Electric cars - the alternatives

  • We list the alternative green options to all-electric cars
  • New choices like range extenders can offer many benefits
  • Avoid battery and mileage concerns with these alternatives

The range of alternatively fuelled cars is expanding and now we are seeing more electrically powered cars entering the market.

If you're looking for a car that's supposedly green for the environment, then an all-electric car might seem an obvious choice. They're not for everybody, however. Most have very limited range and take a long time to charge, limiting their usefulness.

Barring the obvious all-electric options, there are currently three types of cars that utilise electric motors in full production: the hybrid, the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) and the range extender.

They all use electric power to some degree, but if you are thinking of going down this route you’ll need all the facts so you can make the choice that’s most suitable for your circumstances.

Here’s a full guide:

The Hybrid:

Essentially a hybrid uses two motors to propel the driven wheels. Most hybrids use a petrol engine and an electric motor but diesel/electric hybrids are starting to come on to the market. The electric motor is used at lower speeds and for a limited range. Some also assist the main engine when accelerating hard. When the electrical charge runs out the car reverts to the internal combustion engine for propulsion.

The idea is to achieve low CO2 emissions and reduce fuel economy: most modern hybrids are claimed to achieve around 60-70mpg on average and are sub-100g/km of CO2 emitters.  

The Toyota Prius is probably the best-known hybrid, because it was the first mass-produced car using this technology. MPs anxious to underscore their environmentally friendly credentials joined the bandwagon. Even David Cameron had one, as did Chris Martin and Madonna.

The Prius is not alone: Honda has the Insight hatchback, CR-Z and the Jazz as hybrid offerings, and Lexus has the CT200h hatch and RX400h 4x4. Toyota also offers the Auris HSD and Porsche offers hybrid versions of its Panamera super tourer and Cayenne 4x4. The choice is ever-expanding.

The Range Extender

A range extender does exactly what it says on the tin – it extends the limited range of its electric powertrain with the use of a normal internal combustion engine.

The range extender is neither an all-electric car, nor a hybrid. It allows you can to for as long as you’ve got fuel, making it an interesting choice for many. Unlike a straightforward hybrid, the internal combustion engine is not directly linked to the driven wheels – it’s there to generate electric power for the battery.

Currently, there are two major range extenders available to the UK car-buying public, and they both come from General Motors. Buyers can pick between the Chevrolet Volt and the Vauxhall Ampera.

The Volt, for example, can travel 25 to 50 miles on lithium-ion battery power alone. That's obviously not enough for longer trips, but might be all you need to run into town and back. Once the battery capacity drops to a predetermined threshold from full charge, however, a 1.4-litre petrol engine kicks in to run an electric generator. This supplies the required current to run the electric motors, as well as charging the battery, and extends the vehicle's range to around 380 miles.

Inevitably, it begs the question: what’s the point? Well, like the hybrid this is all in the name of reducing fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. Chevrolet says the Volt can achieve 235mpg but even they admit that's unrealistic - it's a result generated thanks to the way economy testing is carried out.

The reality is that you can expect to get around 70mpg if you don’t drive the car too hard, and 45mpg if you are putting your foot down. Emissions-wise the official stats say the Volt will release CO2 at a rate of 27g/km but that’ll be higher when you are utilising the range-extending technology.

The Plug-in Hybrid (PHEV)

This is a relatively recent addition to the green car market. Plug-in hybrids are, for all intents and purposes, the same as regular hybrids. The key difference, however, is that you can charge them up when parked.

Regular hybrids charge their batteries while the engine is running, or when you're coasting or braking. This means that if you use the battery a lot, then park the car up, you can be faced with a flat battery when you next go to use it. This means that it'll be running on its internal combustion engine instead, and be less economical and more polluting.

Plug-in hybrids avoid this issue by, well, offering you the ability to charge their battery by...plugging them in to the wall. This means that when the time comes to drive the car again, you can drive away on electric power immediately - or at least get the maximum benefits from the hybrid powertrain.

Drivers using these cars for longer trips won't really notice much benefit, but those who do short commutes may find that the plug-in hybrid can help save fuel.

Examples of plug-in hybrids include Toyota's Prius plug-in and Volvo's V60 plug-in hybrid, both of which go on sale in 2012.

Conclusion

Currently, there are three electrically-assisted alternatives to all-electrical cars available. Some might consider the hybrid the most practical choice, but others might be attracted to the potential zero-emissions credentials of the range-extender.

There’s still a long way to go with this technology but you might find that, in your situation, they represent the perfect solution if you are really looking for low-emissions motoring.

Don't forget, alternatively, that you could always just go for a very efficient diesel car.

Parker's Top Tip

You can compare both new and used car running costs by using our Cost of Motoring tool. If you're thinking about changing your car then find out what it's worth by getting a Used Car Valuation, and research the replacement cars that might interest you in our New Car Reviews section