Best PHEVs: electric capability with petrol back up

The best plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) offer low running costs without compromising performance or practicality - here are our favourites

Joe Holding
Nov 12, 2020

If you want to cut the cost of fuelling your car - but aren't ready to shift to a fully electric car yet - then a plug-in hybrid vehicle (PHEV) could be a great choice depending on the type of driving that you do.

So what is a PHEV? In addition to a normal petrol or diesel engine, a PHEV - or plug-in hybrid electric vehicle - contains a battery that you can charge up with a cable, usually at home or at work. One or more electric motors then use this energy to drive the vehicle, giving you a certain amount of zero-emission range where you don’t need to use the engine at all.

Travelling on electric power alone is vastly cheaper than the miles you rack up on conventional fuel, in theory adding up to a massive saving over the course of a year. To get the benefit of this, though, you have to make sure to charge the car regularly, as if you fail to do so, the car reverts to petrol or diesel power when the batteries run out of charge.

At the moment, most PHEVs can only deliver around 20-30 miles of engine-free range, which is why they only make sense for people who mostly do short, local trips and charge between these journeys. If you cover hundreds of miles per week and do many long journeys, the financial benefits are less clear cut, as you're burning more fuel and getting less benefit from electric power.

Whether or not you’d be better off with a plug-in hybrid or an electric car is a question we’ve covered elsewhere, but if you think a PHEV could be ideal for you then the following list will give you a clearer picture of what’s out there and just how affordable a second-hand model could be, now PHEVs have been around for a number of years.

Best plug-in hybrids

1. Kia Niro PHEV

Used deals from £12,670
Monthly finance from £172

In addition to the Kia Niro Hybrid - which can't be plugged in - Kia also makes a PHEV version of its small family SUV. It has an electric range of 30 miles, which should be enough for you to drive to the supermarket, pick up the kids from school and run a few errands without needing to use any fuel at all - provided you remember to charge it when you get home.

Standard equipment is a strong point for Kia models in general and the fact that the Niro is sold with a seven-year warranty means you shouldn’t need to worry about reliability even if you’re buying a used model. True, the Niro isn’t the most exciting machine - total power amounts to 141hp and 0-62mph takes 10.4 seconds, so it's not particularly quick - but it’s a steady performer that’s reasonably practical.

The Niro PHEV has been around for a couple of years now, with early examples available for as little as £18,000 on BuyaCar. The ‘3’ trim level is the most common: it adds leather upholstery and an eight-inch touchscreen media system to the already-present LED daytime running lights, dual-zone air-conditioning and digital radio.

KIA NIRO BUYERS’ GUIDE

2. BMW 3 Series

Used deals from £13,600
Monthly finance from £204

The BMW 3 Series is one of the best upmarket saloon cars going, so it stands to reason that the 330e - the plug-in hybrid version - should be one of the best too. The first-generation model was sold between 2015 and 2018 and it could do 25 miles on electric power only at speeds of up to 50mph. The latest model has made significant progress, now returning 37 miles of range at speeds of up to 68mph, according to official tests. This means you can make much more use of the electric power, which should in turn cut your fuel bills.

While the 330e should be cheap to run, it isn’t all about saving money: the latest model produces a substantial 252hp (briefly rising to 292hp with a boost function) and combines rapid acceleration with agile handling. So if you want to save some pennies but still put a smile on your face every now and again, this is the car for you.

Most of the three-year old examples available on BuyaCar have done at least 30,000 miles, with prices starting in the region of £15,000. Fortunately BMWs have a reputation for being well-built, but if you’re more comfortable with a one-year old model that’s seen less use then a budget of £30,000 should be enough.

BMW 3 SERIES BUYERS’ GUIDE

3. Volvo XC60

Used deals from £35,774
Monthly finance from £549

The plug-in hybrid version of the Volvo XC60 (older versions are identified by their ‘T8 Twin Engine’ name, newer ones fall under the ‘Recharge’ badge) is typical of the Swedish company’s PHEVs in that it uses the technology to deliver oodles of power and performance. The XC60 PHEV uses a 2.0-litre petrol engine that’s both turbocharged and supercharged to boost power, alongside an electric motor to produce a hefty 390hp. As a result, 0-62mph takes just 5.5 seconds; astoundingly fast for a family SUV.

An 11.6kWh battery pack gives the XC60 an electric range of up to 32 miles, and like a lot of PHEVs the charging capability is capped at a relatively low 3.7kW. This means a full top-up will take at least three-and-a-quarter hours. While this sounds quite slow, it’s plenty if you’re plugging in at work or leaving the car to charge overnight at home.

As well as performance, you can expect a sophisticated interior and lots of passenger space inside the Volvo, while ride comfort is very good. There are only a handful of two-year old cars that fall under the £40,000 mark on BuyaCar (top-spec XC60s cost more than £60,000 new, after all), but if you’re prepared to wait prices should drop quickly over the coming months and years, making the XC60 start to look very tempting.

VOLVO XC60 BUYERS’ GUIDE

4. Skoda Superb

Used deals from £27,223
Monthly finance from £403

The Skoda Superb PHEV (set apart from normal Superbs with an ‘iV’ name) is one of the best and most affordable plug-in hybrids around. Why? The Czech brand’s cars are essentially Volkswagens under the skin (VW owns Skoda), but as they’re sold with a less upmarket badge attached they’re almost always less expensive and much better value for money.

Introduced in 2020, the Superb can travel up to 37 miles on a single charge, in theory delivering low emissions of 30-42g/km and fuel economy of up to 217mpg on longer trips. Like all PHEVs you shouldn’t be misled by this figure: it assumes you’ll start every journey with a full battery, and you’ll only get close to it in the real world if you plug in regularly.

The Superb is a great all-rounder: the boot measures a large 485 litres (with a space under the floor to store charging cables), the ride is comfortable, it’s reasonably spacious, the interior has a clean design and comes with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay (the software that links your phone to the car) as standard on all vehicles. On BuyaCar nearly-new models are already appearing for around £30,000; a sizable chunk less than if you bought one brand new. As the months go on, this relatively new model should quickly become available at much lower prices.

SKODA SUPERB BUYERS’ GUIDE

5. Mercedes C-Class

Used deals from £15,599
Monthly finance from £244

Mercedes is the only manufacturer that makes diesel plug-in hybrids, and on the C-Class you have the option of either diesel or petrol power to work in tandem with the plug-in hybrid system.

The latest model clocks up to 235mpg under test conditions, and while there’s little to discern from this inflated figure - as the test format isn't particularly realistic - you’re likely to be better off with the diesel if you’re a high-mileage driver. For lower-mileage drivers, the petrol will suffice. You have a further choice to make too, as the C-Class PHEV is available as a saloon or an estate.

Whereas the BMW 3 Series - this car’s main rival - is more fun to drive, the C-Class is more comfortable and will suit you better if you drive at a relaxed pace. This is especially true in electric-only mode, where you’ll barely hear the whir of the electric motor. Newer models will manage over 30 miles of electric-only range on a full charge, although older cars from 2016 aren’t quite so capable.

MERCEDES C-CLASS BUYERS’ GUIDE

6. Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV

Used deals from £11,558
Monthly finance from £194

Believe it or not, the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV spent a long period as Britain’s most popular plug-in hybrid, and it remains the best-selling plug-in hybrid SUV despite the manufacturer announcing its intention to leave the European market.

It’s a hefty machine at almost 2,000kg in weight, but its large proportions mean there’s easily room for five adults on a long journey. You can expect to see some 30 miles of petrol-free range from the 13.8kWh battery, which can be charged up in around four hours provided you have a dedicated charging unit installed at your home.

Most Outlander PHEVs are well-equipped too, with a heated windscreen, heated front seats, a reversing camera and cruise control included as standard on even the most basic versions.

On BuyaCar, a two-year old Outlander PHEV will set you back around £22,000: given that new models cost at least £35,000 these days, that’s a saving almost as big as the Outlander itself. Since the Outlander PHEV has been around for a number of years, though, you have the option here of saving even more with an older model.

MITSUBISHI OUTLANDER PHEV BUYERS’ GUIDE

7. BMW i3 Range Extender

Used deals from £14,295
Monthly finance from £239

The BMW i3 is an electric car, but for a time BMW made a 'Range Extender' (REx) version that added a small fuel tank with which to power an on-board generator that produces electricity in the event of the battery running low. Strictly speaking this isn’t a plug-in hybrid, but if you want a small car that offers electric propulsion with petrol backup, then it’s still a great pick.

You can expect to see around 120 miles of electric-only range from the i3 REx, with the back-up generator comfortably taking that figure above 200 miles. Because of its small proportions and nippy acceleration the i3 has always been fun to drive around town, and while the exterior appearance might not be for everyone, the interiors (BMW refers to its choice of designs as ‘interior worlds’) all look very futuristic.

BMW stopped offering the i3 REx in 2018, with the youngest of these now priced at around £25,000. But if you can justify an older version, BuyaCar has five-year-old REx models in the region of £15,000 (or around £275 per month). Given that you’ll be paying some 3p per mile when running on electricity, you could slash your annual fuel bills.

Just bear in mind that BMW made fully electric i3s that are more efficient - since they don't have the weight of a petrol generator to lug around - so if you can handle a range of around 80-100 miles with early models (higher figures are available with newer models), going for one of these is the wise choice. 

BMW I3 BUYERS’ GUIDE

8. Suzuki Across

The Suzuki Across has only recently gone on sale, but we’re including it on this list in order to show the direction that PHEVs are heading in, as it offers a much higher electric range than most PHEVs. Yes, the brand new price is a little steep, starting at more than £45,000 when launched, but in exchange the Across carries an 18.1kWh battery that’ll afford up to 47 miles of electric-only range.

This is more than most current PHEVs can manage, and it’s part of a trend that’s seeing plug-in hybrids deliver increasing amounts of zero-emission range. For example, the BMW X5 xDrive45e boasts 54 miles of electric range, while the forthcoming Mercedes S-Class PHEV - due in 2021 - is promising 62 miles of engine-free running. Both of these upmarket cars are much more expensive, however. For the best deals, keep an eye out for used Across models coming on sale over the coming months and years.

Based on the Toyota RAV4, the Across features a 2.5-litre petrol engine and an electric motor, producing 182hp. Like most PHEVs these days, you’ll be able to select the driving mode manually, so you can choose to run on electric power only, let the car figure out the most efficient mix of electric or petrol power, or you could choose to hold onto the charge in the battery until later on your journey. Overall, PHEV fans after a higher electric range and strong value should be well served with used Across models, as they become available.

 

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