By: Byron Mathioudakis

Like it or not, electrification of our cars is here to stay, and hybrid cars are leading the charge.

Hybrids are often considered the stepping stone between cars with conventional internal combustion engines and pure electric vehicles (EV). Hybrids essentially combine the two.

But there are a few variations in the hybrid range, so to help you understand the options and the pros and cons of each, we’ve looked at some of the reasons you might consider a hybrid and explained how the different types of hybrids work.

What are the benefits of a hybrid car versus a normal petrol or diesel car?

Reduced running costs:

Hybrids consume less fuel than regular cars, since the electric motor drives the wheels for part of the time, especially from standstill or at lower speeds, and helps for the rest of the journey. When the engine fires up, it doesn’t have to work so hard either, as the car is already in motion, further improving fuel economy.

Lower tailpipe emissions:

In EV-only mode, there are no harmful emissions from the exhaust pipes, making hybrids especially suitable in densely populated areas.

Quieter, smoother operation:

Electric motors are almost completely noiseless and thus quieter than an engine, as well as smoother in operation, improving comfort.

Stronger performance:

The addition of an electric motor provides a useful extra amount of power and torque, for stronger acceleration and throttle response.

What are the advantages of a hybrid car versus a full electric car?

Cheaper to buy:

Using the Hyundai Kona SUV as an example, the Elite 2.0L petrol is nearly half the price at $30,600 compared to its $60,740 Elite Electric EV equivalent.

No range anxiety:

When the electricity runs out and the battery goes flat in any hybrid, the engine takes over just as in an ordinary car, meaning that hybrids can venture out to remote areas that EVs cannot reach.

No waiting for the battery pack to recharge:

EVs need time to fully recharge, from around 30 minutes at a high-capacity charging station to 24 hours using a household power socket, depending on battery size.

No special parking bays:

Hybrids don’t need a dedicated parking bay to recharge, instead the on-board engine generates most of the electricity it needs.

How do hybrid cars work?

There are basically two different types of hybrids: A regular hybrid (HEV) and a plug-in hybrid (PHEV). Both have an engine paired with an electric motor, battery pack and generator, to send drive separately or concurrently to the wheels.

The differences centre around the size of the battery packs and the consequent electric-only range on offer, and whether the electricity comes via the engine or an external source.

In addition to this, there are two other hybrid categories – mild hybrid and range extender hybrid – which we’ve also explained below.

1. Hybrid Electric Vehicle (HEV)

In a series-parallel HEV, the battery pack is relatively small. It provides enough charge to get the car moving to speeds and distances of around 40km/h and 2km respectively, before the engine fires up to directly drive the wheels. After that, the electric motor chimes in and out seamlessly as required.

The HEV’s battery pack is charged by the engine when driving, either when idling or on the move, and/or via kinetic energy gathered from the action of braking. This is known as regenerative braking. No external charging of the battery pack is possible, so don’t bother about looking for a wall plug or charging station. Note that Toyota promotes its hybrids as ‘self-charging’, which is technically true, but sidesteps the fact that a fossil fuel is still required for it to happen.

The PHEV, meanwhile, has a much larger battery pack, offering up to about 50km of pure EV range, before the engine takes over. However, while the PHEV’s battery pack is also charged as per the HEV’s, plugging into mains power is necessary due to its extra size and capacity. That’s the price you pay for having useable everyday pure-electric range.

Some older HEVs, like Honda’s defunct Insight, Civic Hybrid and CR-Z used a ‘parallel-only’ hybrid set-up, where the electric motor assisted the petrol engine but never drove the wheels directly. The 2020 Honda Accord Hybrid employs a ‘series-parallel’ arrangement similar to Toyota’s.

Honda Accord VTi LX Hybrid

The benefits of HEVs:

Accessibility. HEV is the cheapest entry into vehicle electrification, with prices for the Toyota Prius C starting from $25,000. Combined with their low running costs, some HEVs nowadays are cheaper than diesels.

Refinement. Initial acceleration is largely silent and very smooth because the electric motor is doing the driving. Great for quiet getaways.

Packs a punch. The available performance comes on strongly because electric motors produce their maximum torque from zero revs, boosting acceleration and providing immediate throttle responses. This in turn means a smaller-capacity and lighter petrol engine is sufficient, further improving efficiency.

Greener machines. HEVs produce fewer carbon and nitrogen oxide emissions than petrol or diesel cars, resulting in dramatically more economical and cleaner vehicles – especially in city areas where heavy traffic means the electric motor is more likely to be the main propulsion system driving the wheels.

Efficiency. All HEVs feature a stop-start function that extinguishes the engine when coasting along with the foot off the throttle, or at lower speeds coming to a halt. This further preserves fuel, lowers emissions and cuts noise pollution. Sitting in heavy traffic is (slightly) more bearable with no idling engine droning away.

Refuel and forget. The very nature of the HEV – an electric motor and engine combo – means the battery pack never needs to be plugged into an external power source for recharging. The engine diverts power to a generator to charge it instead, or electricity is converted from otherwise wasted kinetic energy using regenerative braking technology. If you live in an apartment or have no access to off-street parking, you never need to worry about finding a long-enough power cord.

Result? No range anxiety or wasting time and energy finding a place to plug the car in, the HEV is great for city driving and short distance commutes.

The disadvantages of HEVs:

Expense. While there are cheap HEVs, they are generally more expensive than their equivalently-sized and equipped petrol-engined counterparts because of the added cost and complexity of electrification, from the battery pack and electric motor to the unique transmission and generator technology. Case in point: choosing hybrid in Corolla means paying $1500 extra. Plus, with low petrol prices, recouping that difference will take tens of thousands of kilometres of driving.

Not so great outside the city. HEVs are most efficient around town in slow traffic; out on the open road at speed, they generally lose their economy advantages over normal engined models, as the electric motor isn’t required to save fuel. Basically, highway-only driving squanders the HEV’s potential, and what you’re left with is a car with two propulsion units instead of one to lug around.

Less luggage space. Batteries are heavy and usually located in the lower rear half of a vehicle, at the cost of luggage capacity, and with a temporary spare tyre instead of a full-sized spare. Some even resort to a fiddly tyre-inflator kit, or expensive and harder-riding runflat tyres.

More to go wrong. Having two propulsion systems in the one car adds cost and complexity to servicing and repairs, though most have proven reliable and durable as electric motors actually require fewer moving parts than an engine.

Weighty issues. HEVs can add hundreds of kilograms to a vehicle’s weight, and that extra mass reduces the overall efficiency of the powertrain as there’s more weight to haul around. Additionally, the extra weight means the brakes have to be larger and more powerful to stop the vehicle in an emergency, the suspension has to be braced to deal with shifting forces on the move. The vehicle also steers, handles and corners with less agility and ease than a lighter, regular-engined equivalent. Plus, the added masses drive up car registration costs, since in WA they are calculated by vehicle mass.

Battery cell degradation. Although battery packs are usually guaranteed for eight years, they wear out and eventually do need to be replaced at a cost of thousands of dollars depending on the manufacturer, so beware of the condition of a battery pack in older and higher-mileage hybrids.

Shock and awe. HEVs pose an additional safety risk to emergency services workers who must be specially trained to deal with the dangers of high-voltage hardware when attending an accident scene.

HEVs: The players

Credit where it is due. You cannot talk HEVs without starting with Toyota.

Along with the regular Prius, Toyota has offered the Prius C city car for $25,000, as well as the Prius V seven-seater wagon since the early 2010s. Additionally, it is the first and still the only carmaker making affordable HEV versions of all established mainstream models, starting with the Camry Hybrid (since 2012), then adding the popular Corolla (from 2016), C-HR and RAV4 (from 2019), Yaris (2020) and Kluger (coming in 2021) versions.

Toyota Prius C
Toyota Prius C

This strategy followed Toyota’s luxury brand Lexus’ lead back in 2003 with the RX premium medium SUV, with most models following suit since. It is also likely that Australia’s bestselling vehicle, the Toyota HiLux truck, will eventually go HEV.

Toyota/Lexus aside, only four circa-$50,000 HEVs currently exist – the Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid, Subaru’s fresh XV and Forester E-Boxer and the Honda Accord Hybrid. Honda also sells the NSX Hybrid electric supercar from $420,000.

RELATED: Hybrid cars available in Australia 2020 »

2. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV)

As the name suggests, a PHEV is a hybrid but with a socket like an EV, so it must be charged from an external source, such as from a home, office or charging station. While there is also some electricity fed back into the battery pack from the engine and regenerative braking systems within the car, it’s not nearly enough to fully recharge the PHEV on the move.

Yet, despite possessing much the same-size engine, electric motor and generator tech as a HEV, a PHEV is much closer to the ownership and driving experience of an EV, because a PHEV uses a much larger battery pack than an HEV. Compared to its hybrid sibling, the Hyundai Ioniq PHEV’s version holds five times the capacity. Think of the battery-pack as a fuel tank for electricity, so the bigger it is, the further you can travel. When the electricity does run out, the engine takes over, just as in a regular HEV.

It’s the solution to range anxiety while still enjoying many of the EV advantages. In fact, some PHEVs have a phenomenal combined petrol/EV range, such as the $120,000 Mercedes-Benz E300e’s 2700km distance between refills. Astonishing.

As with all EVs, a PHEV comes with its own charging hardware, namely a cable to a three-pin household socket. Additionally, a wall box can be purchased, installed by an outside supplier from around $3000.

Mercedes Benz GLC 300e plugged in
Mercedes Benz GLC 300e being charged

The advantages of a plug-in hybrid:

Got your back. As with EVs, PHEV owners report that they naturally plug their cars in to charge overnight as they would a mobile phone, except they don’t worry about being left stranded if they forget to occasionally.

Saves money. US studies have shown that using household electricity to charge a PHEV costs substantially less than the fuel a HEV requires to recharge their (much smaller) battery packs – and that’s before solar or subsidised electricity and cheaper American petrol.

Save more money. A PHEV’s low fuel consumption and emissions ratings would come in handy if Australia switches to a European-style emissions-based registration and taxation system, further rewarding EV and PHEV motoring.

Choice. PHEVs allow the driver to control when the electric motor operates, to preserve charge for when it is most beneficial running in EV mode, such as in built-up areas or during traffic jams.

Farewell fossil fuels. For drivers with sub-50km daily commutes, it is possible to never have to visit petrol stations, saving time.

Going the distance. Astonishing combined range is possible, with two Mercedes PHEVs technically able to drive from Perth to Alice Springs on one tankful with a couple of hundred kilometres to spare.

Not just around town. EV charging infrastructure is growing rapidly across Australia, meaning PHEV owners are increasingly able to use their vehicles without the engine security blanket if they so desire.

How’s the serenity. In EV mode, PHEVs are as hushed and smooth as EVs, while packing plenty of low-down torque oomph.

Less stress. Engine wear is significantly reduced as in many cases it isn’t used nearly as often in a PHEV compared to an HEV, let alone a non-hybrid.

Price shock. PHEVs are cheaper than EVs. Using the Hyundai Ioniq as an example, the Plug-in model is $6600 less than its electric counterpart.

Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid
Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid

The disadvantages of a plug-in hybrid:

Even more to go wrong. The added complexity of a larger and heavier battery pack, combined with extra electrical engineering for the plug-in technology, means more to service and repair over the longer term, on top of the engine and motor combination.

Scarcity. Currently there are few PHEVs to choose from. (Check out our 2020 list of plug-in hybrid cars available in Australia).

Purchase price. PHEVs cost substantially more than their petrol and HEV counterparts – around $7000 is the additional premium you’ll pay to get the Ioniq.

Less luggage space. As with most HEVs, PHEVs powertrain electrification often results in reduced cargo capacity, though it’s worse in the PHEV because the battery pack is larger again, often necessitating the removal of a spare wheel.

Battery costs. Though a warranty for up to eight years is the norm, eventual wear and degradation means that replacing a PHEV battery pack will be much more expensive than an HEV’s smaller equivalent. For example, a Prius battery pack is about $4000 while an PHEV’s can cost upwards of $15,000 (before labour) for some models.

Charging inconvenience. Using a regular household outlet requires around six to eight hours depending on the PHEV, while obviously a HEV requires no plugging-in hassles.

Charge it or lose it. Owners who forget or don’t bother to plug their cars in and drive their PHEVs purely on petrol will actually suffer higher consumption and wear compared to regular cars and especially HEVs.

Parts availability. Reports state that some PHEVs sit in workshops for months awaiting rare spare parts.

PHEVs: The players

Mitsubishi’s Outlander PHEV (from $47,390) paved the way for PHEVs since 2013. Blending SUV practicality with a 50km EV range or 800km between refills has helped it become history’s bestselling PHEV.

Cheapest is the Ioniq Plug-in from $42,410, but from there up it’s mostly all premium, from the BMW 330e, Mercedes-Benz C300e and Volvo S60/V60 T8 PHEVs at under $100K, to luxury limos at more than twice that amount such as the BMW 745e and Porsche Panamera 4E-Hybrid.

Mercedes Benz C300e PHEV engine bay
Mercedes Benz C300e PHEV engine bay

Notable PHEV SUVs include the Mini Countryman, Volvo’s XC40, XC60 and XC90 T8s, the Mercedes GLC 300e, BMW X5 45e, Range Rover/Range Rover Sport and Cayenne E-Hybrid, while Ferrari’s SF90 Stradale tops out at a cool $850K.

RELATED: Hybrid plug-in cars available in Australia 2020  »

3. Mild hybrids

Whether Mild HEVs are actually hybrids is debatable, since there is generally no electric drive motor, just a larger starter motor to ensure the engine and 12-volt car battery has the capacity to stop/start reliably.

And while the few offered overseas can bring fuel savings upwards of 15 per cent compared to standard models, their added expense makes their importation cost-prohibitive in Australia. Exceptions are in the luxury class, where brands like Mercedes are introducing mild hybrid tech in up-spec models from their performance division, AMG.

4. Range extender hybrids

Range-extender (or REx) hybrids are closer to EVs again compared to PHEVs, with only an electric motor driving the wheels, backed up by a small petrol engine that is there solely as an electricity generator to recharge a big battery pack.

The Holden Volt (2011-2014) and BMW i3 REx (2014-2019) are defunct examples. Both were well packaged and good to drive but short on range and too expensive, with the latter also criticised for providing disappointing additional extended petrol range, while being markedly noisy due to having a tiny scooter engine.

No range-extender hybrid is currently sold new in Australia.

Hybrid cars FAQs

Which is better – a HEV or PHEV?

Hybrid on a budget, PHEV for that all-electric experience but with a petrol engine safety net for extended journeys and no range anxiety.

Are hybrids worth it?

Definitely if using considerably less fuel and creating fewer emissions are important to you.

What are some of the advantages of a hybrid/plug-in hybrid?

They cost more to buy, may cost more to service, weigh more so might be more expensive to register here in WA due to a car’s mass affecting rego costs, and are generally heavier than their petrol-powered equivalents so aren’t quite as agile around corners.

Do plug-in hybrids charge while you drive?

Yes, they ‘self-charge’ in that the petrol engine sends power to charge the battery pack, while energy from braking is captured and also stored as electricity.

What plug-in hybrid has the longest range?

Luxury carmaker BMW offers the 330e PHEV with an all-electric range of more than 60km, while Mercedes-Benz’s E300e PHEV can go up to 2800km combining both the battery range and 60-litre petrol tank.

Can you drive a plug-in hybrid without charging?

Yes, just as you would a normal engined car, but the extra weight of the electric bits would mean it actually would use more fuel than a non-PHEV equivalent.

What happens if you don’t charge a plug-in hybrid?

Nothing, it will still drive normally, except you won’t enjoy any pure-electric driving range.

Can hybrid cars run on fuel only?

Yes. HEVs rely on fuel to run as their all-electric range is only about 2km before their battery goes flat and the petrol engine kicks in. Plug-in models can go up to about 50km in most cases before their engine takes over.

What happens when a hybrid car runs out of battery power?

Nothing, it’s business as usual, as the engine takes over seamlessly to drive the wheels and then recharge the battery pack.

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Last updated: June 2020