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The good and the bad of hybrid cars

South Africans aren’t particularly warming up to electric vehicles (EV) despite many automakers actively pivoting towards only selling battery-powered cars.

The more forward-looking of individuals, though, have taken a liking to the environmentally-friendly aspect of EVs and have instead turned toward hybrids as a stepping stone before venturing into the battery-electric realm, as they offer part of the benefits of full EVs while retaining the reliability of an internal combustion engine (ICE) and its related infrastructure.

With hybrids becoming more affordable each year it is therefore handy to know what you’re getting yourself into if there is one that tickles your fancy, according to Barend Smit, marketing director of MotorHappy.

What are hybrids

Hybrid vehicles pair an ICE, which usually runs on petrol, with an electric motor that is smaller than the one you’ll find in a full-on EV, to boost efficiency while in certain cases also improving performance.

There are three main types of hybrids, namely:

  • Parallel hybrid
  • Plug-in hybrid
  • Range-extender hybrid

A parallel hybrid, which can fall under the blanket term “mild-hybrid”, simultaneously delivers drive to the wheels from both power units and usually doesn’t allow full-electric operation. It also can’t be charged with a cable.

The parallel configuration is the most widely-available hybrid drivetrain in South Africa and can be found in popular vehicles such as the Honda Fit Hybrid and Toyota Corolla Cross.

Plug-in hybrids (PHEV), on the other hand, do exactly what the name implies, they plug into a wall to charge.

PHEVs have larger batteries than parallel hybrids but work in much the same way, the main differences being they allow a decent amount of emissions-free driving and can’t always be charged back to full through the ICE, needing to be connected to a wall charger for the battery to get to 100% again.

This setup is somewhat scarce on the local market, being found in premium vehicles such as the R3-million Range Rover and R6-million Ferrari 296.

Range-extender hybrids (REEV) are the odd ones out as this arrangement utilises the ICE to charge the battery, which in turns powers an electric motor that drives the wheels.

The petrol engine is completely disconnected from the axles, meaning the wheels are technically rotating through electricity alone with the ICE only being installed to improve the vehicle’s overall driving range.

There are currently no new REEVs on sale in the country, though on the pre-owned market, you can find a BMW i3 eDrive REx with such a powertrain, and in the coming months, the Nissan Qashqai e-Power will also debut with REEV underpinnings.

The good and the bad

The main benefits of hybrid vehicles are:

  • Savings on fuel costs
  • More affordable than pure EVs
  • Quieter than conventional gasoline-powered cars
  • No “range anxiety” as in the case of fully-electric cars
  • Less wear and tear on the car’s engine, thus requiring less maintenance
  • Environmentally friendly due to lower sulphur and nitrogen oxides emission

While there are clear environmental and financial advantages to purchasing a hybrid, it may still not be the best choice for everyone.

The main drawbacks of hybrid vehicles are:

  • Higher repair costs
  • Higher upfront purchase costs than ICEs
  • Batteries are expensive and require replacement after around 10 years
  • Not economical on highway driving because hybrids use more fuel at faster speeds

It’s also worth noting that older hybrid autos offered experimental features that failed in the long run as well as far worse batteries than what’s on the market today.

“If you’re going to choose a hybrid model, it’s advisable to choose a newer model with the latest technology to avoid reliability issues,” concludes Smit.

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