HYBRID CAR: What Are Hybrid Cars And Some Examples Listed

When buying a new car, it’s not only the most environmentally aware drivers who are now considering options that were once considered ‘alternative’.
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Since the Toyota Prius came along as the first hybrid car sold in the UK, the range of eco-friendly options available to buyers has grown considerably, with different types of hybrid cars for sale alongside high efficiency diesels, plug-in hybrids – sometimes referred to as PHEVs - and all-electric vehicles too.

To help steer through the minefield of jargon and competing technology, we’ve compiled this guide to the different hybrid drive systems that power everything from small city cars to hybrid SUV models, and even hypercars like the Porsche 918 hybrid. If you’re not thinking about the best hybrid cars to consider, then hopefully our articles on fuel-efficient cars or the best electric cars will help you out instead.

So what is a hybrid car?

A hybrid car, in the simplest terms, is one that uses two different energy sources to maximise efficiency. This usually means combining electrical energy stored in batteries, with the combustion energy of fuel such as petrol, diesel or liquid petroleum gas. It’s more complicated than that, because in different hybrid systems the electrical energy may be generated onboard – for example by the internal combustion engine, and/or from regenerative braking - while in others you can plug the batteries in overnight to charge them.

There are also differences in how the stored electricity is used. Some hybrids may be driven exclusively by one or more electric motors with the internal combustion engine providing no direct drive at all, these models are often refered to as series or 'range-extender' hybrids. Other cars have electric motors that can operate simultaneously with an internal combustion engine, or a set-up that can alternates between the two.

Here’s our run-down of the most popular types of hybrid car and hybrid SUV available today...

Series hybrids
In a series hybrid – like the original Fisker Karma or some versions of the BMW i3 – the car is driven by electricity alone, and the onboard internal combustion engine kicks in to extend the range by adding charge to the battery while you’re driving.

A series hybrid can be very clean because to all intents and purposes it’s an all-electric car on the average short commute. And on those occasions when the internal combustion engine is running to generate extra electrical juice, it operates in precisely the most efficient rev-range to eke the most energy out of each litre of fuel.

The major downside of a series hybrid is cost. With current technology, the larger batteries they require are significantly more expensive than the smaller batteries fitted to parallel hybrid vehicles. The extra cost and complexity of the internal combustion generator can make them more expensive than pure electric cars, too.

Parallel hybrids
Toyota’s hybrid synergy drive is arguably the best-known example of a parallel hybrid system, while the Honda Insight is a popular option too. In both cases the car is driven primarily by its internal combustion engine, but the electric motor is also connected to the same drivetrain, so it can provide extra power to the road wheels when acceleration is required, thus saving fuel.

As the electric motors are built into the drivetrain, a parallel hybrid can run in electric-only mode too, although usually just at low speeds for driving around town, and for a very limited range, as the batteries are relatively small. However the small size of the batteries does mean they can be charged to full capacity quickly from the engine, and there’s never any question of range anxiety.

Even if the batteries are fully flat, you can always drive on petrol – or diesel – alone. Along with mild hybrids, the parallel hybrid system is generally considered the best hybrid option for drivers who rack up lots of miles. Also, it’s important to remember that EV mode might cut pollution in town, but the electricity you’re using is mainly generated by burning fuel in the engine. That means driving in electric-only mode is actually less efficient than letting the hybrid system do its thing.

Mild hybrids
A mild hybrid is essentially similar to a parallel hybrid, in that the electric motor provides a bit of assistance to the internal combustion engine by operating simultaneously with it when the car needs more power.

It typically has the smallest of any hybrid batteries and as a result, a mild hybrid won’t run on its batteries alone. However, you do get the benefit of greater fuel efficiency, as energy that’s typically wasted under braking can be turned into electricity, stored in the battery, and recycled back into the drive system on demand. While this system is classified as mild hybrid, that’s not always an apt description. The 963bhp Ferrari LaFerrari runs a system just like this with electric power boosting performance to extreme levels.

Plug-in hybrids
The plug-in hybrid – or PHEV - is one of the most recent additions to the roster of alternative powertrains, and it’s increasing in popularity pretty fast. It basically moves the parallel hybrid concept closer to that of a full-electric vehicle, by adding bigger onboard batteries that can be charged from an external power source and thereby provide a much better electric-only range.

Parallel hybrid vehicles are increasingly being offered with a plug-in option, so for example the latest Toyota Prius in PHEV guise has a claimed electric-only range of 30-odd miles. In normal driving the regular hybrid Prius might travel one mile in all-electric mode before the engine kicks in, if you’re lucky.

However, while plug-in hybrids are great for every day driving or commuting in a mix of conditions, if you regularly drive really high mileages the benefits to fuel economy of a 30-mile electric-only range can be outweighed by the extra cost of the technology. A high-efficiency diesel may be the better bet.

Aside from the Prius, other plug-in hybrids include the popular Mitsubishi Outlander SUV, the Mercedes C 350e, and the Volvo V60 amongst a steadily increasing number of rivals. The McLaren P1 and Porsche 918 hypercars fall into this category too.