What is a hybrid car?

Last updated April 23, 2021

Unlike regular combustion cars, hybrid cars employ more than one propulsion method by combining a conventional engine with an electric motor. The basic principle behind electric cars is that different motors perform optimally at different speeds.

The electric motor, for instance, is highly efficient at producing torque and aiding steering, while combustion engines are better at maintaining high speeds. A combination of both propulsion types produces excellent results in terms of energy efficiency, while also producing fewer emissions and therefore being kinder to the environment.

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Types of hybrid car

  • Parallel hybrid cars

    Also known as full hybrids, these are the most common type of hybrid car. They utilise both the engine and electric motor to drive the car under different circumstances. These cars can run in three different ways: directly by the engine, solely by the electric motor, or a combination of both.

    Parallel hybrids can usually hold small amounts of electric charge, which can then be used to provide extra power. This can then be employed either alone or in conjunction with the engine, subsequently improving the fuel economy.

    In many parallel hybrids, you can choose to drive in electric-only mode, although usually only at low speeds and for short journeys. However, the electric-only settings aren’t suitable for longer or faster journeys due to the size of the batteries.

    Range anxiety rarely comes into play with parallel hybrids. Their small batteries can be quickly charged with the energy created by the engine and even if they do fall flat, the cars can drive on petrol or diesel alone.

    Most parallel hybrid cars also feature a regenerative braking system (RBS), which activates automatically when the driver decelerates or uses the brakes. Once activated, the RBS produces energy which is stored in the battery for later use, underscoring the energy efficiency of parallel hybrid cars.

    Parallel hybrids are generally considered to be the best option for any drivers who rack up lots of miles.

    Examples of popular parallel hybrid cars include:

    • Toyota Prius
    • Toyota Corolla
    • Toyota Yaris
  • Plug-in hybrid cars (PHEV)

    As the name suggests, plug-in hybrids can be plugged into an electrical outlet to charge. They essentially take the hybrid concept closer to that of a full electric vehicle by adding a larger battery that enables charging from an external power source.

    The larger batteries in PHEVs allow for overnight charging that can generally last for around 30 miles driving on electrical power alone. Theoretically, it may be possible to run a PHEV without ever using its petrol engine, providing you drove less than 30 miles each way before charging. Therefore, they allow for more zero-emissions driving, but increase the weight of the vehicle.

    The main advantage of PHEVs is their capacity to displace emissions from the car’s exhaust to the generators which power the electricity grid. More often than not, these generators are renewable and usually produce lower emissions than a combustion engine.

    Examples of popular plug-in hybrid cars include:

    • Mercedes E300
    • Hyundai Ioniq
    • Skoda Superb
  • Range extender hybrid cars (REX)

    Perhaps the least well known of the three, range extender hybrid cars combine a combustion engine with an electric motor like other hybrids. They are also known as mild hybrids, and they are often the cheapest entry-point into hybrid ownership.

    However, unlike other hybrid cars, the engine itself is never used to drive the car. Instead, the energy generated from the engine powers the electrical motor. This energy can then be used when coasting, and to smooth out any stop-start driving.

    The key advantage of range extender hybrids is their nullification of ‘range anxiety’, a phenomenon experienced by some drivers who worry about their battery depleting before reaching their destination. By retaining a combustion engine that can run on petrol or diesel, it offers drivers the option to refuel along the way without having to charge the vehicle itself, should this become necessary.

    Examples of popular range extender hybrid cars include:

    Examples of popular parallel hybrid cars include:

    • BMW i3 Rex
    • Chevrolet Volt
    • Toyota Yaris
    • Vauxhall Ampera E-REV

Benefits of hybrid cars

  • Hybrid cars are more eco-friendly

    By pairing an electric motor with a conventional engine, hybrid cars can significantly reduce carbon emissions when compared with petrol and diesel cars. The Honda CR-V Hybrid SUV, for example, emits 120g/km of CO2; a figure expected from a much smaller vehicle. Moreover, most new hybrid cars include a zero-emission mode for short distances.

  • Hybrid cars adapt

    Continuously evolving technology allows hybrid cars to optimise their fuel efficiency, so you don’t have to. For instance, Honda employs Intelligent Multi-Mode Drive (i-MMD) technology, which automatically switches between drive modes to align with the driving conditions. Toyota, on the other hand, puts the power in your hands, offering three on-demand driving modes - Eco, EV and Power - in addition to the Normal setting.

  • Hybrid cars are generally cheaper to run

    The latest hybrid cars incorporate smart technology that helps drivers cut costs. For example, many new models use fixed-gear transmission, which provides a direct connection to the moving components, resulting in rapid responsiveness and greater overall efficiency.

  • Hybrid cars produce their own energy

    Simply decelerating and braking generates energy that charges the electric motor, ensuring that energy efficiency is maximised.

Are hybrid cars worth it?

Due to their energy-saving power configuration and eco-conscious design, hybrid cars are often well worth considering, especially for people who frequently make short city commutes.

There are also legislative measures to consider, which are reflected in the sales numbers. For instance, hybrid car sales have grown steadily over the last decade, while governmental plans to tackle climate change have spurred further growth. In addition to banning the sale of petrol and diesel powered vehicles by 2030, all vehicles must be zero emissions from the tailpipe by 2035. Therefore, both parallel and plug-in hybrid cars may not be the best long-term investment.