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Our favourite plug-in hybrids from the more affordable end of the spectrum.
Autocar
News
9 mins read
1 December 2020

Thanks to CO2-based taxation rules and growing environmental concerns, the idea of running a large, diesel-powered saloon or estate as a company car is, in 2020, a pretty unattractive one for the vast majority of people.

As these rules get ever stricter, a similar shift is starting to occur further down the food chain too; the small capacity petrol and diesel hatchbacks that might have once appealed as an entry-level company car are starting to become increasingly expensive ownership propositions. From a financial point of view, it likely won’t be too long until the prospect of running a mid-spec, oil-burning Volkswagen Golf for work is about as seemingly nonsensical as running a six-cylinder BMW might be today.

Thankfully, plug-in hybrids are more widely available, and cheaper, than ever before. But a greater focus on affordability doesn’t necessarily mean you have to give up on things like interior quality, driving fun or practicality. Here are some of the best everyday PHEVs from the humbler end of the spectrum - be they hatchbacks, compact estates or crossovers.

1. Volkswagen Golf GTE

When it came to the job of being a refined, easy-driving plug-in hybrid, the previous Golf GTE was a pretty slick operator. What it lacked, however, was some of the dynamic pep that was essential for it to be taken seriously as an eco-friendly alternative to the excellent Mk7 GTI.

This new, Mk8 version retains a healthy amount of what made the last Golf GTE a good PHEV, but brings an additional smattering of athleticism and engagement to the table too. Grip levels are good, its steering accurate and responsive, and body control is usefully tight. Make no mistake, it’s still not quite as focused as its purely petrol powered stablemate, but by PHEV standards the new GTE has enough talent about it to keep keener drivers interested. 

It now has a larger 13kWh battery too, as opposed to the 8.8kWh that appeared in the last one. This means its claimed electric range is now up to 39.7 miles on the WLTP cycle - though you’d be hard-pressed to cover that much ground in the real world. Still, that figure combined with a CO2 rating of 26g/km means the GTE slots into the 10% BIK band.

Admittedly, with a price tag of just under £36,000 the GTE is one of the pricier cars on this list. But owing to the fact that it’s also most entertaining to drive, it earns its place at the top of the pile.

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2. Mini Countryman Cooper S E ALL4

Mini is growing and maturing as a car brand, and that’s evident in this second-generation Countryman – a car that is more practical and multi-faceted than before, and is also available as an impressive, if expensive, plug-in hybrid with around 27 miles of electric range on the WLTP cycle.

Like all Minis, the Countryman Cooper S E is characterful, desirable, quite firmly sprung and spirited to drive – but it also offers decent space for passengers and luggage, four-wheel drive, a combined 221bhp of peak petrol-electric power, 284lb ft of torque and the potential for sub-7.0sec 0-62mph sprinting.

The car’s off-road ability is to be taken with a large pinch of salt, but if its value for money is considered in light of everything it offers, Mini-brand desirability included, it’s an appealing option – and one fully deserving of a top-half place in this chart.

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3. Renault Megane Sport Tourer E-Tech

Only the estate version of Renault’s stylish Megane is offered with a plug socket and an electric motor; the French firm hasn’t yet launched an electrified take on the standard hatch. 

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But that’s ok - there’s plenty to like about the Megane Sport Tourer E-Tech anyway. Not only does it come with that added-practicality boot, there’s loads of space in the second row too. It’s comfortable even on poorer stretches of roads, and it handles in a predictable, stable fashion. Performance might not be particularly urgent, but as a car to live with and drive it does very little to offend.

A 9.8kWh battery gives the handsome French estate an electric range of 30 miles under WLTP test conditions, which combines with a CO2 emissions of 30g/km for a BIK rating of 10%.

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4. Seat Leon eHybrid

Though it shares effectively all of its componentry with the Golf GTE that sits at the top of this list, the humbler, more affordable Seat Leon eHybrid isn’t quite as immediately impressive as its Volkswagen cousin. But that’s not to say it’s a bad plug-in hybrid - not by any stretch of the imagination.

Performance from its 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine is strong, and it combines seamlessly with its electric counterpart to provide smooth, controlled acceleration in a mixture of environments. It does sound a bit vocal at times, however, which isn’t something that we experienced in the Golf.

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Nevertheless, ride quality is decent enough to escape particularly heavy criticism, and its interior is usefully spacious - if a little dull looking. And while it doesn’t handle with quite the same amount of vim or vigour as the Volkswagen, it nonetheless changes direction in a precise, controlled fashion that’s underwritten by good grip levels.

But while the plug-in Leon might only be ordinary to drive, it claws back impressive credibility when it comes to that all-important BIK tax rating. Its 12.8kWh battery sees its electric-only break the 40-mile threshold, which - along with CO2 emissions of 27g/km - allows it to qualify for a BIK rating of 6%. There may be more entertaining cars on this list, but few will be quite as affordable.

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5. Hyundai Ioniq PHEV

The Hyundai Ioniq PHEV is one of this market’s better-established options. When, in October 2018, the UK government removed the £1500 tax incentive formerly applied to plug-in hybrids, the ones that best combined usability, real-world economy and value suddenly stood out. And this was, and remains, one of them.

The Ioniq PHEV offers usable cabin space for four adults, plenty of boot space and a viceless driving experience that, while neither particularly polished or exciting, won’t offend. It mixes combustion power with electric pretty seamlessly most of the time.

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The car has an electric-only range of 32 miles on the WLTP cycle (putting it in the same BIK tax bracket as most of its opponents in this chart) and runs economically enough the rest of the time. Not with the frugality of the Toyota Prius or the performance of a Mini Countryman Cooper S E, admittedly, but well enough, and with competent ride and handling.

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6. Kia Ceed Sportswagon PHEV

Kia elected to go down a similar route to Renault by electing to electrify its Ceed Sportswagon ahead of the standard hatch. The result is a well-built, easy-going car that’s about as straightforward and largely viceless to drive as you’d expect anything from Kia to be.

As it’s based on the range-topping ‘3’ specification, the level of standard equipment is very generous, with everything from heated seats and part-leather upholstery, to satellite navigation and a comprehensive suite of active safety systems included right out of the box. It rides and handles very tidily indeed, and it looks the part too.

That said, its electrified powertrain isn’t the most impressive system we’ve encountered. It juggles both power sources sufficiently smoothly, but its electric motor isn’t particularly punchy at low speeds and its normally-aspirated petrol engine is prone to feeling strained under higher throttle loads.

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Still, its 35-mile range is competitive for the class, as is its BIK rating of 10%. Were it not for the slightly disappointing performance afforded by its powertrain, it’s easy to see this Kia climbing even further up this list.

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7. Renault Captur E-Tech 

This plug-in version of Renault’s popular and stylish crossover shares its powertrain with the larger Megane Sport Tourer. So you get a 1.6-litre petrol engine mated to an electric motor for a combined system output of 158bhp, with the latter drawing its energy from a 9.8kWh battery. You get the same 30-mile electric range, too, which means that like the larger estate car (and most of the cars on this list), the Captur E-Tech slots into the 10% BIK band.

For now, the Captur is one of only a small handful of compact crossovers that are able to be plugged into the mains, and that status should help it to perform well in a market that seemingly can’t get enough of the jacked-up supermini. It handles pretty keenly, but its stiffer set-up does make for a ride that can feel a bit too firm and tightly controlled on lumpier stretches of road. That said, it smothers secondary impacts convincingly enough. Electric performance is impressively swift at lower speeds, too; and the cabin has the same sense of visual allure as the smaller Clio supermini.

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8. Mercedes-Benz A250e

As the premium makers move to incorporate plug-in hybrid power into their line-ups, it was only a matter of time before the Mercedes A-Class sprouted a plug socket. This car combines a turbocharged 1.3-litre petrol engine with an electric motor for 215bhp in total. A 15.6kWh battery pack, which is large for any PHEV, gives the A250e an electric range of up to 42 miles on the WLTP cycle, allowing it to be one of two cars in this list qualifying for 6% BIK tax.

It's quite an impressive short-range electric car. The electric motor it uses feels quite powerful, punching fairly hard at town speeds and keeping it up out of town well enough to allow you to keep the pistons quiet pretty easily when you want to. There are lots of options for adjusting battery regeneration settings to your preference, too.

More's the pity, then, that the combustion engine is so noisy when it starts - and particularly when it revs - and in other respects this isn't a better-rounded, better-riding and more drivable car. It's efficient and fairly comfortable, but ride isolation isn't as good as it should be, and drivability suffers as a result of the car's unpredictable 'auto-regen' software which seeks to regulate the car's tendency either to coast or to harvest power automatically on a trailing throttle, but is seldom easy to predict.

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9. BMW 225xe Active Tourer 

This rare plug-in hybrid compact MPV offers its owners plenty of flexible passenger and carrying space. Using the same electric rear axle arrangement as the Mini Countryman above, it brings four-wheel drive to the table as well, and because it matches the Mini’s power and torque outputs precisely, it’s also no slouch in performance terms. BMW claims a 6.7sec 0-62mph dash and a 126mph top speed.

That BMW charges more than £35,000 for the entry-level version takes the edge off the car’s allure a little bit, but it does at least offer standard equipment that includes 17in alloy wheels, sports seats, navigation with real-time traffic information and more.

The packaging of the car’s hybrid tech means you get slightly less boot space (400 litres) than in other Active Tourers (but still plenty overall) and you don’t get a sliding rear bench. Handling is surprisingly taut, balanced and grippy for a car that’s relatively upright and heavy.

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10. Vauxhall Grandland X Hybrid4

Vauxhall is looking to become something of a mover and a shaker in the new-age plug-in hybrid fleet market, just as it was in the company car scene 20 years ago when the Vectra was in its pomp. The car it’s looking to for success isn’t anything like a traditional family saloon, however – rather its first petrol-electric SUV, the Grandland X Hybrid4.

Sharing its platform and its all-paw powertrain with a number of new Peugeot and DS models, the Grandland X certainly has the stats to catch your eye. Between its turbocharged 1.6-litre petrol engine and twin electric drive motors, it produces 296bhp and 383lb ft, and can accelerate to 60mph from rest in less than 6.0sec.

That’s quite of a lot of performance on offer in a car that, thanks to the new tax rules, might cost a company car driver a similar monthly BIK outlay as they were previously paying for a mid-range diesel Qashqai. It's a shame, then, that this Vauxhall's driving experience struggles to deliver against such a top billing. It's quick in outright terms but can be unresponsive and clunky when switching between power sources, while it's a little short on handling finesse and engine-on mechanical refinement.

Unlike the Q5 and the XC40, the Grandland X does beat 30 miles of electric range (although not out on the road, in our test experience) and so qualifies for 10% BIK tax.

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