hybrid vs diesels which is best?

energy crisis

hybrid vs diesels which is best?

Have hybrid cars overtaken diesel models if you're looking to save money? Andy Enright takes a look

Hybrids or diesels - which is best? It's a bitter debate and manufacturers who have committed either way will spend hours and millions trying to convince you. It's about time then, that the question was addressed from an independent viewpoint. Is it worth buying hybrid or do diesel cars still have the edge in terms of economy and ecology?

The Case For Diesel

Possibly the biggest factor favouring diesel right now is choice. If you want a hybrid car you're going to be limited to a handful of models. More are arriving in due course but there's a diesel option for most mainstream cars and they're often extremely good. This will swing the balance for the vast majority of customers tinkering with the idea of better economy.

Upfront cost is another area where diesel cars have the edge. Let's use Toyota's Prius as an example. The entry level T3 model costs £21,600 which is a good deal more than the sort of family hatch against which we're comparing it with here - roughly £3,000 in most instances for an equivalently powered diesel. That's a fair slug of capital you're tying up that you'd be able to spend on other assets if you chose diesel.

Diesel cars also drive better than most hybrid models. You'd need to choose a high end model like a Lexus GS450h or an RX400h to get a hybrid that's fun to drive. For the most part, hybrids merely remind you that sacrifice is an essential constituent of saving the planet. There are no hybrids currently that are remotely comparable to a car like a BMW 330d or the excellent Alfa 159 2.4 JTD, two diesel engines that will paint a huge grin on the face of any enthusiast driver but will still return great fuel figures.

Whisper it but diesel cars will even return better fuel figures than a hybrid. Show me a production hybrid car that will, in typical mixed driving conditions, return better fuel figures than a diesel Citroen C1 and I'll eat my hat. I'd be prepared to put a few quid on many larger diesel cars being better than hybrids in terms of fuel economy, again on typically mixed routes.

Many customers are still unsure about the ongoing durability of petrol-electric hybrids and seek solace in the fact that the diesel engine has been around for over a century, in which time most teething problems have been well and truly ironed out. There's also a residual doubt that because hybrid technology has yet to mature, many manufacturers are selling hybrids at a loss. The joint chief executive of Renault and Nissan has publicly described hybrids as a "terrible business proposition." PSA Peugeot-Citroen's boss was in agreement, stating that hybrids "do not have the long-term economical prospects to produce the same results [as diesel]. That's the view of the motor industry within Europe." Do you want to be stuck with the motoring equivalent of the Betamax video cassette recorder? Me neither.

The Case For Hybrid Technology

Let's not kid ourselves. No matter how depressing the future looks, one thing is for sure. The roads aren't going to become any less congested than they are already. The Government may try to price us out of our vehicles but how many of us would prefer to be sitting next to a 24 stone sweating oaf on a train than listening to your own music in air conditioned comfort in our cars. The answer is to produce cars that are economical, environmentally friendly and work well in urban environments, exactly the description of a hybrid petrol-electric car.

If you need to drive in the urban environment, a hybrid is a virtual no-brainer. A car like Toyota's Prius or Honda's Insight is quite simply the best tool for the job. Let's make sure we're comparing eggs with eggs. A diesel car fitted with an automatic gearbox (which these hybrids have and which are essential for in-town civility) won't make anything like the fuel figures you see posted in magazines for its petrol counterpart. If stop-start traffic is the order of the day, even the best diesels will struggle to match a hybrid car. The Prius' eerily smooth electric progress is certainly a good deal more serene than even the most refined diesel engines too.

The matter becomes even more cut and dried when congestion charging is taken into account. Given that the London scheme has been deemed a success by Chairman Ken, it's only a matter of time before such charging zones crop up in other congested urban centres. The 100 per cent exemption for hybrid cars in London is a smart political move, encouraging environmental awareness at little cost, for the time being at least. Rumours that big hybrids that emit more carbon dioxide, such as the Lexus RX400h, will soon have to pay the charge have yet to be substantiated.

There's no doubt that hybrid cars are greener than diesels. Carbon dioxide figures are lower and carcinogenic particulate emissions are way lower. Future legislation will mean all cars will need to be fitted with particulate traps but these trap, at best, 90 per cent of particulates, the diesel car still churning out a far higher figure than a hybrid. Company car tax also tends to favour hybrids over diesels. Bigger hybrid models such as the Lexus GS450h concentrate on power and driver enjoyment while still retaining some green credentials. What's not to like about more power, effectively free?

Verdict

For the time being at least, diesel probably has the edge for most people, most of the time although that may not necessarily remain so for too much longer. Petrol-electric hybrids are just a stepping stone to the goal of zero emission hydrogen fuel cell technology but they have a very real place in today's car market. It looks like the best of both worlds will come in the not so distant future in the shape of the diesel-electric hybrids like the Peugeot 3008 diesel-electric hybrid and the Volvo diesel-electric hybrid V60 Plug-In. There will be circumstances in the meantime when a hybrid car will work out better in some circumstances but right now I'd still be tempted to go for the black pump.