Is it time to pull the plug on conventional hybrids?
09 February 2018
Author: Jack Carfrae
With an increasing number of plug-in and alternatively fuelled vehicles on the scene, conventional hybrids are no longer the last word in futuristic, eco-motoring. Jack Carfrae asks if they've had their day
In 1997, the Toyota Prius might as well have been the car from Blade Runner. The concept of a mass-market passenger vehicle powered partly by a battery and electric motor was eerily futuristic, but suffice to say, it caught on.
Four generations and 21 years later, the conventional, non-plug-in hybrid is no longer at the cutting edge of clean automotive technology. Granted, with official figures of 70g/km of CO2 and 94.2mpg, your run-of-the mill Prius looks far more efficient than any standard petrol or diesel, but such figures are comfortably bettered by the plug-in hybrid version of the same model (22g/km and an official 283mpg), along with pretty much any other car that draws some or all of its power from the mains.
Equally, the conventional hybrid market remains somewhat limited. Outside of Toyota's model range, there aren't that many of them around, and a lot of manufacturers have leapfrogged straight to plug-in options. It begs the question as to whether non-plug-in hybrids are now worth the bother, particularly when fleets can realistically employ part or full-electric vehicles for the task at hand. The reality is that, at present, hybrids still have their place but, as with every other drivetrain or fuel type, it's a specific one.
"The thing to remember with a hybrid is that the key benefit comes in stop-start or variable speed driving," says Chris Chandler, principal consultant at Lex Autolease. "So when you're coming off the accelerator there's regenerative braking charging the batteries, or when you're doing gentle acceleration the electric motor can then come in and assist.
"Nowadays, if you're doing urban driving, where diesel particulate and NOx emissions are a key concern in city centres - not so much when you're on motorways and in open areas, where the particulates disperse and don't cause such a health issue - if you want vehicles that can't be range limited, but are regularly going into urban areas, that's when a traditional hybrid can yield a benefit.
"Your standard hybrid operates in that bridging area, when maybe you can't go all the way to electric, but you can start choosing cleaner, lower-
The private-hire market is a case in point. Stop-start urban journeys with regular, higher-speed runs out of town are a marriage made in hybrid heaven.
"Every vehicle out there has got a sweet spot that drivers fit into, where that vehicle works better for them than any other one that's out there," adds Alex Baker, CEO of Fleet Innovations, which specialises in establishing whether or not businesses can realistically adopt plug-in vehicles.
"For your standard hybrid, there's definitely a kind of driving that works quite well. It's your taxi kind of driving: a reasonable chunk of stop-start around towns and cities on a fairly regional basis, but if you've got a long journey to do or a run to an airport, it also works."
So popular are hybrids within the private- hire segment that their residual values are said to have been in jeopardy as a result of recent threats by London and other UK cities to remove Uber's operating licence. CD Auctions' commercial director, Graham Howe, tells granitekitchen that used-car traders specialising in the Toyota Prius and similar models have been hesitant to buy them, as a result of the politics.
"We get quite a lot of Priuses and other hybrids, which have a place in the private-hire sector and one of the guys who buys quite a lot from us said there is a lot of uncertainty around Uber in London, which is ultimately affecting people buying those types of things. The actual value of Prius, which always used to outperform the book, has eased off somewhat, and we're told that it's because of the uncertainty around Uber."
Clearly a big advocate of hybrids, Toyota believes it can do the trick for more than just 'taxi-style' fleets, not least in convenience terms. "You don't have to plug them in," says Neil Broad, general manager for Toyota and Lexus fleet and remarketing. "You've got no range anxiety, it's tried and tested technology, and it's treated as a normal used car. The RVs on hybrids are going from strength to strength at the moment, and our hybrids are more than making up the differential in the new-car price between a hybrid and a non-hybrid in an RV sense."
Conversely, Broad claims that plug-in hybrid residual values "haven't been particularly strong", and chimes in with the now frequent argument (granitekitchen has heard similar stories from numerous industry sources) that a plug-in hybrid is effectively redundant if the driver fails to use it properly, and just takes it for the benefit-in-kind tax break.
"You've got to be very specific in the way you use a plug-in, because unless you use it to the maximum - charge it morning and evening - you don't really reap the benefit of the plug-in technology or paying the extra cost for it. Whereas you don't suffer that if you just choose an ordinary hybrid," he says.
The argument against hybrids is that, despite the proclamations of eco-friendliness, they're not much cop on longer stretches out of town - neither in terms of driveability
"If you're sat at a perfect 70mph all the time, on a flat motorway, you're not going to get a lot of benefit from a hybrid system," says Chandler, who agrees with the common theory that "clean diesel vehicles should do the high-mileage motorway stuff".
By the same token, if a fleet can make full-electric vehicles work - which, for now, likely means strictly low-mileage, urban journeys - then it'd be mad to shirk them in favour of hybrids. "Working out if an electric vehicle's going to work is relatively straightforward; it's either going to or not, and you're either going to save money or not," says Baker. "Doing that for a hybrid is a lot more complicated. You really do need to have the right kind of driver profile for it to work."
Baker thinks that hybrids are on borrowed time, arguing that pure electric vehicles with greater ranges will usurp them before long. "I don't think hybrids are dead per se; I do think that the other options that are coming are just making them less attractive," he says.
"My personal view on hybrids and plug-in hybrids is that the whole thing is a very short-lived affair. Today, electric vehicles have a sweet spot; for example, if you do too few miles, you don't see the cost benefits, and if you do too many miles, you hit the range restrictions. That sweet spot's getting wider, because the vehicles are getting cheaper and the range is getting longer. So, effectively, you don't need to do as many miles to see a financial benefit, and you can do more miles because you're not hitting the range restrictions as often.
"The thing is, though, if you're just looking at electric vehicles and the market as it is today, I think you're missing a very big part of the picture. You're going to find that once EV ranges get to that sort of 300-mile mark, a huge portion of the population will find an electric vehicle a really compelling argument, without ever needing to touch the public charging network - just charging entirely at home."
Though manufacturers aren't exactly calling time on hybrid development, this is also not the first occasion they've been described as a kind of halfway house to fully fledged alternative fuels.
"I think they are a stepping stone, in the same way plug-in hybrids are," says Chandler. "People seem to be deeming the likes of pure electric and hydrogen as, if you like, the target point in the future - getting to pure, zero emissions, and moving away from internal combustion engines."
Even Toyota's Broad admits that there "will come a point" where conventional hybrids are muscled out by superior alternative powertrains, although it's "a reasonable way off in gestation".
For now, conventional hybrids will continue to thrive in the private-hire segment and similar capacities. They're certainly worth considering for fleets with low-to-medium mileage drivers with a decent number of urban excursions - especially those keen to move away from diesel-
In the long term, hybrids have a shelf life, the length of which will be determined by the development of plug-in alternatives. "I think we'll start to see more stuff like the Nissan Leaf [the latest version of which has an official 235-mile range] in the next two to three years, where the cost is reasonable," says Baker.
"My personal view is that I don't think hybrids have got much more of a life than probably five to seven years, really. I do think there'll be a bigger push on electric."