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Best new hybrid cars

With the latest battery-electric and hybrid cars growing slowly but surely in number and relevance, Iain Robertson is taking a number of parameters into account, as he contemplates the best-in-class from small to compact, family and estate cars, to sports cars, all using hybrid technology. Each of them can support the claims with their individual wealth of technological experience, allied to the aspects that we all desire, which include reliability, manufacturer support and overall packaging. While the selection may appear arbitrary and there are several rivals to each class contender, we have dug deeply to ascertain which of them warrants a best in breed status and we hope you will enjoy the choice.

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SMALL – Toyota Corolla Hybrid COMPACT – Kia Niro FAMILY - BMW 330e ESTATE - Volvo V60 T8 SPORTS – Honda NSX Verdict

As long as the UK new car market remains at a low ebb in respect of the penetration of eco-friendly transport, with around 0.6 per cent of the total new car scene being for electric vehicles and a further 0.35 per cent for hybrids (including plug-in type), of which you can reckon on around 40 per cent being registered for demonstration use by both motor manufacturers and specialists, whatever lists are created become part of a movable feast. Therefore, our listings can and will change in just a few months’ time, as new entrants join the fray.

The UK new car scene is still dominated by petrol-engined models, with diesel taking second place, albeit at a declining rate, thanks largely to the residual effects of ‘dieselgate’ (a media denomination which arose as a direct result of Volkswagen’s ingenious tampering of emissions figures). With government being fined heavily by the EU for its poor city air quality, an inevitable diesel antipathy was formulated, which the pan-European motor industry has countered with a raft of technological advancements to reduce exhaust particulates and NOx levels of its latest diesel powerplants. While the number of diesel cars registered across Europe every year is still in the millions, it is also reducing slowly.

Of course, the logic for choosing an EV lies in the consumer’s non-reliance on fossil fuels and non-renewable energy, which includes petrol and diesel, as well as Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) and Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG). To be frank, I have never quite comprehended the ‘borrowing from Peter, to pay Paul’ methodology involved in carbon offset. As our natural resources become depleted, planting trees, or entire forests, is not really going to resolve the problems in the short to medium term. Therefore, even hybrid motorcars, whether the internal combustion engine (ICE) is used as a primary, or secondary power source, are little better than adding soya beans to steak mince to extend the portions. Yet, as a means to an end, they do have decent value, for the moment and even environmentalists, such as Emissions Analytics (a global testing and data specialist), believe that hybrids offer a faster and less damaging route to reducing CO2 levels.

EVs grow in relevance, when ‘fuelled’ by renewable energy, which has to become the aim of all consumers. As Tesla has proven beyond any doubt, ‘ludicrous’ performance can be on tap, allied to some of the rangiest recharging opportunities of all vehicle manufacturers… at a price. It is the duty of those manufacturers to reinforce their offerings and also to drive down list prices, even though their investments in ICE will lead to a serious financial shortfall. However, advancing EV technology also lies in the hands of battery technologists and, while lithium-ion is current (sic.), the raw materials have already reached a tipping-point, with both Russia and China securing the lion’s shares of that segment and scientists stating that, based on present consumption, there might be only around ten years of lithium reserves left. Also reflect on the low-paid workers involved in mining for lithium, which is not good for their health, not that early death and diseases should affect our desire for cleaner air (and I am being sarcastic). Both EVs and hybrids are in flux, a factor that governs our ‘best' choices, in a market that is friable.

The Discover EV new hybrid car best-in-class is as follows:

SMALL – Toyota Corolla Hybrid

History

While Corolla is a brand name that has been around since 1966 and has been a world best-seller in its time, the name Auris was introduced to the UK market in 2007. It was merely a rebadged Corolla. However, for this year, Corolla is back. In fact, the Corolla model range consists of the 1.2-litre turbo-petrol engine and a choice of either 1.8-litre (straight lift from the Prius model), or the all-new 2.0-litre petrol-electric hybrid engines. Toyota has been in the hybrid car business for more than 20 years and the hybrid versions are expected to constitute 90 per cent of all Corolla sales.

Tech and design

As the acknowledged ‘hybrid-master’, Toyota may not have missed a trick with its hybrids but it ought to clarify its use of battery power. Up to 50 per cent of all journeys made in a Corolla hybrid will be battery-dependent, even though the series technology employed by the company might infer that it is ICE prioritised. In making two hybrid engines available in the latest range, Toyota is underscoring the value of its technology. The lower-powered 1.8-litre (600v) develops 120bhp, while the 2.0-litre (650v) is a much punchier 177bhp, with both models driving through the latest e-CVT transmission for maximum efficiency. Their CO2 emissions are posted as 76 and 89g/km respectively, with the pacey 2.0-litre recording an excellent 74.3mpg overall, while despatching the 0-60mph sprint in around 7.9 seconds.

Drive

Toyota is offering genuine choice with its hybrid Corolla, with saloon, hatchback and Touring Sports (estate) models being available. The five-door hatch, based on the firm’s lighter and more rigid TNGA platform, is the better driving machine, while the Touring Sports is the much roomier variant. Although sprung and damped conventionally, the suspension has been optimised in all versions to work with eco-friendly tyres that place predictable limits on both grip and traction, while accounting for the lower centre of gravity presented by a battery pack sited low in the platform. The wide track gifts the car first-rate stability and ride comfort is excellent. Four driver adjustable driving modes are available. Improvements wrought on the electronic Constantly Variable Transmission mean that it behaves more like a stepped automatic than before.

Charging

There is no plug-in alternative available at this stage, Toyota’s hybrid technology centring on its in-built charging capability. For the saloon model, the battery pack is made up of Nickel Metal-hydride cells, rather than the Lithium-ion of the Prius and either hatchback, or Touring Sports Corolla models, which Toyota suggests lies with supply issues and that NiMh is still a perfectly sound hybrid battery storage medium. Of course, the actual EV driving range of all models remains at under one mile but appreciating the electric: petrol usage balance of nearer to 50:50 highlights both overall viability and convenience.

Summary

Although classified as a small car, within Toyota’s stable exists the Yaris, an even smaller car, also available as a hybrid. Both Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus offer direct competition to the Corolla. However, it is a car supported by a five years and 100,000 miles warranty. Four trim levels are available: Icon, Icon Tech, Design and Excel. The 1.2-litre petrol car prices start at £21,300, with the hybrids carrying an inevitable premium (see below).

KEY SPECS

Price range:  £23,750 - £30,340
Engine and transmission:  Hybrid petrol-electric, CVT, front-wheel drive
Power:  120bhp to 177bhp (combined)
Torque:  171 to 237lb-ft
Top speed:  112mph (all versions)
0-60mph:  10.6 to 7.9 seconds
MPG:  65.9mpg (1.8), 60.6mpg (2.0) (WTLP)

COMPACT – Kia Niro

History

While Kia design boss, Peter Schreyer, flirted with a two-door concept version of the Niro, revealing it to critical acclaim at the 2013 Frankfurt Motor Show, its hybrid electric motor driving the rear wheels of what would be a go-anywhere crossover, the production Niro adopted a somewhat more conservative approach that Kia even quipped was ‘un-hybrid’. Kia’s forward product line-up is geared towards eco-friendliness, the company seemingly more in tune with what consumers desire than almost any of its rivals.

Tech and design

Kia works to a fast-track development programme with its entire line-up of cars. Within a year of introducing the rather ordinary but attractive lifestyle, hybrid five-door hatchback Niro, it was joined by a plug-in version that would provide a 33 miles EV range, while its combined 139bhp petrol engine/electric motor output provides a decent turn of performance, all intended to make the consumer shift towards hybrid/EV models significantly easier. There is now a full EV version that has joined its ranks.

Drive

While the earliest versions of the Niro did suffer from directional stability issues and could feel quite leaden in their dynamic responses, the PHEV version introduced a number of pertinent suspension revisions to improve the handling and road holding, especially on base models fitted with 16 inch diameter road wheels, clad in eco-friendly tyres. With 195lb-ft of combined torque on tap, the 1.6-litre petrol engine musters very decent on-road performance, despatching the 0-60mph sprint in a modest 10.4 seconds, before topping out at around 107mph, while emitting 31g/km CO2. Punchy mid-range verve, aided by the eager six-speed automated transmission means that there are no discernible gaps in the power delivery, which fluctuates imperceptibly between petrol and electric power, or a combination of both, as dictated by the driver. It is a car that rewards a laid-back driving style.

Charging

The Niro PHEV’s lithium-ion battery has a rating of 8.9kWh, which can be fast-charged within around 35 minutes, or fully charged from a domestic wall box (3.3kW AC charger) in around two hours 15 minutes, to enable a 33 miles EV only range. The original Niro hybrid’s battery was only 1.56kWh. In PHEV form, a larger 44.5kW electric motor is fitted. Of course, it remains a hybrid car, which means there is no need for range anxiety and its 105bhp petrol engine still provides a decent turn of speed, even once the EV capacity has been exhausted, which it never does thanks to regenerative braking that gently restocks the battery pack.

Summary

Niro is a bridging machine in a couple of ways. Firstly, in design terms, it possesses several crossover elements but at a lower overall ride height than other cars in that class. Secondly, in technology terms, it provides the built-up area benefits of being able to operate in EV mode alone; yet, its petrol engine enables good out-of-town performance, aided by the torque of the electric motor. It is a good-looking family car, possessing a sizeable boot and Kia’s all-encompassing seven years/100,000-miles warranty but, in some respects, more importantly, it is a stylish motorcar that ticks a lot of boxes.

Specifications:

Price when new:  £30,505
Engine and transmission:  Hybrid petrol-electric, six-speed automated, front-wheel drive
Power:  139bhp (combined)
Torque:  195lb-ft
Top speed:  107mph
0-60mph:  10.4 seconds
MPG:  201.8mpg (WLTP)

FAMILY - BMW 330e

History

If you quantify a specific model’s market value by the percentage of them that are eco-friendly, BMW could win a race with 33 per cent hybrid uptake of its most popular 3 Series saloon. Yet, it is worth delving into the Bavarian firm’s background to comprehend its long-standing commitment to eking out ever increasing miles per gallon. Its developments range from the radical 525e (eta) model of the early-1980s, which provided over 40mpg from a 2.7-litre, six-cylinder petrol engine running on only four main bearings and driving through an automatic transmission, to its hydrogen-powered 7-Series of the early-2000s. BMW has pursued eco-friendlier transport, as epitomised by its i3 and i8 EVs, but it is its hybrid 3 Series, first introduced in 2016, that has become a favourite of both private and business buyers.

Tech and design

BMW has been exceptionally careful with its design ethics, seldom venturing too far away from convention and a memorable profile. Its 3 Series is one of the most popular and recognisable body shapes in the world, changing very little since 1997 (E46 generation), through E90 and F30 designations to the current G20 design, although the detail upgrades are myriad. The range is underpinned by BMW’s excellent 2.0-litre petrol/diesel four-cylinder engine, which boasts levels of efficiency that few of its rivals can compete with. However, its endeavours struck pay dirt with the first hybrid variants.

Drive

A 181bhp four-cylinder turbo-petrol engine powers the car in conjunction with a 67bhp electric motor packed within its 8-speed automatic gearbox housing, its 12kWh lithium-ion battery pack being located beneath the rear seat. It is worth noting that the latest model is not only lighter than before but benefits from improved suspension geometry and enhanced body rigidity, aspects that convey a series of subtle improvements to an already highly rated car. The 330e can drive at speeds just shy of 70mph in full EV mode and the transition between petrol and battery power is blurred enough to ensure that the car lives up to the highest of driving standards. However, it can use its 310lb-ft of torque to especially good effect, when the ‘XtraBoost’ facility is activated in Sport mode (a boost of 41bhp), by despatching the 0-60mph sprint in a brisk 5.7 seconds. Its top speed is given as 143mph.

Charging

Although the 330e’s EV-only mileage range is stated as 37 miles (nearer to 25 miles in reality), it is the 39g/km CO2 rating that proves to be of greatest benefit to company car users. The 7.7kWh lithium-ion battery pack robs a bit of potential storage volume from its below rear seat installation (480 litres reduced to 370 litres). Using a fast charge system, the battery can be recharged to full capacity in around two hours, if using a 3.7kWh charger. A three-pin domestic plug will carry out the task in 3.5 hours.

Summary

Even though the 3 Series kerb weight is increased by 230kgs for the 330e model, the car retains its firm and sporty ride quality and will even waggle its tail in the right circumstances. It drives as well as any other 3 Series and, even if its EV charge is depleted, it can still return in excess of 50mpg in petrol mode. Where it achieves most lies in its sheer flexibility. Left to its own devices, the electronic control unit can retain battery charge for later deployment and even links sat-nav settings to energy requirements, all without driver intervention. The system is backed-up by on-screen graphics that display consumption and storage rates.

KEY SPECS

Price when new:  From £33,935    
Engine and transmission:  Hybrid petrol-electric, eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power:  247bhp (+41bhp in XtraBoost)
Torque:  310lb-ft
Top speed:  143mph
0-60mph:  5.7 seconds
MPG:  138mpg (WLTP)

ESTATE - Volvo V60 T8

History

No matter how you cut it, Volvo is regarded as the manufacturer of the consummate station wagon. There is a larger V90 but its low-line styling and sharply raked rear window makes it far less practical than the more upright V60 model, even though its load deck, at over 7 feet length, is exceptional. The V60 first appeared in 2010, although it was heavily revised in 2018 as the current model. A T8, twin-engine concept first appeared in 2011, albeit in diesel-electric plug-in form. Thanks to Volvo’s extensive development of its 2.0-litre petrol and diesel modular engines, the current T8 features a turbocharged and supercharged petrol engine linked to an electric motor, as Volvo winds down its diesel engine production.

Tech and design

Offering 529 litres of boot space, before lowering the rear seats and more than trebling the available load volume, the V60 wins with its blend of striking design elements and high quality interior trim. It is too easy to seek comparisons with Volvo’s Germanic rivals but Volvo does it differently and, while some of the materials may even have similar sources, those in the Volvo feel more luxurious and upmarket. The ‘Thor’s Hammer’ signature daytime running lamps are eminently recognisable.

Drive

Armed with a 299bhp twincharger petrol engine that drives the front wheels through an 8-speed automatic transmission, it is linked to an 86bhp electric motor (known as ERAD) that drives the rear axle to make the car four-wheel drive. At start-up the car prioritises EV power but squeeze the throttle pedal a little more and the petrol engine spurs into action, the electronic management system determining how much electric power is required, or how much it can regenerate through brake energy recovery, to keep the battery topped-up. The manner in which the car hikes up its skirts and accelerates like a scalded polecat has to be experienced to be believed. Its handling is assured and, using the driver selectable chassis settings, can range from sportingly firm to lopingly comfortable. Its handling is confident and traction outstanding.

Charging

The V60 T8’s lithium-ion, 10.4kWh battery pack can be recharged to maximum capacity using either a supercharger, in around two hours, or a domestic wall box in around 3.5 hours. In R-Design trim, this is a car that can despatch the 0-60mph dash in a cool 4.6 seconds and reach a maximum speed of 155mph. Yet, its CO2 emissions are given as 48g/km and it can run to upwards of 130mpg flexing between EV and petrol modes. Its total EV range is a modest 30 miles.

Summary

Volvo is riding the crest of a sales wave in the UK at the moment, seemingly not swayed by the downturn in new car registrations. Supported by a strong dealer network and a product range that has smashed through the upmarket ceiling, it is addressing the demands of the executive sector to perfection. Of course, with a price tag above the £40k threshold, it is going to cost a not so cool £440 every year in road tax for the first five years of ownership but it will revert to £130 annually thereafter.

KEY SPECS

Price when new:  £55,005
Engine and transmission:  Hybrid petrol-electric, eight-speed fully-auto, four-wheel drive
Power:  385bhp
Torque:  472lb-ft
Top speed:  155mph
0-60mph:  4.6 seconds
MPG:  135mpg (WLTP)

SPORTS – Honda NSX

History

What a phenomenal past the NSX possesses…the brainchild of Soichiro Honda refined and tested by Ayrton Senna. When the car was first revealed at the Chicago Show in 1989, its naked chassis shocked all privileged visitors with its all-alloy underpinnings, topped with an aluminium body that featured jet fighter aerodynamics. Powering it was an amidships 3.0-litre V6 alloy motor that developed a modest 285bhp and drove the rear wheels. In its most recent guise, it retains the engine layout, albeit enlarged to 3.5-litres, boosted by twin turbochargers and three electric motors, now driving all four wheels.

Tech and design

Mid-engined sportscars can tend to look alike but Honda has always bucked trends. With nearly a decade separating the two versions of NSX that have existed so far, it is interesting that the latest one was both designed and engineered at Honda’s Marysville plant, in Ohio. The first cars rolled off the production lines in June 2016. Two of the three electric motors in the new car drive the front wheels of the all-wheel drive chassis and together with the petrol engine an enormous 581bhp is produced. The power is managed by a nine-speed, twin-clutch, automated-manual gearbox. Although the new NSX features an alloy spaceframe (as did the first-generation model), it is now clad in a combination of aluminium panels, high-strength steel and other rigid and lightweight materials, such as carbon fibre.

Drive

A technological tour de force, the current Honda NSX is a pinnacle machine in almost every respect. It has been sorely criticised by all manner of journalists, including Clarkson, but the truth is, none of them seems to understand the car. Perhaps its greatest strength and also demerit is that it is so technologically complex, it simply bamboozles them. Drive the NSX for what it is, an ingenious and engaging sportscar, and it comes alive, with blistering acceleration and an ability to drive in EV mode for short but convenient bursts. The car sits low and wide, which makes it unsuitable for many of our country lanes. The car’s two-seat and well-equipped cabin is roomy enough but is also very comfortable. Its handling is flat and confidence inspiring. As a continental cruiser, it makes a lot of sense, even without a decent boot (minimal soft luggage only in the carpeted boot locker).

Charging

There is no plug-in feature for this hybrid. Its EV range is limited but the electricity it self-generates boosts the turbocharged petrol engine’s potency, to allow it to compete against some of the world’s greatest supercars. It rebuilds charge quickly in its on-board battery, enabling repeat deployment of torque on-demand.

Summary

What makes the NSX so intriguing is its failsafe manners and lack of immature instability. Instead, it is a serious performance car that uses the latest hybrid technology to generate a large power output that is entirely useable. The Honda NSX is an intuitive machine that provides sophistication allied to immense tactility. Its inevitable competitors include the McLaren 570S and most recent Ferrari SF90. Its performance is ferocious and made so by the electric motors that augment its punchy bi-turbo V6 petrol engine that revs to 7500rpm. It is a prime example of how hybridisation can also create liveable supercar performance.

KEY SPECS

Price when new:  £144,825
Engine and transmission:  Hybrid petrol-electric, 9-speed automated gearbox, four-wheel drive
Power:  581bhp
Torque:  476lb-ft
Top speed:  191mph
0-60mph:  2.6 seconds
MPG:  28.3mpg (WLTP)

Verdict

As stated up-front, this is an arbitrary selection of new cars that would not be too hard to make space for in a domestic driveway. They highlight that hybrid technology still has a valuable role to play in the new car scene. Each is fascinating in its own right and a couple of them offer some fascinating twists in their sobriety. Give it a couple of months and I shall probably alter the selection quite considerably, as the market shows more of its hand and introduces fresh newcomers.

Remember that each of them is a current model and that they still have at least four years model life before any major changes might be introduced. Each, barring the Honda NSX, is a hybrid that enables a set distance to be covered in EV mode alone, a factor that is important for city commuters and their ability to travel without incurring Congestion Charge zone fees. For them, using the petrol engine to travel efficiently to the zone perimeter, then engaging EV mode for near-silent progress around town is a major boon.

It would be fascinating to hear your views and preferences in each of the classifications mentioned above. Use our contact form to compile a message to which we shall respond.

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