What are the best PHEVs and do they have a future?

Tom Ford

7 Aug 2023

Here at Electrifying we are more interested in the idea of pure electric vehicles than anything else, but we also like to think that we’re a broad church. Which means that as technology improves and things change, we take that into account.

Take, for instance, plug-in hybrids. Now in its basic form, a plug-in hybrid - or PHEV - is exactly what it says on the tin; a hybrid vehicle that can also be plugged in, and therefore able to utilise a little bit of cheaper electricity from the mains. But it’s also just a plain hybrid, so there’s an internal combustion engine (usually petrol or diesel) for when the electricity runs out.

Which it will, because when you’re trying to fit an engine, battery and electric drivetrain all into one car, space gets a little bit tight. That means the traction batteries (the ones that power the car) in PHEVs tend to be quite small - so you don’t get much electric range to play with.

This is where PHEVs have run into some controversy. Because of the way that the official tests are run, they can generate really extreme official mpg and efficiency figures - ones that are in no way achievable in the real world.

The Mitsubishi Outlander was a best seller, thanks to tax breaks

That means that they can be taxed at a lower rate, especially for businesses. But - and it’s a big but - they only work if you constantly plug them in and use the maximum amount of electricity possible - which a lot of people who bought them as company cars simply didn’t.

So you’d get, say, a Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV (one of the first practical PHEVs), running up and down the motorway, never plugging in, dragging around a never-used electric drivetrain and not being very efficient at all. Except at making tax bills cheaper. It all felt like a bit of a con.

Thing is, a PHEV sounds like it could be the best of both worlds, especially for people who might be a little bit nervous about committing to a full battery-electric vehicle (BEV). If you’ve got home charging and plug the car in whenever you get back, then all those local journeys and daily commutes can be achieved with electric power alone. But when you need to do a big trip - Cornwall to Edinburgh without stopping for more than five minutes seems to be a popular one in the comments section of YouTube - there’s a normal fossil fuelled engine to help you on your way. So you get used to plugging in, see the advantages and maybe think of a BEV for your next car.

But here’s where it stalls a bit: the small batteries in early PHEVs were supposed to be capable of nearly 30 miles of electric-only range. But it would only do about 15, and couldn’t be charged very quickly. Which means electric car drivers thought PHEVs seemed like an inefficient way of dealing with things.

Which makes most sense - a PHEV or a pure electric BEV?

Similarly, Range Rover P400e PHEV drivers thought they’d get 25 miles of e-range, but … didn’t. And the same could be said for most of the PHEVs that appeared a few years ago. Things have changed a bit now though. Where PHEVs originally seemed like accounting sleight-of-hand to make the most of tax rules, the latest generations really do seem to have upped their game: you can charge them quickly, some of the electric-only ranges have doubled.

If you’re talking about PHEVs that have appeared recently displaying plenty more usefulness than before, then how about the Vauxhall Astra Hybrid-e? Only a 12.4kWh battery, but a possible 40+ miles of electric only range, and in our experience, 35 miles is achievable - which should cover the majority of average UK commutes.

Then there’s a 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine as well, coupled with that electric motor. A 7kW home wallbox charges it up in under two hours, meaning that you can utilise cheap (er) electricity for all the short-range stuff, and still have the flexibility that a hybrid offers.

Others on offer include various Audis - all offering similar drivetrains and 40-ish miles of range, from the A3 Sportback TFSi-e, A6 TFSI-e, A7 and A8 TFSI-e, plus the SUV-ish ones - yes, Audi really did plop PHEV into most of its unsporting models - so you can have Q3, Q5, Q7 and Q8, all TFSi-e’d up to the eyeballs.

BMW is also in on the action, with the popular 330e or 530e (38 miles of range) and decidedly less-compromised dynamics, as well as the more modern 2-series range of bi-powered cars. So you can have a 225e or a 230e - and they boast up to 57 miles of battery-powered running. Interestingly, while we here at Electrifying are staring hard at the new BMW iX1 BEV, there’s also the X1 xDrive25e and 30e which offer similar ev-only range as the 2-series, with a 1.5-litre petrol engine, and electric motor on the rear axle and 14.2kWh battery. BMW seems good at this stuff - the X5 xDrive 45e is probably the pick of the large PHEV bunch.

BMW X5 xDrive45e An X5 PHEV is cheaper for company car drivers than an X3

One of our favourite PHEVs is the Cupra Formentor eHybrid. Either 201 or 242bhp with a 1.4-litre engine and 113bhp electric motor with 36 miles of ev range, but wrapped up in a sort-of SUV package that’s actually loads of fun to drive - although that ev-range isn’t the best.

If you need something a bit bigger, then how about the Nissan Qashqai e-Power? Now this isn’t even a traditional PHEV - you can’t plug it in - but it does represent something a bit different. It’s a fossil-fuelled car, but one where the drivetrain is 100-percent electric; the 1.5-litre, 3-cylinder engine only acts as a generator to provide electricity for the battery. So you get the smooth and quiet aspects of a BEV (although not entirely - there’s still an engine running), but the convenience of no recharging. It’ll even monitor the noise the road makes and run the engine when the road surface is rough so the cabin isn’t overly disturbed.

In fact, when you dig, pretty much everyone has a PHEV, from Kia (Sportage, Niro) to Hyundai (Tucson, Santa Fe, Kona), Ford, Jaguar and Jeep. VW, Volvo, Renault, Toyota and Skoda. There’s even a Land Rover Defender - the P400e - but it only manages 27 miles of range. Probably the pick of that off-roady types is the new Range Rover P440e (434bhp) and P510e (503bhp) though: with 38.2kWh battery - positively enormous for a PHEV - they should manage a claimed range of 70 miles. Even if that’s not possible without driving like an absolute saint with sore feet, it’s going to get you a decent distance.

But perhaps the manufacturer with the most nailed-down PHEVs is Mercedes. Everything from the small A250e through the B250e and C300e (that’ll be 62-miles from a 25.4kWh battery for the C-Class), to the S580e L - an S-class limo with a 28.6kWh battery and 3.0-litre petrol V6 and 62 miles of silent running. The new GLC 300e we sampled - a big four-wheel drive SUV - managed 60 miles of range on a very cold day against a claimed 70-miles. Which is pretty stunning, really - although it’s wise to note that a 31.2kWh battery isn’t small and takes up boot space.

If you want examples of how much electrification helps perceived efficiency, then there’s even a Bentley Flying Spur PHEV, with bits from the Porsche Panamera and a modest 25-miles of range, plug-in Ferraris (SF90 and 296 GTB) that only get 15-ish miles on battery alone (though that is useful for sneaking to/from places on the quiet), and even a McLaren: the Artura. All come with plugs.

Mercedes-Benz GLE350de4MATIC boot / luggage area, seats folded Mercedes' PHEVs are arguably more impressive than the pure electrics in the range, although boot space is compromised

So if everyone jumped the bandwagon, what actually is the answer when it comes to PHEVs? It’s worth noting here that there has to be a kind of event horizon for ‘enough’ range from a PHEV battery when you start wondering why you don’t just have a pure electric car and forget about the internal combustion engine altogether. Is that 60-miles? One hundred? Because you will hit a point where the ICE just isn’t really getting used, unless you have some serious weekly commutes going on. And even so, with BEV ranges now comfortably in the high-200s, the use-case for PHEV looks to be on slightly shaky ground – unless you are just using one as a tax avoidance measure of course.

Ignoring the exotic cars which use the hybrid system as a performance-enhancing drug as much as anything else, PHEVs offer the comfort and convenience of internal combustion with tax-friendly tariffs and some of the advantages of pure electric. If nothing else, they get people used to plugging in.

But are PHEVs doomed in the long run? Probably. But for now, they can suit some people down to the ground. What do you think Electrifyers? Are some of the newer PHEVs with much better ev-only range more appealing? Would you ever consider one? Let us know.

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