The first whiff of gunpowder has been smelled in the stand-off between car makers and environmental campaigners as plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) start to make a serious impact on the sales charts.
PHEVs are essential for reducing manufacturers’ fleet- average CO2 emissions under tough new European Union laws (which the UK has chosen to copy from 2021), thanks to their incredibly impressive official fuel economy figures. But environmental groups are questioning more than ever whether they achieve anything like those figures in reality.
In a recent report that collated real-world figures from various studies, pressure group Transport and Environment described plug-in hybrids as a “con” and “fake electric cars”. It found their real average CO2 output was closer to 117g/km, against a quoted average of 44g/km. “PHEV emissions are much more comparable to those of conventional cars than [those of] electric cars,” it said.
The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) reached a similar conclusion with research firm Fraunhofer, which crunched a wider range of real-world fuel economy figures available globally. Those figures showed that PHEV economy was between two and four times worse than claimed. Far fewer electric-only miles are driven than assumed in official tests, the report said.
PHEV sales in the UK, as in Europe, are largely incentive-driven. The government ended grants for privately bought PHEVs in 2018 but this April changed its company car tax rules to make a PHEV the car to have if you want low tax bills but don’t fancy an electric car.
Of the 42,277 PHEVs sold to the end of this September, less than a third went to private buyers, data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) reveals.
Choose a Range Rover P400e, for example, and the monthly tax bill for a 40% taxpayer is half the £1093 incurred by an equivalent diesel. It’s even better for the BMW X5 xDrive45e, which costs a 40% taxpayer just £136 a month, compared with £761 for the equivalent diesel.