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What is a hybrid car and should I buy one?

How do hybrid cars work, what types are available and is a hybrid right for you? You can find the answers here in our handy guide.

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By Cazoo editorial team

Hybrid cars are more popular than ever and there’s a huge range of hybrid cars to choose from. Here, we’ll take a look at what types of hybrid cars are available, the pros and cons of hybrid cars, and whether a hybrid might be right for you.

What is a hybrid car?

A hybrid car combines a petrol or diesel engine with an electric motor to give better fuel economy and lower carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

The amount of power provided by the electric motor and the way the car uses its power sources varies from car to car, but there are three basic types of hybrid:

  • Mild hybrid

  • Conventional hybrid (also know as a ‘full hybrid’ or ‘self-charging hybrid’)

  • Plug-in hybrid (also known as a PHEV)

You can read more about the different types of hybrid car below.

Toyota Yaris

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How do hybrid cars work?

Hybrid cars combine two different power sources – a petrol or diesel combustion engine and an electric motor. Using an electric motor to ‘help out’ a conventional engine gives better fuel consumption and reduced emissions, which is why hybrid cars are seen as a more environmentally friendly choice than a car powered by petrol or diesel alone.

The majority of hybrid cars use the engine as the main power source, with the electric motor providing extra power when needed. Many hybrids can run solely on the electric motor for short distances and at low speed. Some plug-in hybrids may allow you to commute to and from work without using the engine at all, so you save money on fuel.

Toyota Prius

What’s the difference between a hybrid car and an electric car?

While electric cars rely entirely on their electric motor to drive, hybrid cars use a combination of a petrol or diesel engine and an electric motor. Although some hybrid cars can drive for a short distance using only their electric motor, they shouldn’t be confused with a pure-electric car.

Read more about the difference between hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric cars.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV

Are all hybrid cars automatic?

All full-hybrid and plug-in hybrid cars have an automatic gearbox, because this is the option that allows the car to efficiently combine its two power sources.

Mild-hybrid cars are available with either a manual or automatic gearbox – the electric motor in most mild-hybrid systems is small and you can’t drive the car using electric power alone.

Mini Countryman Plug-in Hybrid

What are the different types of hybrid cars?

Mild hybrids

Mild hybrids (sometimes called MHEVs) are the simplest form of hybrid. In essence, they’re a conventional petrol or diesel car with an additional, small electric motor.

This extra motor helps start the car and powers the main electrical system that runs the air conditioning, lights and so on. That takes some of the strain off the engine, which helps improve your fuel economy and reduce emissions by a small amount. A mild hybrid’s batteries recharge when you brake.

A mild hybrid system doesn’t allow the car to drive using electric power alone and a car that features this isn't classed as a ‘proper’ hybrid. Many car brands have added this technology to their latest petrol and diesel cars to improve efficiency. Some like to add the label ‘hybrid’ to such cars, but others don’t.

What are the pros and cons of mild hybrid cars?

A mild hybrid car offers slightly better fuel economy and lower emissions than a conventional petrol or diesel car, for roughly the same price. They’re becoming increasingly common – it’s likely that every new petrol and diesel car will be a mild hybrid in just a few years.

Mild hybrids are essentially the same as any other petrol or diesel car, so they’re suitable for anyone. If you switch to a mild hybrid, you’ll likely see a small improvement in your running costs, but little-to-no change in your driving experience.

Ford Puma

Conventional hybrids

A conventional hybrid is also known as a ‘full hybrid’, ‘parallel hybrid’ or, more recently, ‘self-charging hybrid’. This was the first type of hybrid car to become popular and the most well-known is the Toyota Prius.

These models use an engine (usually petrol) for power, with support from an electric motor. They also have an automatic gearbox. The electric motor can drive the car for short periods by itself, typically a mile or so, but it’s mainly used to help the combustion engine. The battery for the motor is recharged using energy recovered by braking or by using the engine as a generator. So there’s no need – and no way – to plug it in to charge it yourself.

What are the pros and cons of conventional hybrid cars?

Conventional hybrids give similar benefits: fuel economy that’s at least as good as a diesel and lower CO2 emissions. They also cost less than PHEVs. However, they can only go a couple of miles on electric power alone, so while a conventional hybrid is enough for peaceful low-speed driving in towns or in stop-start traffic, it probably won’t get you all the way to work without using its engine.

Conventional hybrids are a great alternative to petrol and diesel cars because you use them in exactly the same way. There’s no need to recharge the batteries and you simply fill up the fuel tank when needed. They tend to cost more to buy than a petrol or diesel car, but they have an automatic gearbox included as standard and can give you better fuel economy and lower CO2 emissions. Many hybrids also allow you to travel short distances at low speed on electric power alone, reducing local air pollution and fuel consumption.

Plug-in hybrids

A plug-in hybrid (or PHEV) has a bigger battery pack and a more powerful electric motor than a conventional hybrid. Most have a petrol engine and all have an automatic gearbox.

As the name suggests, to keep the battery for the electric motor topped up you have to plug it in to recharge it. When fully charged, plug-in hybrids can travel a greater distance using electric power alone than a conventional hybrid can. The range typically varies between 20 and 60 miles, depending on the model. Most have a petrol engine and all have an automatic gearbox.

Plug-in hybrids promise much better fuel consumption and lower CO2 emissions than a conventional hybrid, which means they can lower your fuel and tax bills. However, you need to recharge the battery regularly for a plug-in hybrid to work most efficiently. If you let the battery pack go flat, you’ll be driving a petrol- or diesel-powered car with a heavy battery pack, so your car can become less efficient than a regular petrol-powered car would be.

What are the pros and cons of plug-in hybrid cars?

Plug-in hybrids offer some of the biggest potential benefits of any hybrid cars, with many having official average fuel economy of more than 200mpg and CO2 emissions below 50g/km. However, the fuel economy you get in real world driving will depend on how often you can recharge the battery and how long your journeys tend to be.

Plug-in hybrids are the most expensive type of hybrid car to buy and if you don’t keep the battery charged, a plug-in hybrid could return worse fuel economy than a regular petrol or diesel car.

What are the benefits of hybrid cars?

The two main potential benefits of buying a hybrid car are a reduction in your running costs and a reduced impact on the environment. That’s because they promise improved fuel economy and lower CO2 emissions while you drive.

Some hybrid cars give you the ability to travel shorter distances on electric power alone, offering the option of zero-emissions travel but without the issue of ‘range anxiety’ since they also have a petrol or diesel engine.

What are the disadvantages of hybrid cars?

One disadvantage of hybrid cars is that they can cost more to buy than a conventional petrol or diesel model. This doesn’t apply to mild hybrids since these are essentially petrol or diesel cars.

Conventional hybrids tend to cost somewhat more than an equivalent petrol or diesel model, while plug-in hybrids can cost considerably more. It’s worth noting that both of these types of hybrid models come with an automatic gearbox included as standard, which may cost you extra with a petrol or diesel car.

There also isn’t quite the range of cars to choose from if you’re looking for a conventional hybrid or a plug-in hybrid. Some car brands offer lots of hybrid models while others only offer a limited range or none at all.

Should I buy a hybrid car in 2024?

Hybrid cars can be a great option as long as you choose one that fits your needs. You’ll find hybrid models offered by most car brands, in most categories.

Mild hybrid cars are suitable for anyone since they are essentially just petrol or diesel cars. Conventional hybrid cars tend to cost more than a petrol or diesel model but they can offer improved fuel efficiency and lower emissions and you don’t need to worry about recharging. A plug-in hybrid car could be a good option if you’re happy to pay a bit more in the first place and are able to charge its battery frequently.

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