conventional engine takes over when you want to drive faster.

The car can also use the conventional engine to recharge the batteries as you drive along and can decide to combine the two power sources for optimal performance.

For example, if you need a little extra power for overtaking or getting up a steep hill, it can use both power sources at once.

Do plug-in hybrid cars charge while driving?

You can charge the battery for plug-in hybrid cars from another power supply – like a public charging station or a socket at home – overnight.

That’s usually enough for most shopping, school-run and commuting journeys in the UK.

Plug-in hybrids also charge while you’re on the go, just like standard hybrid cars. Your vehicle will regenerate some charge using the braking and internal combustion engine set-up as you drive.

Being a hybrid, you also have the reassurance of being able to fall back on the conventional engine if the battery runs out.

With a standard hybrid, you’ll have to rely on the car to regenerate its own charge using its internal combustion engine and regenerative braking. That means you can’t plug in to charge up.

Hybrid cars are a good choice if you do lots of short journeys around town, while plug-in hybrids might be the better choice if you know you want to travel further using electric power.

Are plug-in hybrid cars better for the environment?

Of course, the plug-in hybrid’s conventional engine will produce polluting emissions when it’s used.

However, the overall emissions from a plug-in hybrid are much lower than a conventional car as the car will only use the conventional engine when necessary. Given the choice, it will choose to drive on electric power only.

In the least-efficient driving scenarios, like pottering around in slow stop-start traffic, the plug-in hybrid will produce no emissions at all.

Long-range plug-in hybrid cars

The extreme version of the plug-in hybrid is the range-extender hybrid.

This is even closer to a fully-electric car. It uses the electric motor to drive and can be charged up overnight like a full EV.

There’s also a small petrol engine on board. This doesn’t drive the car – it can be used to charge up the batteries on the go.

This means you’re not limited to the range of a single charge of the batteries, but you do need to top up the fuel tank regularly.

electric car charging home

Are there problems with plug-in hybrids?

With a battery as well as an engine, PHEVs can be heavy cars.

To save weight, manufacturers usually fit much smaller fuel tanks to plug-in hybrids.

This means that if you’re using the conventional engine a lot, you’ll need to fill up more often – although your average spend will still be less than with a conventional petrol car.

The batteries are not as big as a fully electric car, so can be charged more quickly.

It may take up to six hours with an ordinary household plug, or three hours with a special wall charger.

Superfast chargers will charge to around 80% capacity in just 20 minutes.

Generally, the faster the charger, the more costly the electricity.

Charging up overnight at home is usually the most cost-effective solution for PHEV owners.

The future of plug-in hybrids

Most car brands now offer electric and hybrid models. Many have plug-in hybrids, too.

Some offer conventional, hybrid, plug-in hybrid and fully electric versions of their cars.

Plug-in hybrids are also starting to appear on the UK’s used car market.

With the market for electric vehicles of all types booming in the UK, it’s likely that PHEV sales will continue to soar, meaning prices should fall in both the new and used markets.

Excellent news if you're shopping on cinch.

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