Alternative fuel cars, those with electric or hybrid powertrains, were in the ascendancy during the March registration rush, an enthusiasm fuelled in part by the desire to take advantage of their road tax-saving abilities.
That saving has largely evaporated. It now costs £130 to tax anything alternative fuelled that’s not classed as zero emissions after the first year – a diesel or petrol car costs £140.
The whole system has been stood on its head exactly at the time when diesel cars have become unacceptable to all those who don’t actually drive them. But is there more to driving a hybrid than saving £10 a year on your road tax?
The only surefire way to find out is to back-to-back identical cars in normal driving – identical, that is, apart from one being a conventional diesel and the other a plug-in hybrid.
Step forward the Kia Optima, a saloon that looks swoopy because it mimics the rear lines of a hatchback despite having only a waist-height bootlid.
Battery gubbins takes up stowage space and occupies the spare wheel well but there’s still 307 litres of stowage. What’s really lacking is a rear wiper – this car definitely needs one!
For most owners, the big test when comparing a diesel to a hybrid is how they differ in fuel consumption. Both test cars had automatic gearboxes, an option on the diesel, standard kit for the hybrid.
It might seem strange to say this, but during its stay with us the hybrid was never plugged into the mains although to do so was straightforward. It arrived with a depleted battery and that’s how it stayed. You may wonder why that would be so but there’s no contesting that using its 33 miles range on battery power makes it cheaper to run than a diesel or petrol car.
What’s more important is what happens when you get to 34 miles, the battery alone can no longer run the car, and you must rely on the two-litre petrol engine to keep the car rolling.
It would be natural to assume that in these circumstances the diesel would be better. That’s certainly what we thought would be the case and it only goes to show that it’s best never to prejudge such things.
Driven as we always do, the diesel managed a slightly disappointing 39-40mpg even when we made some longer runs that would normally help massage the figures. The hybrid amazed us by never delivering less than 49mpg and frequently staying above 50mpg.
How’s this done? Quite simply it’s down to energy recovery, the ability for the engine to charge the battery pack is part of it but more important is the battery charging that occurs when you lift off to slow the car or actually hit the brakes.
The in-car graphics illustrate the energy hitting the battery pack, ready to come back into play when you demand power again. It sounds a bit like perpetual motion but obviously there is energy loss over time.
What the experience shows is that a plug-in hybrid is now a real world alternative to an electric car. True, its range on electricity alone is far shorter but it’s still enough to cope with the commuting and hops to the shops that make up much of a modern car’s usage.
When it comes to longer trips, the plug-in doesn’t need to stop every 100-150 miles for a top up at a charging point during which you’ll probably spend more on refreshments than you will on the recharge if only to alleviate guilt feelings while occupying the parking space! The plug-in hybrid lets you have the range of a normal car so you can finish the trip in one hit without suffering range anxiety – the constant worry over whether or not the battery has enough juice left in it.
The hybrid powertrain is also more pleasant to use in the Optima. The diesel car had dreadfully sharp brakes that it was difficult to master while the hybrid’s system was far gentler. Both cars drove and handled well.
During acceleration, the diesel was quite raucous while the hybrid let out a happy growl and a noticeable surge could be felt as the electric motor kicked in.
If you’re thinking of going hybrid or pure electric with your next car change, forget all that bull about zero emissions electric cars, currently the biggest lie in the motor industry because your pollution still exists although you can’t smell it, and get a plug-in hybrid instead.
Maurice and Annette Hardy
Car: Kia Optima PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle)
Does it fit your ego…
0-60mph: 9.1 secs
Top speed: 119mph
Torque: 276 lb ft
…and your wallet…
Price: £31,495 after £2,500 Government grant
CO2 emissions: 37 g/km
Best bits: optimistic for the future