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
Feb 9, 2022

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, just like the other hybrid vehicle types. The difference with a PHEV, however, is that the larger battery pack can be charged to provide a certain degree of electric motoring. Most PHEVs typically manage around 30-40 miles on electric power.

Meanwhile BEVs - or Battery Electric Vehicles - have no engine at all, relying on one or more electric motors and much larger batteries than a hybrid. Most BEVs will typically give you between 100-300 miles of driving per charge, depending on the model and age of the vehicle. 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. Thanks to the constant research and development of the necessary technology, these ranges continue to climb as more new electric cars are introduced.

Electric cars should be more affordable to run, with electricity costs amounting to a few pence per mile when charged at home with an affordable electricity plan. However, they tend to be more expensive to buy than plug-in hybrids and with charging infrastructure in the UK still in its relative 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 of not having the hassle of stopping to charge should you need to make a long-distance journey, they too are more expensive than petrol and diesel cars, and even self-charging hybrid cars that only manage a mile or so on electric power. So are they worth the extra outlay?

There's plenty to consider here, so 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 one of the cheapest ‘long-range’ electric cars - and the Hyundai Ioniq PHEV, which remains one of the cheapest PHEVs on the market.

Used 2020 versions of the latest Renault Zoe start from £20,991 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 cost around the same but 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 60mpg. 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. Using cheap off-peak electricity tariffs is much cheaper than even the most efficient petrol, diesel or even hybrid 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 can cost less than £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 either workplace or public charging stations 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. Also, 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 added 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. While a number of the latest electric cars can take on the entire return trip, having the added protection of being able to charge up at either end of your journey will help to ensure you have no charge-related problems. Bear in mind that batteries are less efficient in the cold, so the electric range of any EV or PHEV will be decreased in the winter.

If you have to travel further than that in one go, an electric car is still an option if there are charging stations located along your regular routes. You can search for these online or via a dedicated app. Most electric cars will also 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 self-charging 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 electric cars 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 without taking the time to stop if you can avoid it, meaning a PHEV would be much better suited to your requirements.

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

Audi A3 Sportback rear three quarters view

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, instead waking up to a fully charged car.

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 or occupied 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 finer details before making your choice. You may need to factor in the cost of installing a home charging unit (a grant to help reduce the cost of this is available), 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.

If you're a company car driver, it's also worth considering the benefit-in-kind rate that an EV or a PHEV will attract.

 

Latest advice

  1. How much does it cost to charge an electric car?

  2. Free electric car charging and where to find it

  3. Car leasing with maintenance