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

Thinking of going part-electric? cinch has the biggest range of hybrids to buy entirely online, so we know our stuff...

How do you get the most from a plug-in hybrid car?

If, like many people, you’ve just picked yourself up a new or used plug-in hybrid, you’re probably feeling a little smug. That’s fine – not only have you got yourself a car that’ll save you money, you’re also officially jumping on the green bandwagon.

Now, you’re probably wondering how does this mix of petrol and electric car actually work? Here’s how.

What is a plug-in hybrid car?

Hybrid cars use both a petrol or diesel engine and an electric motor to provide their power. It’s an economical and easy-to-manage halfway stage to switching to a full emission-free electric car for many drivers. 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 (sometimes called a PHEV) is more advanced - and can be more expensive to purchase. But they have great advantages, such as allowing you to charge the battery from another power supply, like a public charging station or a socket at home, overnight.

The battery is bigger, so this gives you much more chance to drive purely on the electric motor. The electric-only range differs between models of course – typically it is between 25 and 50 miles. That’s usually enough for most shopping, school-run and commuting journeys in the UK.

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

What are the benefits of a PHEV?

The PHEV can be the perfect option for anyone unready for the leap to a full-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.

There are more benefits: a plug-in hybrid car can decide to combine the two power sources as you drive along. 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.

Of course, the plug-in hybrid’s conventional engine will produce polluting emissions when it is 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 the least efficient driving scenarios, like pottering around in slow stop-start traffic, the plug-in hybrid will produce no emissions at all.

When you want to drive a little faster, the conventional engine takes over. That’s the sort of driving that can drain a PHEV's battery pack quickly. The car can also use the conventional engine to recharge the batteries as you drive along.

The extreme version of the plug-in hybrid is the range-extender hybrid. This is even more like a fully electric car. It uses the electric motor to drive and can be charged up overnight like a full EV. There is 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 are not limited to the range of a single charge of the batteries but you do need to top up the fuel tank regularly.

Plug-in hybrids make particularly sound buys for company car users. Their tax rating is very low. For urban commuters too, plug-in hybrids often mean using no fuel at all on their daily journeys.

Are there problems with plug-in hybrids?

With a battery aboard 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 are using the conventional engine a lot you’ll need to stop to fill up more often - although your average spend will still be less than a conventional petrol car's.

The batteries are not as big as a full-electric car, so can be charged quicker. It may take up to 6 hours at an ordinary household plug or 3 hours with a special wall charger. Superfast chargers will charge to around 80% capacity in just 20 minutes. Generally, the faster the charger though, the pricier 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 - and cinch offers more PHEVs online than any of our online-only rivals*. Many have plug-in hybrids, too. Some offer conventional, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and full-electric versions of their cars. Plug-in hybrids are starting to appear on the UK’s used car market too.

With the market for electric vehicles of all types booming in the UK, it is likely that PHEVs sales will continue to soar, meaning prices should fall in both the new and used markets. Which is excellent news if you're shopping on cinch.

*Comparison against equivalent retailers. Verify at cinch.co.uk/hybridrangeclaim

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