Car buyers balancing price, fuel economy and carbon emissions face a confusing range of choices – so which one’s right for you?
Drivers looking for an environmentally friendly car that is cheap to run now enjoy a bewildering choice of vehicles, engines and sources of power.
There are electric-only cars, plug-in and normal hybrids, and even diesel models that promise (on paper at least) to do 80 miles per gallon (mpg). The car that’s best for your wallet will largely be determined by the type of journeys you make.
The key statistic to look out for, apart from mpg, is the grammes of CO2 per km that the vehicle emits.
Vehicle tax is now set according to a car’s emissions, with the greenest cars that emit less than 131g/km qualifying for zero tax.
If you want to drive in London’s congestion zone and avoid paying the daily £10 charge, your car must only emit 100g/km or less. But as cars become cleaner, that level is likely to be reduced.
And before you buy a car based on the manufacturers’ claims of fuel economy, check to see what it will achieve in reality. The carmakers are masters at making the figures look good in test conditions but cars rarely manage to match that performance when being driven on the road. So what are the options?
The Toyota Prius, which for years dominated the hybrid market in the UK, has some new rivals – and it’s no surprise to learn they are also made by Toyota. The company has just launched the plug-in Prius, which is a serious rival to the Vauxhall Ampera and one that is at least packed with proven technology.
Once charged, the Prius can be driven for about 15 miles using electricity only. After that it becomes a standard Prius hybrid in that the 1.8-litre petrol engine drives the car and recharges the battery.
The car claims to score an incredibly economical 134.5mpg with just 49g/km CO2 emissions, but this comes at a price, with the basic model at £27,000. Its stand-out feature is that it can be fully charged in just 90 minutes from a standard household supply.
It is best for short urban commutes, but with the option to drive any distance using the conventional hybrid engine. Run it on electric power all week and you could be saving £10 a day in commuting costs against the running of a standard 35mpg petrol car – more if you drive in central London.
Meanwhile, if it is too small, Toyota has also come up with the first seven-seat hybrid that will appeal to those with big families or running taxi firms. Toyota’s Prius + has just gone on sale at £26,195 and the basic model is London congestion charge exempt. The official fuel economy figure is 68.9mpg but you are more likely to get 55mpg-58mpg in real life if you drive it carefully.
The reliability of Toyota’s hybrid technology has certainly been proven, with many cars covering 400,000 miles without major problems.
Hybrids are perfect for cities as the electric engine gets the car going and once it is moving the petrol engine takes over. And every time you brake, the energy is fed back into the battery.
For those who want a hybrid but don’t want to spend close to £30,000, the Honda Insight is a cheaper alternative. It has a 1.3-litre petrol engine, does a claimed 68.9mpg (again 55mpg is more likely) and it costs £19,535.
Note that hybrids only make financial sense for those who do plenty of stop/start drives in urban areas. If you spend your life hacking up and down the motorway, a conventional diesel is a better option.
100% electric cars
Despite great advances in recent years, cars that run entirely on battery power still struggle for acceptance. The Nissan Leaf (£25,990) may have set new standards, but sadly has yet to attract buyers in any significant numbers. Cars that can travel just 90 miles rarely meet most consumer’s needs – as Mark King found out when he test drove the soon-to-be-launched electric BMW Mini E.
If you run an estate agency or florist’s business and whizz round a 30-mile radius from base, they make perfect sense and can be a money saver. Running costs will be a few pounds a week in electricity. However, bear in mind the cost of upgrading your home electricity supply to achieve fast-charging – at a price of around £700.
The real downside to electric cars is that they are unsuitable if you need to travel long distances.
For some car experts, diesel hybrids that combine a diesel engine and an electric motor are the long-term solution to getting vehicles to go further on fewer gallons of fuel. Last spring, the first diesel hybrid, the Peugeot 3008, went on sale and since then almost 10,000 have been sold in Europe. Available here for £27,000, this crossover-type model has an electric motor powering the back wheels and a standard diesel engine driving the front. This large car comes with a claimed 75mpg and you should get close to 60mpg in real life. CO2 emissions are 99g/km.
Provided the battery has sufficient charge, as you set off the 3008 will run in electric mode only for a maximum of 2.5 miles up to 31mph; it can also maintain a cruise speed up to 40mph on battery alone. Someone abandoning a conventional 30mpg car in favour of a 3008 will save £1,300 annually if they drive 14,000 miles a year.
This car will appeal to gadget fans as there are no end of buttons to press and different driving modes, including four-wheel drive. It cleverly decides which driving mode is most economical. Company car drivers will enjoy its snow-beating ability and low car tax.
However before you hand over your cash, be aware the cheapest petrol 3008 is almost £10,000 less and even the basic 1.6-litre diesel costs just £18,895. That delivers 54mpg in the combined cycle and emits 135g/km.
Meanwhile, from November, those with £40,000 to spend will be able to get their hands on the latest luxury diesel hybrid, Mercedes-Benz’s E300 BlueTEC. This car is reportedly getting very close to its claimed 65.7mpg, although with emissions figures of 109g/km you will still have to pay to drive in central London.
Mercedes says that unlike many other hybrids, there is no loss of cabin space in this vehicle compared with the same conventional model. Drivers opting for this car will spend almost an extra £10,000 but save £500-£600 a year in lower motoring costs on an average mileage of 16,000. There’s an estate version too.
Plenty of people reading this will wonder why they should invest in a hybrid car when standard diesel cars offer low CO2 emissions and a claimed 80mpg. The excellent Kia C’eed 1.6 CRDi costs £16,500, claims 74mpg and, like its hybrid rivals, comes with no road tax. Meanwhile, VW claims its Golfs will do almost 50mpg in 1.2-litre petrol mode or 74mpg in “bluemotion” diesel form, and there are several cars making similar claims.
While motorists will rarely get close to the fuel economy claims of the manufacturers, these cars will match most hybrid’s consumption figures. According to car website Honestjohn.co.uk, which produces real-life fuel consumption data, most diesel drivers are doing well if they get 80% of the claimed figures, and will be doing very well to get over 60mpg – which is still respectable – and offers significantly lower fuel bills for most. A 14,000-mile new diesel car owner would save £1,200 if switching from a 30mpg petrol car.
The downside is that diesel currently costs 8p to 10p a litre more than unleaded petrol. Modern diesel cars have also become something of a lottery. In a bid to clean up their emissions, cars now feature diesel particulate filters. These do the job, but they do not like a diet of urban journeys where hybrids thrive. They are very expensive to fix and the internet is awash with diesel car owners who bought cars on the promise of great mpg, but are then hit with large maintenance bills. If you mostly drive around urban areas, green car buyers would be better off with a hybrid.
That said, if you drive at least 16,000 miles a year on long trips, the most fuel-efficient diesel is the car to go for. Diesel cars do well from the current car tax structure. When comparing new models, check the showroom car tax information.
Star choice: Toyota Yaris hybrid
For not much more than it will cost you to buy a standard five-door petrol model – a shade under £15,000 compared with around £12,800 – Money’s top pick of green car purchases is the Toyota Yaris hybrid which offers close to 80mpg. It won’t be big enough for everyone, but if you need something that will get you to work and the shops while handling the school run and the occasional longer journey, this is it.
With a CO2 emission count of 80g/km, it is likely to be exempt from the London congestion charge for some time. Someone switching from a 30mpg car to the hybrid Yaris and doing 12,000 miles a year could save £1,400 in lower fuel bills alone. As petrol prices rise – and oil prices are already on their way up – the savings only grow bigger.
We haven’t driven it, but reports from those that have say it is good, and, crucially, manages to get close to its claimed consumption figure. If you are in the market for a new, small, eco-friendly car with low running costs, try one out. On paper it can’t be beaten.
Its main rival, the hybrid Honda Jazz, is also worth looking at as it is slightly bigger, although those in the know suggest that it doesn’t quite beat the Yaris.
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