Hybrid vehicles have been around for years, though they have yet to be fully embraced by the car buying public, particularly in the UK, where diesel engines – and the promise of low fuel consumption – reign supreme.
The reasons behind the lack of popularity of conventional hybrids – which are essentially regular cars with small electric motors that aid propulsion in low speed situations – is that despite the added tech and claims of sky-high fuel economy, few of us are in a position to use hybrids to their full potential.
Unless you spend your entire driving life in a congested metropolis, where a hybrid’s battery pack can take over from the engine, and the battery gets constantly topped up under braking, hybrid vehicles can often prove no more economical than regular combustion-engined cars. Factor in their often high list prices and you're looking at an extremely expensive toy.
So why should hybrid cars matter in 2015? For one reason, the powers that be are finally waking up the sheer amount of environmental damage that diesel engines cause. After years of being fixated by CO2 emissions, the impact of particulates – that are found in diesel fumes – on human health are being realised. The result being that the diesel cars that have become attractive due to affordable tax rates over the last few years, are soon likely to be shelved, with major cities drawing up plans to ban the most polluting examples from the roads in the coming years.
Hybrid vehicles offer low CO2 emissions, thanks to their ability to travel for limited periods on battery power alone, but do not emit the hazardous particulate matter that diesels do.
Critics of hybrid vehicles have often cited the lack of electric range they offer, and that their impressive fuel economy is often only accessible by those with a very specific set of driving behaviour – heavy urban use, mainly – which makes their expense and technological complexity unjustified for most drivers. Carmakers have countered these concerns with plug-in hybrids.
Cars such as the Audi A3 e-tron or Volvo X60 offer a similar setup to conventional hybrids, though as they are fitted with larger battery packs, they boast vastly improved electric driving range. With most models able to cover around 30 miles on electricity alone (more than enough for the average UK commute), they offer most of the emissions-free benefits of an electric car, but get around battery ‘range anxiety’ with a backup petrol motor to keep the batteries going once the charge runs out.
Drivers who regularly do shorter journeys need never use a drop of fuel, as (as their name suggests) plug-in hybrids can be hooked up to the mains and fully charged in a few short hours.
What’s more, they are available in conjunction with the £5,000 government grant offered to buyers of plug-in hybrids and battery electric vehicles, meaning that they could be a more cost effective option than you may have first imagined.
With battery electric cars currently unable to provide enough range for most people to rely on them as their sole mode of transport, and a lack of infrastructure hindering wide scale uptake of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, hybrid vehicles are more relevant now than they ever have been.