What is a hybrid car?

  • What is a hybrid car and should you buy one?
  • Parkers explains the tech
  • Pros and cons of self-charging hybrid motoring

A hybrid is technically any vehicle that uses two power sources in order to provide drive. In the world of cars, that means an electric motor paired up to a petrol or a diesel combustion engine.

Since the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius popularised hybrid cars back in the late 90s, they have gone from curiosities for eco-weirdos into an incredibly important, innovative and popular segment of the market. Virtually every manufacturer is working on a form of hybrid technology, and some brands – such as Toyota – offer it on almost every car they sell.

Hybrid systems come in many shapes and sizes, and to keep things as simple as possible we’ve split them into three pages. Stay on this page to read about traditional, or self-charging hybrids. Click here to read about mild hybrids, and click here to read about plug-in hybrids, or PHEVs.

>> What is a mild hybrid?

>> What is a plug-in hybrid?

>> The Parkers guide to home chargers

How does a hybrid car work?

A traditional hybrid car features a regular combustion engine, which works in tandem with an electric motor and a battery pack. The two power systems can be linked up in a number of ways. Currently, every hybrid car on the market uses a petrol engine – but some diesel hybrid examples do exist on the used market.

> The best hybrid SUVs

Either the electric motor or the petrol engine can provide motive power on their own – quite often, the electric motor will operate at slow speeds or when setting off, where it can provide the most benefit. On motorways and faster roads, where the comparatively low-powered electric drive system isn’t of much help, the petrol engine takes over.

2020 Hyundai Kona Hybrid

The car’s batteries are topped up on the move by two sources – either directly from the engine, which can act as a generator, or by regenerating energy lost through braking. It’s this aspect that gives these cars the name ‘self-charging hybrid’, a term popularised by Toyota but one that’s beginning to be adopted by several other manufacturers. It just means that the car operates completely autonomously with regards to charging its battery pack, as opposed to a plug-in hybrid which can be charged via an external source.

Hybrid car pros and cons

Choosing a hybrid car isn’t the massive compromise it once was – with two decades of development, mainstream hybrid models are totally painless and in some cases very enjoyable to own. You’re not limited to a specific body style either, with hybrid powertrains available in all sizes and shapes of car.

Adding another power source tends to improve fuel efficiency, which is a major feature of hybrid cars. In most, you can expect diesel-style fuel economy – a Toyota Corolla hatchback easily passes 60mpg, for example – but without a diesel’s long warmup period. What this means is you’ll achieve this economy even on short runs across town, instead of having to take long journeys to get the best from your car.

A petrol hybrid also does without a diesel’s complex and at times fragile emissions control systems, such as particulate filters which can easily become clogged. Speaking of emissions, you’ll find CO2 emissions from hybrid cars to be greatly reduced compared with pure combustion models – though sadly, no longer low enough for new models to qualify for free road tax.

You might think adding complexity makes hybrid cars unreliable, but the opposite has proven to be true. In fact, a used hybrid is one of the most sound purchases you can make – you need only look at London’s fleet of Toyota Prius Uber taxis to confirm that. Many are still operating perfectly with half a million miles on the clock.

Hybrid cars do have their disadvantages, though. While some notable models – hybrid supercars such as the Honda NSX spring to mind – are great fun to drive, the majority give the driver a somewhat disconnected feel which isn’t always particularly pleasant.

This is usually due to the continuously variable transmission most models are saddled with, a necessary component to shuffle power between petrol and electric as seamlessly as possible. This can mean that the position of your foot on the throttle is totally unrelated to the engine’s revs.

2020 Toyota Prius

Hybrid cars often suffer with limited practicality, owing to the need to accommodate a large battery. They’re also more expensive than a petrol equivalent, though often no more pricey than a similarly-powered diesel.

The big issue for many environmentalists is that these self-charging hybrids have only a very limited scope for operating on electric power alone, meaning that while their fuel economy is impressive, it’s not the huge leap forward we need to halt climate change.

Should I buy a hybrid car?

Certainly. There’s nothing that should stop you – today’s hybrid models are efficient, pleasant to drive and come in a wide variety of body styles to suit any owner.

Rorty sports car fans or those who prefer manual gearboxes should apply elsewhere, though, and for those driving extreme long distances a diesel is still a better bet. Moreover, if you have somewhere at home where you can charge up, you might opt instead for a plug-in hybrid, which has the potential to cut fuel bills down to nearly zero. Or consider taking the plunge and going fully electric.

Further reading:

> The best hybrid cars to buy

> The best hybrid SUVs

> The best electric cars