The word “hybrid” may conjure images of some poor sod who’s had his DNA spliced with that of an insect in a B-grade science fiction film, but in the world of cars, it refers to a vehicle that combines old technology – fossil-fuel-burning engines – with new, electronic motors to create a bridge to the future of driving. A bridge with wheels, no less.
It’s been a reasonably long road, though: the first hybrid car, the Toyota Prius, was put into mass production and released to the market all the way back in 1997, meaning it’s soon to enjoy its 25th anniversary. It has, in that time, become one of the best-selling cars in Japan, often topping the charts, and enjoyed a brief period of favour with Hollywood celebrities, but it has not exactly taken over the world.
With concerns for the environment and the cost of fuel continuing to be a worry for most, the slow crawl away from ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) vehicles has lately turned into a sprint as every major manufacturer scrambles to get as many electrified vehicles – meaning Electric Vehicles (EVs), hybrids and Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) – in showrooms as quickly as possible.
As a result, you can expect to see sales climb: EVs are forecast to make up 28 per cent of new car sales by 2030, and research conducted by JP Morgan* indicates that by 2025, 23 per cent of all global car sales will be hybrids.
The reason for the boom in hybrids comes down to the many advantages they offer: reduced carbon dioxide emissions, reduced fuel costs and the removal of range anxiety.
What’s “range anxiety”, you may ask? It’s the fear some drivers have that if they drive an EV, the battery may potentially run out of juice before there’s a chance to recharge it.
Because hybrids have an electric motor – and most have the ability to drive for varying distances in all-electric mode – as well as an ICE, that range anxiety evaporates: if the battery runs out of charge, the petrol-powered ICE kicks in, ensuring there’s no chance of you getting stranded somewhere unpleasant, because you can always find a fuel station.
What is a hybrid car, and how do hybrid cars work?
As mentioned, hybrids are cars with an ICE and a batter-powered electric motor that work in tandem to operate your car at peak efficiency, and maximised fuel economy.
One way this occurs is that the hybrid switches off the ICE every time the car comes to a stop and idles, with the electric motor kicking in for a quick restart when it’s time to move again.
The electric motor can also step in and provide a boost to the ICE when you need it – while accelerating rapidly, or uphill, for example – essentially giving your car extra power when required.
With most hybrids offering the option to drive in all-electric mode for a distance of approximately 30 to 60km, you also have the opportunity to skip using the ICE altogether, and, given the right driving and charging circumstances, you can potentially cut out your fuel costs entirely.
The self-charging batteries use regenerative braking, which is the process of transferring the car’s kinetic energy when it slows down either to the battery for storage, or directly to the electric motor for immediate use.
PHEVs work in much the same way as hybrids, except that they can connect – or Plug In – to an external power source to charge their batteries, which is typically bigger than a hybrid’s and offers more range.
Hybrid cars in Australia: five of the best
5. Volvo XC90 Recharge Plug-In Hybrid
Price: $116,990, plus on-road costs
This Volvo PHEV SUV is at the more expensive end of the spectrum, but it comes with a lot of benefits: it holds seven seats, and has an incredibly low fuel-consumption figure claim of 2.1 litres per 100km.
Top-notch safety features and interior luxury are a given, and it has the ability to travel for a range of around 30km in all-electric mode.
4. Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV
Price: $47,990, plus on-road costs
Mitsubishi’s Outlander has always been a popular model in Australia, and the PHEV version has been in Australia for over seven years now.
The model comes in three trim levels: the ES at $47,990, the mid-tier GSR at $52,490, and the Exceed at $56,490.
The five-seater has plenty of room for families, and the specs are impressive: a 2.4-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine coupled with twin electric motors (60kW/137Nm front, 70kW/195Nm rear), and a 13.8kWh battery that enables a pure electric range of around 54km.
3. Toyota Corolla SX Hybrid
The Corolla is Australia’s most popular passenger car, and it comes in several variants of small hybrids.
The Toyota Corolla SX Hybrid is definitely in the conversation for the cheapest hybrid car in Australia, and the SX is only $2000 more than the ICE version.
The SX Hybrid comes with a 1.8-litre petrol unit and twin electric motors that generate 53kW of power, the 6.5Ah nickel-metal hydride battery pack allowing it to drive in all-electric mode for short distances at a top speed of 80km/h.
2. Hyundai Ioniq Plug-In Hybrid Premium
Price: $47,950, plus on-road costs
If you’re after a plug-in hybrid, Australia has plenty on the market to choose from, but one of the most stylish and fun to drive is undoubtedly the Hyundai Ioniq Plug-In Hybrid Premium.
The Ioniq also comes in hybrid and all-electric variants, with the Plug-In Hybrid Premium occupying the middle-ground between the two for those who aren’t quite ready to make the leap to full EV just yet.
It runs in all-electric mode by default (EV-only range is a considerable 63km), but drivers have the choice of switching between EV mode and hybrid (HEV) mode.
1. Toyota RAV4 GXL Hybrid
Price: $43,450, plus on-road costs
Toyota hybrid sales have passed 200,000 in Australia – half of that number in the last three years – meaning there’s a considerable demand for them in our country.
Toyota has a bevy of hybrids on offer, including the Toyota Kluger hybrid (one of the more popular 7-seater hybrid cars), but one of the most sought after in its range is the RAV4, one of the brand’s best hybrid cars, and a top seller in Australia.
The RAV4 GXL Hybrid SUV may be the pick of the bunch, featuring all-wheel drive (AWD) for extra road grip, a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine coupled with twin electric motors and five seats in a spacious cabin.
By Stephen Corby
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*Source: Driving into 2025: The Future of Electric Vehicles by J.P. Morgan