What is a plug-in hybrid and should you buy one?

These models can be a great first step into the world of electrified cars and have the potential to save you a lot of money in fuel – but only if they fit into your lifestyle...

BMW i8 using 7kW roadside charge point

Plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) can be a good option for anyone who's not ready to go fully electric, because they provide many of the fuel and emissions benefits of electric cars on short drives, but have the back-up of a petrol or diesel engine for longer runs.

According to official figures, 66,877 plug-in hybrid cars were sold in this country in 2020 – a massive 91% increase on the previous year. 

This is only likely to grow in the coming years, as we countdown to 2030, when sales of conventional petrol and diesel cars will be banned

What is a plug-in hybrid car and how does it work?

Skoda Superb Estate iV plug-in hybrid long-term plugging in.

A PHEV is exactly what its name suggests: it’s a hybrid car with a battery pack that can be plugged in to charge it up. Like conventional hybrid models, PHEVs have both a petrol or diesel combustion engine and an electric motor. However, the battery pack that powers a PHEV’s motor is larger than that in a standard hybrid, giving it the advantage that it can run for longer on pure electric power alone. 

Ranges are typically 20 to 30 miles, but some of the latest PHEVs have an official pure electric range of more than 50 miles. This means they can complete most shorter urban journeys on electric power, emitting zero tailpipe emissions, but you don’t need to worry about topping the batteries up to complete longer drives because the conventional engine automatically kicks in and takes over the driving when the batteries are depleted. 

Those additional batteries are heavy, so fuel economy when running on the combustion engine may not be as good as that of a non plug-in alternative. To aid weight savings, some car makers choose to fit a smaller than usual fuel tank to their PHEVs, so you may only get 200-300 miles of fuelled range between fill-ups compared with around 500 miles from a non plug-in model

How do I charge a plug-in hybrid car?

Hyundai Kona owner review charging

You can charge a PHEV either with a conventional, household three-pin plug, a wall charger or a public charging point. Using a 3kW household plug is the slowest option - a full charge is likely to take five to six hours depending on the size of your car’s battery pack. A 7.4kW wall charger, which is commonly installed in homes or workplace car parks, will complete a charge around three hours. 

Alternatively, you may be able to get a faster energy fix at a rapid public charging point if your PHEV is able to charge at a higher speed. There are more than 35,000 public charge points at 13,000 locations around the UK, and a growing number of them offer very high rates of charging. 

The ageing motorway service station charging network operated by Ecotricity will also be replaced soon as part of a partnership with Gridserve. The latest 350kW ultra-rapid chargers can provide a 10% to 80% charge for a compatible electric car in just 20 minutes. This is great for anyone who wants a quick top-up, but it costs around five times more than charging up at home.

What are the advantages of plug-in hybrid cars?

congestion zone

The main advantage of running any PHEV is that it will have lower CO2 emissions and better fuel economy than a conventional combustion-engined car. The benefits are best if you are able to do shorter journeys using all or mostly electric power, and as long as you remember to charge up the car’s batteries in-between every trip. On average it costs 12p per mile to drive a petrol-engined car, this drops to just 5p per mile for trips done using electric power if you charge up at home at a rate of 14p per kilowatt hour.   

You’ll also benefit from either a lower or zero rate of road tax (VED) compared with internal-combustion engined cars. And, if you live in the city, you could also avoid paying charges for driving your car, such as London’s Congestion Charge (if your car emits less than 75g/km of CO2) and London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone. The former costs £15 a day and the latter £12.50 a day; other cities around the UK are considering introducing charges. 

Another advantage of both conventional hybrids and PHEVs is that they do away with the ‘range anxiety’ associated with electric vehicles: because there’s also a combustion engine, you won’t suddenly run out of range.

What are the disadvantages of plug-in hybrid cars?

The main downside of owning a PHEV is that it’s likely to have poorer fuel economy than a conventionally-powered alternative when it’s driven using the engine rather than the electric motor. This is because you’re lugging around the additional weight of its electric battery pack. 

Add this to the fact that PHEVs tend to cost more to buy than petrol or diesel rivals, and this could mean your motoring costs are higher than they could be. 

Nissan LEAF charging

So if most of your journeys are longer than your PHEV’s pure electric range, or if you’re not able to charge up the batteries frequently and end up doing the majority of your driving using the engine, then a plug-in may not be the best option for you. 

If most of your journeys are longer motorway drives, a pure electric car with a long range could be suitable as long as you’re able to replenish its batteries after each long drive. If you’re not able to charge up cheaply and easily, a diesel-engined model is likely to be the most cost-effective option. 

Do PHEVs make good company cars? 

Plug-in hybrids are among the most affordable models to run as company cars because the rates of benefit in kind (BiK) tax payable on them are significantly lower than for petrol and diesel alternatives. 

The company car tax rate for a car with up to 50g/km CO2 emissions and a pure electric range of 40 to 69 miles is just 6% and for cars with a shorter range (30-39 miles) it’s 10%. In contrast, the rate for petrol cars with 95-99g/km CO2 is 22%, and for diesels there’s a 4% surcharge on top of this.  

Find out more about the best company cars

How many plug-in hybrid cars are there?

At present 19 of the UK’s 35 mainstream car manufacturers offer PHEVs as part of their line-up, and many more also offer some form of hybrid or electric vehicle.

Ford Kuga PHEV

There are some great models in the list below, including the BMW 330e, which was voted the best executive car 2021, and the Ford Kuga,  which is the best long-distance PHEV because it has a pure electric range of 31 miles and achieved an impressive 52pmg running on its petrol engine in our tests.  

Below is a full list of every plug-in hybrid car available right now - click on the car names to read our reviews of these models.

Audi A3 TFSI e
Audi A6 TFSI e
Audi A7 TFSI e
BMW 3 Series 330e
BMW 5 Series 530e
BMW X1 xDrive25e
BMW X2 xDrive25e
Citroen C5 Aircross Hybrid
DS 7 Crossback E-Tense
Ford Kuga PHEV
Jaguar E-Pace P300e
Jaguar F-Pace P300e
Jeep Renegade 4xe
Kia Ceed Sportswagon PHEV
Kia Niro PHEV
Kia Sorento PHEV
Kia Xceed PHEV
Land Rover Discovery Sport P300e
Mercedes C-Class EQ Power
Mercedes CLA EQ Power
Mercedes GLA EQ Power
Mercedes E-Class EQ Power
MG HS
Mini Countryman PHEV
Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV
Peugeot 3008 Hybrid
Peugeot 508 SW Hybrid
Porsche Panamera E-Hybrid
Range Rover Evoque P300e
Range Rover Velar P300e
Renault Captur E-Tech
Renault Megane Sport Tourer E-Tech
Seat Leon e-Hybrid
Skoda Octavia Estate iV
Skoda Superb iV
Vauxhall Grandland X Hybrid
Volkswagen Arteon E-Hybrid
Volkswagen Golf GTE
Volvo S60 Recharge
Volvo S90 Recharge
Volvo V60 T8
Volvo V90 T6 Recharge 
Volvo XC60 T6 Recharge

How much do plug-in hybrid cars cost?

Hybrid and plug-in hybrid cars do generally cost more than their combustion-engined equivalents. However, the gap is shrinking and there are some great value propositions, such as our favourite PHEV the Skoda Octavia Estate iV, which costs from £31,797 with our Target Price discount applied. 

It’s also worth remembering the potential savings you should be able to make on fuel when buying.

Should I buy a plug-in hybrid car?

There are plenty of advantages of running a PHEV - it may be pricier than a conventional-engined alternative, but you’ll pay no or very little road tax, no congestion charge in big cities like London, and if you keep the batteries topped up and only do shorter journeys it’ll cost at least 50% less on fuel. It’s also reassuring to know you have the back-up of a combustion engine for longer journeys.

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Read more: The best and worst plug-in hybrid cars >>