What is a self-charging hybrid car?

Not all hybrids are the same. Some can be plugged in while others only offer a small electric boost. Self-charging hybrids sit in the middle

BuyaCar team
Sep 7, 2021

You may have seen a stream of adverts from ToyotaLexus, and Kia talking about 'self-charging' hybrids and wondered what they’re all about. With the introduction of mild hybrids and plug-in hybrids, what we previously knew as just hybrids had to rebrand, as the term 'hybrid' became more of a blanket term.

'Self-charging' is a term used by Toyota, Lexus, and most recently Kia, to describe a hybrid car that mixes a petrol or diesel engine with electric power. They’re billed as 'self-charging' because you can’t charge them up by plugging into the mains. Instead, the car tops up the batteries while on the move.

This makes them different from plug-in hybrids. With plug-in hybrids you can top up the batteries by plugging into a dedicated charger or even an ordinary household socket. 'Self-charging hybrid' on the other hand, is a term used to describe a non-plug-in hybrid.

The batteries in self-charging hybrids recover energy normally lost while braking, as well as from the petrol engine when it’s efficient to do so. This electric power can be used to drive the car at slow speeds, for short distances. Its main purpose is to assist the engine during acceleration.

By reducing the effort the engine needs to make while accelerating, this electric power can help to reduce fuel consumption. However, with much smaller battery packs than plug-in hybrids, self-charging hybrids can typically cover less than a mile on electricity and are far less efficient than a fully-charged plug-in hybrid.

The idea that this car is self-charging suggests that it requires very little input or thought from the driver, as the battery will recharge itself from energy that would usually be lost while braking. While it may seem unique, all hybrids and electric cars do this, except in the case of plug-in hybrid and fully electric models they feature a much larger battery pack that requires additional topping up from a mains source.

Remember, though, that while self-charging hybrids may appeal to those who don't want to have to keep charging their car, many of the current batch of electric cars can cover 200 to 300 miles per charge - meaning that you shouldn't need to charge them too often - and they are likely to have a much lower impact on the environment, as they do without all the materials needed for a petrol or diesel engine and have zero tailpipe emissions.

Furthermore, plug-in hybrids - which can typically cover up to around 30 miles per charge - are likely to be far more economical than self-charging hybrids for drivers that predominantly cover shorter journeys and regularly plug in the car. 

Self-charging hybrid cars 

Toyota and Lexus coined the 'self-charging' phrase, so models from the brands including the Lexus IS and Lexus RX are self-charging, as are the Toyota C-HR and Toyota Prius, although Toyota also sells a plug-in version of the Prius.

Kia has also started using the phrase in its advertising, too, specifically on its latest Niro hybrid - which is available in self-charging hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric e-Niro form.

To make a list of the self-charging hybrids that are available would mean including dozens of models by tens of manufacturers. Fortunately, most make it easy to spot your options. Toyota, for example, highlights each car that is available with a hybrid powertrain on its website.

Self-charging hybrid car pros

✔  Can save you money on fuel costs
✔  No need to manually charge the car
✔  Lower CO2 emissions than petrol cars

Self-charging hybrid cars cons

More expensive to buy than non-hybrids
Less efficient than non-hybrids on the motorway
Batteries can eat into boot space in some models

Self-charging hybrid controversy

Since 'self-charging' advertising appeared in 2018, there have been a number of complaints made about the phrase, including a great deal of controversy on social media.

Some people argue that the terminology is deliberately misleading, with others stating that the fact the cars keep their batteries charged is irrelevant when they have a very low battery capacity in the first place.

Unlike plug-in hybrid models, which can typically cover a claimed figure of 20-40 miles on a full charge - meaning that many drivers could do their entire commute on electric power, charge at work and then get home without using any petrol or diesel - conventional hybrids typically only offer up to a mile of electric running, if that.

This means that their environmental benefit is limited - with hybrids being most economical around town and least economical on the motorway, compared with conventional petrol or diesel alternatives. Those who predominantly drive around town, meanwhile, are likely to be well served by an electric car - provided they can afford a suitable model - as they can do all of their driving on electric power.

In response to the controversy over the 'self-charging' branding, Toyota has stated: 'We use the phrase self-charging hybrid to help consumers understand how this technology works when faced with a choice of different powertrains in today’s automotive market. We also sell a plug-in hybrid model so clear distinction between these models is important for the customer.'

Toyota continues: 'Prior to using this terminology in our advertising materials, we undertook rigorous consumer research and found this was the most simple and effective way to communicate hybrid vehicle operation.'


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