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What is a hybrid car? Should I buy one?

Hybrid cars are growing in popularity every month – but what exactly is a hybrid car? And should you consider one for your next car? Read on to find out everything you need to know about hybrids, and whether they’re a good choice for you.

What is a hybrid?

A hybrid car still uses a petrol or diesel engine, but also has an electric motor alongside it. Most cars use this combination to maximise fuel economy and to be as green as possible, and many are able to switch between the two power modes – meaning you can glide along almost silently in electric-only mode, and then the engine will kick in when the batteries run low or you need to use more power, for example to drive at motorway speeds.

The engine is usually petrol – in a Hyundai Ioniq (shown above), for example, but a few cars – such as the Audi Q7 e-tron use a diesel engine. At low speeds this engine is either not used, or works as a generator, charging the batteries as you go along. In theory, this means that so long as there is fuel in the car, you will always be able to use the electric power. Modern hybrid systems are advanced enough that the engine can normally be left as a backup to the electric power.

What is a plug-in hybrid?

A plug-in hybrid is very similar to a conventional hybrid, because it still has two forms of propulsion – again, usually a small petrol engine and electric motors. The main difference is that the electric motor can also be charged using a mains electricity plug, which is convenient if you can charge your car at work or home. In fact, many supermarkets, motorway service stations and car parks now also offer electric charging points.

Both plug-in hybrids and conventional hybrids usually use regenerative braking, which allows less energy to be lost and therefore maximise range. In most cars, kinetic energy is lost when you brake, but regenerative braking sweeps it up and makes sure it doesn’t go to waste.

You may have also heard about range-extenders – these are cars that predominantly use electric power and are charged from the mains, and a tiny petrol engine is used when needed to offer a solution to range anxiety.

Should I buy a hybrid car?

If you’d like to cut your fuel costs or contribute a little bit towards saving the planet, a hybrid might be a good option. They can cover longer distances than electric-only cars, and if you mostly drive around town you’ll get impressive fuel economy. If you can drive in electric-only mode (ie at low speeds and without putting your foot down much) they’re serene and relaxing to travel in because there’s no engine noise.

If you’ve done any research you will have seen huge mpg figures for some hybrid cars – for example, the Volvo XC90 T8 SUV (shown above) can achieve a claimed 134.5mpg, and the Toyota Prius Plug-in hatchback manages a massive 283mpg. These figures are obtained under laboratory testing and you won’t get anywhere near this fuel economy in real-world driving. Still, if you stick to town driving and keep the batteries charged then a hybrid will usually be more economical than a regular petrol or diesel car – we got 80mpg from a Toyota Prius in a mix of town and rural driving.

If you mostly do motorway driving, however, expect a hybrid to get worse fuel economy than a normal petrol or diesel because you’ll be using the combustion engine most of the time, and the batteries make hybrids heavier (and therefore less economical at speed) than regular cars.

Another downside is that many hybrids use CVT automatic gearboxes, which make a lot of noise when you put your foot down and blunt the feeling of acceleration.

Save money on your next hybrid car

Read our guides to the best hybrid cars and best hybrid SUVs if you are considering a dual-fuel model for your next car. If you have decided on a hybrid car, head to our impartial review by searching for the model in the search bar above, and see how much you can save through carwow.

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