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Our favourite plug-in hybrids from the more affordable end of the spectrum

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. This cheaper end of the market is largely dominated by the Volkswagen Group brands, but there’s a growing number of alternatives, too.

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 Golf 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 38 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 12% BIK band.

Admittedly, with a price tag of just over £37,000 the GTE is one of the pricier cars on this list. There is a cheaper Golf eHybrid available with just 201bhp, but the price difference is small enough that the GTE is still the better buy.

The Golf shares its powertrain with some of the other cars here, but it also manages to form the most cohesive package as it’s one of the more entertaining plug-in hybrids, without becoming unduly harsh.

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2. Skoda Octavia iV

If the Golf GTE is our choice for a plug-in hatchback that offers at least some driver engagement, the Skoda Octavia is the down-to-earth choice. With prices starting from £31,000, it’s quite a lot cheaper than the Golf, but also a lot roomier. If you need even more practicality, for around £1000 there’s an ultra-practical estate. 

The normal Octavia iV comes with the same 201bhp plug-in hybrid powertrain as the Golf eHybrid and that suits the Skoda’s laid-back chassis just fine. There is an iV version of the Octavia vRS, but that is neither the Octavia nor the vRS at its best.

No, stick with the standard one and it’ll be the kind of car you’d think nothing of covering big miles in, from where you’d be enjoying a superb interior. As usual with plug-in hybrids, the 43-mile electric will be hard to replicate in the real world, but at least it will bag company car drivers a tidy 8% benefit-in-kind rate.

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3. Audi A3 40 TFSI e

If you’ve already read reviews for the hybrid Golf, Octavia or Leon, there will be no great surprises with the A3. Built on the same MQB platform and featuring the same 1.4-litre engine, dual-clutch gearbox and 13kWh battery pack, it has much of the same strengths and foibles as its platform-mates.

It’s available as 40 TFSI e with 201bhp, or as a 45 TFSI e with 242bhp. We tried the 40 and found it more than adequate, so we’d bank the premium for the 45 or invest it in some optional equipment. 

The A3 suffers from the same unsettled ride as the other Volkswagen Group hybrids, but justifies its price premium with its cabin, which features both superior materials and ergonomics.

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4. DS 4 E-Tense 225

So far, the plug-in hybrid hatchback market has been dominated by Volkswagen Group brands. While the other manufacturers were napping, they stuck their 1.4-litre hybrid powertrain in practically every car that would take it and made strides to capture the lucrative company car market. However, Stellantis is on the case too.

We’ve seen the combo of a 1.6-litre four-cylinder, a battery pack and an eight speed auto before in SUVs and crossovers like the DS7 Crossback, the Vauxhall Grandland X, as well as the Peugeot 508 saloon and estate. And now it has come to a premium hatchback in the form of the DS4. 

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We’ve yet to spend some more than a few hours with one, but a drive in the UK of a left-hand drive car augured well. The harshness we experienced in earlier versions of this powertrain appears to have been banished, DS’s style seems to be maturing, and the DS4 offers a smooth ride. You’ll need at least £37,000, though, which is more than an Audi A3. The DS is more powerful than the A3 40 TFSI e and does offer a bit more standard equipment, so if you want to avoid the German brands, the DS4 is one to watch. 

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5. Cupra Formentor

The Cupra Formentor is a crossover rather than a true hatchback, but with its hunkered-down driving position, rakish looks and surprisingly engaging handling, we’ll give it a pass.

Like its VW Group brethren, it’s available with 201 or 242bhp, but unlike most of the others, the faster version is worth having. When the full 295lb ft hits the front wheels, it can be a raucous experience, but it’s somehow fitting. The ride is remarkably compliant, and our photographers had no issues carting all their gear around in our long-term test Formentor.

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6. Peugeot 308 Hybrid 180

Tempted by the DS4, but put off by its high price? Peugeot is putting the same plug-in hybrid powertrain in the new 308, but is offering it with a lower power output and cheaper entry price. The Hybrid 180 version starts from £33,000, undercutting the Golf eHybrid. 

Our experience of the car on the international launch was positive: the 308 ably balances ride and handling, and the hybrid powertrain is quite refined. The infotainment system leaves something to be desired, though, and rear seat space is cramped. Once we spend some time with it in the UK, the 308 might just go up a few places in this list.

We have also tried the 308 Hybrid 225 and found the same qualities reflected. However, while the additional power is nice to have, it does inflate the price to a point that the 308 struggles to justify.

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7. Seat Leon eHybrid

You probably already know what we’re going to say here: the Seat Leon e-Hybrid shares most of its mechanical componentry with the Golf, Octavia, A3 and Formentor. However, it’s the least cohesive of them all. 

That’s not to say it’s a bad plug-in hybrid - not by any stretch. It just lacks a real stand-out feature, be it performance, comfort, space or a low price. It’s a good all-rounder, though. One thing it’s got going for it in favour of the Golf is that it’s available as an estate.

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Performance from the Leon’s 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 we experienced in the Golf.

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 the vim or vigour of the best hatchbacks, it nonetheless changes direction in a precise, controlled fashion that’s underwritten by good grip levels.

As well as the Seat Leon, there is also the Cupra Leon e-Hybrid. On paper, it sounds like it should give the Leon the performance and handling panache it’s missing, but in practice it’s too confused about what it wants to be. If it’s a hot hatchback, then it’s not engaging or agile enough, and if it’s just a quick PHEV, then it’s closer to the mark but still dynamically unsettled to the point that it’s not relaxed enough in daily driving.

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8. Kia XCeed PHEV

Kia used to offer a plug-in hybrid powertrain in the Ceed Sportswagon, the estate version of the Ceed hatchback. Sadly, that is no more and if you want a hybrid Ceed, you’ve no choice but to go for the Ceed-on-stilts, the XCeed.

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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.

Still, its 35-mile range is competitive for the class and puts it in the 12% BIK band. 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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9. Renault Megane E-Tech PHEV

Renault has recently facelifted its family hatch, the Megane. In the process, the car has gained plug-in hybrid power and has been renamed the Megane E-Tech PHEV. It’s not to be confused with the Megane E-Tech electric, which is an all-new, all-electric tall hatchback that will compete with the Volkswagen ID.3. The hybrid model will continue to be offered alongside the new car as a lower-cost option.

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The E-Tech PHEV uses quite a novel hybrid system that in practice, works quite well. When we road tested it, the Megane proved very economical indeed, and the interplay between the electric motor and combustion engine happens seamlessly. It could do with a bit more power, though.

The rest of the car is a more mixed bag. The Megane is still quite pleasant to drive, with relatively engaging handling and a plush ride. However, the interior in particular feels its age, both with regards to the amount of space on offer and the style, which is quite dated. 

With prices starting at less than £30,000 for a hatchback in Iconic trim, the Megane is very good value, which makes it easier to overlook some of its faults. It’s also available as Megane Sport Tourer E-Tech estate.

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10. Mercedes-Benz A250e

Clearly, the three German premium manufacturers have differing views on electrified hatchbacks. Audi got there very early with the A3 e-Tron and is now into its second generation of plug-in A3, but a plug-in BMW 1 Series is nowhere to be seen. Mercedes-Benz took a bit more time, but came up with the A250e in the end.

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.

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More's the pity, then, that the combustion engine is so noisy when it starts - and particularly when it revs. In other respects too, this should have been 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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