Are plug-in cars really as green as they claim? Report suggests not

Plug-in hybrid cars are worse for the environment than potential buyers are being led to believe, coughing out up to 12 times their claimed carbon dioxide emissions, new investigation claims.

Popular plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) from BMW, Volvo and Mitsubishi were tested for their pollution levels during different driving scenarios.

It found that, even when they have their batteries fully charged and used in the most optimum conditions, they can emit up to 89 per cent more CO2 than claimed figures suggest.

The damning report comes just days after Boris Johnson unveiled his Green Industrial Revolution plan, which was headlined by a sales ban for new petrol and diesel cars from 2030. 

'Fake electric cars': Tests of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, including the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV (pictured) has found they emit far more CO2 than official figures suggest

‘Fake electric cars’: Tests of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, including the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV (pictured) has found they emit far more CO2 than official figures suggest

However, PHEVs, like those tested in this latest investigation, are likely to get a stay of execution for further five years. 

The test of plug-in hybrid models was conducted by British firm Emissions Analytics on behalf of campaign group, Transport & Environment (T&E).

The three models reviewed were the BMW X5 45e, which costs from £66,451, the £50,695 Volvo X60 Recharge and the extremely popular £35,815 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV.

It found that CO2 emissions were significantly higher than consumers are being led to believe, even when the cars’ batteries were fully charged and they were driven in the most optimal conditions. 

In this scenario, the PHEVs emitted between 28 and 89 per cent more CO2 than advertised.

When driven with an empty battery and therefore reliant on their petrol engines, they emitted three to eight times more than official values suggest. 

And when used in battery-charging mode, with the combustion engine and regenerative braking system helping to replenish the batteries – which could become more common as motorists charge up ahead of using electric mode in low-emissions zones – the PHEVs emitted three to 12 times more, the analysis uncovered.

The BMW X5 xDrive45e was found to be the worst performer of the three PHEVs analysed

The BMW X5 xDrive45e was found to be the worst performer of the three PHEVs analysed 

The heavy BMW SUV is claimed to produce just 39g/km of CO2. However, T&E said in some scenarios it would produce up to 12 times that amount

The heavy BMW SUV is claimed to produce just 39g/km of CO2. However, T&E said in some scenarios it would produce up to 12 times that amount

Plug-in hybrids have become extremely popular among businesses and company car drivers in recent years because they provide significant tax breaks compared to a conventional petrol or diesel car.

Just over 50,000 PHEVs have been registered in the UK so far in 2020, with sales up to the end of October showing a year-on-year increase in demand of 91.5 per cent. 

However, user studies found that many drivers are not using them in the most efficient way.

Owners are failing to plug the vehicles into the mains or dedicated electric vehicle chargers to replenish the batteries and are instead relying on the combustion engine for the majority of journeys.

This makes plug-in hybrids far less economical as the combustion engine has the added burden of shifting heavy battery packs, which in turn burns more fuel than a conventional cars. 

Plug-in hybrids have become extremely popular among businesses and company car drivers in recent years because they provide significant tax breaks compared to a conventional petrol or diesel car

Plug-in hybrids have become extremely popular among businesses and company car drivers in recent years because they provide significant tax breaks compared to a conventional petrol or diesel car

Just over 50,000 PHEVs have been registered in the UK so far in 2020, with sales up to the end of October showing a year-on-year increase in demand of 91.5%

Just over 50,000 PHEVs have been registered in the UK so far in 2020, with sales up to the end of October showing a year-on-year increase in demand of 91.5%

Despite numerous test signalling that PHEVs are no greener than the latest conventional petrol and diesel models, the Prime Minister is expected to allow new plug-in hybrids to remain on sale in the UK until 2035 – five years after new petrol and diesel vehicles are removed from showrooms entirely.

As part of his 10-point Green Industrial Revolution announcement last week, he said new hybrid cars that can be ‘driven a significant distance without emitting carbon’ will remain on sale for another five years after new petrol and diesel vehicles are outlawed.

The Department for Transport has since confirmed there will be a government consultation to define what a ‘significant distance without emitting carbon’ is. 

Electric car jargon buster 

Read This is Money’s jargon buster to find out the differences between fully electric vehicles and the multiple types of hybrid cars – and also when the UK Government intends to outlaw sales of new models.

Of the three different types of hybrid cars – PHEVs, conventional hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) and mild-hybrid electric vehicles (MHEVs) – only plug-in versions have the capacity to drive distances of more than 20 miles without using their combustion engines. 

As a result, it’s widely expected that only new PHEVs will remain on sale from 2035. 

However, T&E says this latest study highlights that governments should not only end the availability of PHEVs sooner than planned but also remove generous tax breaks for plug-in hybrids that, it says, are ‘fuelling another emissions scandal’. 

Julia Poliscanova, senior director for clean vehicles at T&E, said: ‘Plug-in hybrids are fake electric cars, built for lab tests and tax breaks, not real driving.

‘Our tests show that even in optimal conditions, with a full battery, the cars pollute more than advertised. 

‘Unless you drive them softly, carbon emissions can go off the charts. Governments should stop subsidising these cars with billions in taxpayers’ money.’

Plug-in hybrids are fake electric cars, built for lab tests and tax breaks, not real driving 

Julia Poliscanova, Transport & Environment

In the study, Emissions Analytics found that once the battery is flat, the three plug-in hybrids can only drive between 7 and 14 miles using the petrol engine before they overshoot their official CO2 emissions. 

‘This is contrary to the misleading carmaker narrative that PHEVs on sale today are suited for long journeys,’ says T&E. 

‘In fact, they have to be charged much more frequently than battery electric cars, which can cover around 186 miles on a single charge,’ it adds.

While carmakers blame customers for using the engine too much, the PHEV models on sale today often lack the necessary EV power, range or charging speed, the report highlighted.

The investigation found that two of the three cars analysed – the BMW X5 and Volvo XC60 – cannot fast charge. 

The Mitsubishi Outlander’s manual also states that the petrol engine may start if the PHEV system is too hot or too cold, if quick acceleration is applied, or if the air conditioning is operating – all of which are very likely scenarios.

Boris Johnson last week said that new hybrid cars that can be 'driven a significant distance without emitting carbon' will remain on sale for another five years after new petrol and diesel vehicles are outlawed in 2030. This is most likely to be PHEV models only

Boris Johnson last week said that new hybrid cars that can be ‘driven a significant distance without emitting carbon’ will remain on sale for another five years after new petrol and diesel vehicles are outlawed in 2030. This is most likely to be PHEV models only

T&E says PHEVs should be outlawed sooner along with their tax breaks due to the higher CO2 emissions they produce than official figures suggest - based on its own test

T&E says PHEVs should be outlawed sooner along with their tax breaks due to the higher CO2 emissions they produce than official figures suggest – based on its own test

Is Britain ready for electric cars? We talk driving, charging and buying

The car itself isn’t going anywhere – just the way it is propelled – so how much difference will the 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel cars make?

 Is the rise of the electric car inevitable anyway and even with Brexit is it more important what Germany, France and the rest of Europe choose to do, than what the UK decides? On this podcast, we talk electric cars: from what the shift to them means, to what they are like to drive, charge and live with. 

Press play above or listen (and please subscribe if you like the podcast) at Apple Podcasts, Acast, Spotify and Audioboom or visit our This is Money Podcast page 

Julia Poliscanova concluded: ‘Car makers blame drivers for plug-in hybrids’ high emissions. But the truth is that most PHEVs are just not well made. 

‘They have weak electric motors, big, polluting engines, and usually can’t fast charge. 

‘The only way plug-ins are going to have a future is if we completely overhaul how we reward them in EU car CO2 tests and regulations. 

‘Otherwise PHEVs will soon join diesel in the dustbin of history.’

Selling plug-in hybrids makes it easier for carmakers to meet their EU car CO2 targets as PHEVs are currently given additional credits. 

T&E said the EU should end this weakening of the regulation when it reviews the targets for 2025 and 2030 next year.

Despite the UK’s divorce from the EU at the end of next month, ministers have committed to matching the CO2 targets outlined in Brussels as part of efforts to cut air pollution and push ahead with a transition to cleaner vehicles.

The £50,695 Volvo X60 Recharge emits, according to official figures, between 55 and 73g/km CO2. However, Emissions Analytics said the reality is they are far more carbon emitting under real world driving conditions

The £50,695 Volvo X60 Recharge emits, according to official figures, between 55 and 73g/km CO2. However, Emissions Analytics said the reality is they are far more carbon emitting under real world driving conditions

The Mitisubishi Outlander, which is the most popular PHEV in the UK and costs just over £35,000, is claimed to emit just 46g/km CO2, according to the most up-to-date official tests

The Mitisubishi Outlander, which is the most popular PHEV in the UK and costs just over £35,000, is claimed to emit just 46g/km CO2, according to the most up-to-date official tests

Responding to the study, Mike Hawes, SMMT chief executive, said: ‘There will always be a difference between lab tests and real-world use, but the internationally regulated WLTP and RDE tests prove that plug-in hybrids deliver substantial emission reductions compared to pure petrol or diesel equivalents.

‘PHEVs provide flexibility, with the ability to drive in zero emission mode for typically 25 to 40 miles – more than ample given that 94 per cent of UK car journeys are less than 25 miles. 

‘This makes PHEVs perfect for urban commutes while avoiding “range anxiety” over longer journeys, reducing emissions and improving air quality. 

‘We can’t comment on unverified, unregulated tests by commercial entities, but even these have found that PHEVs emit at least 25 to 45 per cent less CO2 than their pure ICE [Internal Combustion Engine] counterparts, and of course, they emit 100 per cent less when driven in battery mode.’

He added: ‘PHEV range and performance will continue to improve meaning that, for many drivers, they are the essential stepping stone to a fully electric vehicle – as recognised by the government, which has excluded them from the 2030 end of sale date for petrol and diesel cars and vans. 

‘Technologies such as geofencing can help incentivise drivers to charge their vehicles – as will massive investment in growing the national charging network, which will also support battery electric vehicle uptake.’

BMW hit back at the study in a response to This is Money. 

‘The WLTP test is designed by the international regulators as a standardised method of comparing vehicle efficiency to allow direct comparison between different cars and different technologies. These tests show clearly that PHEV technology, when charged regularly as intended, can save significant fuel consumption and emissions over the equivalent petrol or diesel models,’ a spokesperson for the German brand said. 

‘The tests are conducted in a laboratory environment to ensure that all vehicles are tested in exactly the same way and under the same conditions and can be compared. 

The internationally regulated WLTP and RDE tests prove that plug-in hybrids deliver substantial emission reductions compared to pure petrol or diesel equivalents 

‘While we cannot comment on the test method used in this report, it is no surprise that different emissions figures are reached as on-the-road driving conditions are infinitely variable.

They added: Plug-in hybrid technology is important to get customers used to electric driving and demonstrate how practical electrified driving is in every-day life. 

‘For millions of drivers, today’s PHEV technology already offers the opportunity to cover substantial parts of the daily commute, if not all of it, using only electric power, whilst having the flexibility of the combustion engine available for longer drives when required. 

‘With technology evolving and expanding charging infrastructure, the customer benefits of PHEV technology will continue to grow.’

Volvo also told us: ‘All Volvo cars are certified and fully comply with existing emissions legislation. The existing emissions testing regime provides a useful industry standard that allows customers to make comparisons between cars, but real-world variations will apply. 

‘Plug-in hybrids have zero, or close to zero, tailpipe emissions when driven in pure electric mode and our customer field data shows that Volvo plug-in hybrids are driven in pure electric mode on an average of 40 per cent of the time, making them a crucial step in our path to full electrification. 

‘Plug-in hybrids are an important transitional technology on the journey towards zero emission mobility, and an important part of the mobility portfolio of the near future.’

A Mitsubishi spokesperson also commented on the research, telling This is Money: ‘Our published MPG and CO2 figures are the numbers that are produced as a result of a standardised WLTP test that was specifically designed for PHEVs. 

‘Independent tests can produce unreliable/variable figures depending on conditions and a variety of other factors and we naturally contest any findings where we have no oversight of the testing or methodology. 

‘Disregarding a PHEV’s electrical powertrain during testing, for example, is like testing a petrol or diesel car and only using three of its gears.

‘There is mention of the fact that our PHEV can be driven distances up to 28 miles in pure EV mode between charges, well within the average daily commute in England and Wales for example, meaning drivers will effectively use no fuel and produce no tailpipe emissions.’ 

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