It used to be so simple: a choice between petrol and diesel.
Now, we have petrol, diesel, mild hybrids, full hybrids, self-charging hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electric cars, hydrogen fuel cell cars - and more jargon than we can shake a stick at!
To make sense of it all, we’ve compared three of the big fuel types you are probably considering for your next car: petrol, hybrid, and electric.
Overview Comparison Table
Before we get into the details, we’ve made this handy table to let you compare at a glance.
For reference, 1 is the best score, 5 is the worst, so the lowest total score is the one that does best in most areas.
You can compare the overall score or the comparison fields which matter most to you.
|Petrol||Mild Hybrid||Hybrid||Plug-in Hybrid||Electric|
|Cost of Refuel||5||4||3||2||1|
|Ease of Refuel||1||2||3||4||5|
Although electric car manufacturers have made huge leaps forward in EV technology in recent years, petrol and diesel cars still dominate the UK car market.
There are some fairly obvious reasons for this. Electric cars have only really been on the market for a decade, so there actually aren’t that many second-hand EVs. Additionally, EVs and hybrids are usually a lot more expensive than petrol or diesel cars.
Petrol cars are the cheapest of the lot, cheaper even than diesel. While a diesel does typically have better fuel economy, you’ll be much better off with a petrol unless you regularly travel longer distances, as the Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF) needs to get warmed up to function efficiently.
Cheap to buy.
Good for short trips.
Not very efficient.
Petrol prices can be volatile.
Hybrid cars make up a big portion of the number of electrified vehicles in the UK. According to the RAC, there are over 1 million hybrid cars currently on the roads (compared to just 330,000 electric vehicles), including fully hybrid electric vehicles (HEV) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV).
To further complicate things, there are also thousands of mild hybrid electric vehicles (MHEV).
So, what is the difference? First of all, let’s clarify what a hybrid car is. Put simply, it is a car that uses both petrol or diesel and electricity from a battery to propel the car.
The three different hybrid designations (MHEV, HEV, and PHEV) refer to different levels of electrical assistance:
Mild Hybrid (MHEV)
Mild hybrid electric cars use a 48 volt battery in addition to the internal combustion engine. This is more powerful than the 12 volt battery found in most ICEs, and allows cars like the Suzuki Swift to start and stop the engine easily when idling and accelerate faster from standstill. They’re the cheapest hybrids and offer modest emission reductions.
Cheap as chips.
Fewer emissions than an ICE.
No "all-electric" range.
Fewer financial incentives than 'greener' options.
Full Hybrid (HEV)
Full hybrid electric cars can drive either entirely on electricity, conventional fuel, or both at once. The electric motor will accelerate from zero and drive short distances by itself at low speeds. A typical example is the Toyota Prius, which can drive 25 electric-only miles - all without being plugged in. Magic!
Greener than a mild hybrid.
No plugging in.
Less suited to constant motorway driving.
Not as many financial incentives as an EV.
Plug-in Hybrid (PHEV)
A plug-in hybrid does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s essentially a full-hybrid that can be plugged in to charge. It still uses regenerative braking to recharge the battery, but to maximise your emissions-free driving, you’ll want to manually recharge often.
The electric-only range of a PHEV is typically between 20-50 miles, though the The BMW X5 xDrive45e is a clear outlier - a green giant with a 54-mile claimed all-electric range. It’s also rated at just 32g/km CO2 emissions, which puts it in one of the lowest BiK tax bands, making it a great choice for a company car.
Unfortunately, it’s also only worthwhile getting one of these if you’re a certain kind of driver. In other words, if you don’t drive primarily in urban areas with occasional motorway excursions and you don’t have a driveway to recharge at night, this probably isn’t for you.
If you regularly drive long distances without charging, a PHEV could have worse MPG figures and emissions than an ICE.
Can drive all electric.
No "range anxiety".
Expensive to purchase.
Counterproductive if you drive long distances and don't recharge.
So you want to do your bit for the environment - great! As countless studies have shown, electric cars are better for the environment. Unfortunately, when compared with petrol and hybrid cars, electric cars have a pretty major downside: a high RRP.
Government grants for electric cars can help to soften the blow. All EVs with a list price below £35,000 are eligible for a £2,500 discount with the Plug-in Car Grant (PiCG). You can also get £350 off the cost of a wallbox installation with the Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme (EVHS).
Electric car charging at home can save you big money, with overnight rates as low as 4.5p/kWh with EDF Go Electric. You could charge a Tesla Model 3 Long Range with a 360 mile range and a 75kWh battery for just 1p per mile if you charged only during the cheapest hours.
With no driveway, electric car charging at home is much harder, unless you have on-street residential charge points installed, though you may be able to recharge at work.
Road tax is currently non-existent, and BiK tax bands are as low as 1% this year, rising to 2% next year.
As of 25th October 2021, only battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are eligible for the 100% cleaner vehicles discount in London’s congestion charge zone.
Cheap to run, great taxi incentives.
No tailpipe emissions.
Must be plugged in.
Charging is time-consuming.
Which is for me?
If you’re looking for a car which is cheap and cheerful, great for short trips, but doesn’t have any real environmental benefits, you’re probably better off sticking with petrol.
If you’d like to do your bit to stop the ice caps melting but you’d rather not commit yourself to plugging in to charge, a hybrid might be for you. Once again, these are best for short journeys, though they won’t have an issue with the occasional weekend jaunt.
A PHEV can maximise your environmental impact while still giving you the freedom to top-up-and-go on longer trips. Make sure to charge it regularly though or it might just be worse than an ICE for fuel economy and emissions.
In any case, the choice may have once been clear-cut for consumers, but electric cars are increasingly becoming a viable alternative for any use-case.
Consider the price of an EV. In less than a decade, the cost of the most expensive component (the battery) fell by more than 80%. If EVs are to reach price-parity with ICEs (which could happen in the next five years according to some estimates) the battery will need to reach $100/kWh.
Not only that, but the electric range of most EVs has increased substantially over the past decade. The Renault Zoe now has more than double its original range.
With financial incentives and cheaper refuelling, it’s increasingly hard to ignore the EV revolution.