PHEV vs BEV: should I get a plug-in hybrid or electric car?

The plug-in hybrid vs electric car dilemma is a tough one for drivers, but one we can help you navigate with our recommendations

Joe Holding
Oct 21, 2020

With electric- and hybrid-car technology coming on leaps and bounds in the last few years, the 'PHEV' vs 'BEV' conundrum has been testing an increasing number of drivers.

PHEVs - Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles - combine a conventional petrol or diesel engine with a small battery pack and one or more electric motors: this means they can cover a modest distance on electric power alone, when fully charged, before reverting to petrol or diesel power once the battery has run out of charge.

Meanwhile BEVs - or battery electric vehicles - have no engine at all, relying on one or more electric motors and much larger batteries that will typically give you between 100-300 miles of driving per charge, depending on the model. Early models such as the original Nissan Leaf could typically cover around 80-100 miles per charge, while the latest versions increase that to 200-250 miles - more in many cases.

Electric cars should be more affordable to run, with electricity costs amounting to a few pence per mile when charged cheaply at home. However, they tend to be more expensive to buy than plug-in hybrids and with charging infrastructure in the UK still in its infancy, they're likely to be less practical for those who cover long distances or have difficulty charging at home.

While PHEVs give you that added peace of mind should you need to make a long-distance journey without the hassle of stopping to charge, they too are more expensive to buy than traditionally powered equivalents. So are they worth the extra outlay?

There's plenty to consider here. Which side of the PHEV vs BEV debate do you fall on? To help you work out which type of car will make you better off, we’ve put together the following examples based on the Renault Zoe - widely considered the cheapest ‘long-range’ electric car - and the Hyundai Ioniq Plug-in hybrid, which remains one of the cheapest PHEVs on the market.

Used 2020 versions of the latest Renault Zoe start from around £25,000 on BuyaCar: they come with a 52kWh battery that gives a driving range of around 245 miles on a single charge.

Meanwhile, used 2020 versions of the Ioniq Plug-in start from just over £20,000: they come with an 8.9kWh battery that gives around 30 miles of electric-only range, while a 1.6-litre petrol engine can be used when the battery is flat.

Officially the Ioniq Plug-in will do 257mpg, however this is an inflated figure that assumes you’ll start every journey with a full battery: on the engine alone, you’re more likely to see 60-70mpg. Therefore, how often you charge a PHEV and the typical length of your journeys have a serious impact on whether you're better off with a PHEV or a fully electric car.

PHEV vs electric car: short-distance commuter

If you commute up to 30 miles per day and run the odd errand at weekends, an electric car will be perfect for you. When charged at home on a domestic electricity tariff, a full top-up of the Renault Zoe’s battery should cost around £7, translating into around three pence per mile. This is much cheaper than even the most efficient petrol or diesel car can manage, meaning you’ll start to make your money back on running costs very quickly.

In the case of the Ioniq Plug-in, a full charge of its battery will cost just over £1, and its 30-or-so miles of electric range will also be more than enough to cover the majority - if not all of - your commute. However, when it runs on electric power only the engine and gearbox are effectively dead weights, making the car less efficient than it would be if it was simply fully electric.

The equation changes if you don’t have your own driveway or off-street parking: this will mean relying on public charging stations (or perhaps your place of work) to charge your car, and while some of these may be faster than your average home charging unit, they’re almost always more expensive to use.

This means the amount of money you save by running on electricity instead of petrol or diesel will decrease significantly. And if there’s no public charging station nearby, you’ll need to ask yourself if the extra hassle of travelling further afield to find one is worth the cost and environmental impact of making the journey.

Regular long-distance driver

If you often drive long-distance for business - let’s say 150 miles a couple of times per week - there’s still a case to be made for the electric car. As long as you can charge up at either end of your journey you’ll have no problems, even in the winter when electric-car ranges tend to fall significantly, due to the lower temperatures. The Renault Zoe is one of many electric cars that will easily get more than 200 miles from a full battery; the Tesla Model S will do a whopping 375 miles, according to official tests.

If you have to travel further than that in one go, an electric car is still an option if there are charging stations on your regular routes. You can search for these online, while most electric cars will be able to navigate to nearby charging points using their in-built sat-nav.

But if these stations are in short supply, then a PHEV is the next-best choice. Not only do you never have to worry about range (there are more than enough petrol stations, after all), but you should still see some impressive fuel economy figures - if you regularly charge the battery.

Why? When a PHEV runs out of juice, it can still behave like a less sophisticated hybrid car by using a system called regenerative braking to recover small amounts of electricity. This helps run the electric motor(s) for short bursts, regaining energy otherwise wasted during braking, improving overall efficiency.

Running a PHEV on petrol or diesel alone, however, is when it is at its most inefficient, so if you regularly travel long distances - and don't want to stop periodically to recharge the batteries - it questions the whole logic in choosing a car that can only cover up to around 30 miles on electricity alone and after this point has to lug around the extra weight of the batteries and motor with only a small economy boost.

If choosing an efficient car is about saving money for you, a more affordable diesel car could offer similar fuel economy but cost much less to finance or purchase, potentially costing you less overall.

Occasional long-distance driver

What if you only travel long-distance a couple of times per year? This really depends on you: are you prepared to run an electric car that does everything you need it to for 99% of the year, knowing that you may have to stop at the service station for a little longer while your car charges up on your way home for Christmas?

The amount of time you wait depends on the car, too: the Renault Zoe can be charged from 0-80% in just over an hour on the right type of charger, although some more advanced models will take half that. That might be perfectly acceptable to you, breaking up a long journey and giving you a chance to stretch your legs and grab a bite to eat. Or you might prefer to make the 200-mile journey in one go and couldn't contemplate stopping, preferring a PHEV for helping you to avoid the need to stop.

Putting the shoe on the other foot, though, how much sense does it make to use a PHEV that will take those longer trips in its stride, but won’t save you as much money during everyday tasks like the weekly shop and the school run? An electric car could be more suitable more of the time.

Conclusions

When it comes to PHEVs vs BEVs, electric cars almost always make more sense from a financial point of view. Their ultra-low running costs should make up for their typically higher purchase prices in the long run, and there’s something to be said for never having to visit a petrol station again.

However, until the charging infrastructure in the UK becomes more plentiful and reliable, there’s no denying the convenience trade-off involved with going electric for those who often cover trips of more than 150 miles.

If you’re travelling long-distance, your journey is at the mercy of public charging stations, and it only takes one faulty charging point to ruin your plans. This may be too much for you to stomach, in which case a plug-in hybrid vehicle is the safer choice, especially if you can still access the low-cost benefits of electric-only running on most of your short journeys anyway - provided you regularly charge the car.

Either way, make sure you spend some time working through the detail before making your choice. You may need to factor in the cost of installing a home charging unit (the cheapest ones start from around £300, which includes a government grant), while there are other savings to be had in the form of road tax: zero-emissions vehicles registered after 1 April 2020 don’t have to pay road tax, while all PHEVs cost £140 after their first year.

Meanwhile, electric cars attract 0% Benefit-in-Kind for company-car drivers in the 2020/2021 tax year, while most PHEVs are charged with a rate of no more than 12% until April 2021.

 

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