What is a hybrid car and should you buy one?

What are hybrid cars, how do they work and would one suit you? Find out everything you need to know in our useful guide...

What is a hybrid car and should you buy one?

A hybrid car is one that uses more than one means of propulsion - that means combining a petrol or diesel engine with an electric motor.

The main advantages of a hybrid are that it should consume less fuel and emit less CO2 than a comparable conventional petrol or diesel-engined vehicle.

Because hybrid cars often have lower CO2 emissions than conventionally engined cars, their owners may also get extra benefits in the shape of lower first year road tax and company car tax, as well as possibly avoiding congestion charges.

How do hybrid cars work?

Hybrid cars have a conventional engine, an electric motor and a battery. There are three different types of hybrids and each works in a different way.

1. Parallel hybrid cars

Toyota Prius front

These are the most common type of hybrid, and the Toyota Prius is the most widely known example. The car’s wheels can be powered in three different ways: either directly by the engine, by the electric motor alone, or by both power sources working together.

When pulling away, and at speeds up to 15mph, the Prius only uses the electric motor for power, making it very economical for stop-start city driving. The petrol engine cuts in as speed increases, and it is used most during hard acceleration.

Whenever you decelerate or use the brakes, the regenerative braking system produces electricity and stores it in the battery for use later on. The battery is big enough that the electric motor can power the car for up to 1.25 miles.

Toyota also uses this system in the Yaris and Auris hatchbacks and Prius+ MPV hybrids, and cars from its luxury brand Lexus work on the same basis.

BMW i3 2018 front cornering

2. Range extender hybrid cars

These only use their conventional engine to produce electricity for a generator that recharges the batteries. The engine never drives the car, it only produces energy for the electric motor.

The BMW i3 with Range Extender is one of the most popular examples. The Honda Jazz Hybrid also uses an electric motor to help their relatively small conventional engines when required.

Hybrids are also categorized as either strong or mild depending on the amount of battery power they have. With more battery capacity, strong hybrids can drive further than mild ones on electric power only.

BMW 330e front cornering

3. Plug-in hybrids

As the name implies, this type of hybrid can be plugged into an electric outlet to recharge their batteries, as well as being charged on the move.

Effectively, they are a halfway house between conventional hybrids and full electric vehicles. Although they have a conventional engine, they also have larger batteries than regular hybrids and can drive longer distances on electric power alone - up to 30 miles in some cases.

There are a growing number of plug-in hybrids on offer, including the BMW 330eMistubishi Outlander, Toyota Prius and Volvo V60.

What is a hybrid car and should you buy one?

What are the benefits of a hybrid car?

Driving a hybrid is similar to driving a conventional automatic car, so there’s little compromise on performance.

Most strong hybrids will have a choice of power modes, too, ranging from eco to power, enabling the driver to choose maximum efficiency or performance depending on the driving conditions.

Range anxiety isn’t an issue and you don’t need to a charging point because hybrids charge up their own batteries.

Although the tax benefits of hybrid ownership aren’t as big as they used to be, company car drivers still pay less Benefit-In-Kind (BIK) tax than drivers of petrol or diesel cars, and cars emitting less than 75g/km qualify for London congestion charge exemption until 25 October 2021.

What is a hybrid car and should you buy one?

Should I buy a hybrid car?

A hybrid car will suit you if you do most of your mileage in and around town because you’ll gain the most benefit from running on electric only power, which is effectively free travel.

If you do frequent short trips and don’t need the extra flexibility of a hybrid, then you may be better off with an electric car, which will give you cheap urban travel and no tailpipe emissions.

However, if you do a lot of motorway miles you may be better off with an efficient diesel car. It’s likely to provide better high-speed fuel economy than a hybrid because motorways and fast A-roads are the types of road on which hybrids are least efficient.

Next: Top 10 best hybrid cars >>

For all the latest reviews, advice and new car deals, sign up to the What Car? newsletter here

Help us find the best electric car public charging service by telling us about your own charging experiences in our EV public charger survey