Not long ago, hybrids were the reserve of those living and working under the congestion charge, environmentally conscious school run mums and minicab drivers looking to save some money on fuel.
Since then, the hybrid market has burst wide open, with niches within the hybrid niche, from conventional petrol-electric hybrids to plug-in and diesel hybrids.
With an ever-growing choice of hybrids on the market and the premium they often carry over their non-hybrid counterparts, knowing which contenders to consider and avoid can make the difference between a fuel-sipping investment, and a costly mistake.
Here are the best hybrids on offer:
Mercedes-Benz C-Class Hybrid
The C-Class hybrid recently won a twin test against its closest rival, the Lexus IS300h. Despite Lexus’s veteran status in the world of hybrid drives, the C-Class’s ultra-low CO2 emissions of 94g/km place it firmly below the lowest tax threshold and provides running costs which the IS could only hope to compete with.
The high-quality interior of the Mercedes Hybrid deserves particular attention too, trouncing all competition with its premium finish. It’s let down slightly by a fidgety ride and wind noise from the door mirrors, but these are only minor niggles when presented with the impressive fit and finish.
There’s no shortage of boot space, matching its closest rival, the BMW 3 Series, at 480 litres, and there’s also plenty of leg- and headroom inside. Even the entry-level SE-spec C-Class gets synthetic leather seats, rain-sensing wipers, a reversing camera, 16in alloys, climate and cruise controls and DAB radio, making the C-Class a decent value offering in a sector plagued by costly optional extras.
Sport trim offers a decent portion of kit over entry-level SE cars, and the C200 Bluetec is manual only, so most will opt for the C220 for its automatic transmission.
Pick of the range: C220 Bluetec Sport
Lexus were criticised for refusing to include a diesel in their GS lineup, but the hybrids offered in place of these have proven themselves to be worthy if left-field choices in the executive car market.
The 300h is the entry-level GS hybrid, with a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine and supplementary electric motor. The 220bhp is plenty for a car of its class and makes for a comfortable cruiser, with decent claimed official economy and emissions figures to boot. The entry-level SE model has claimed CO2 emissions of 109g/km and returns 60.1mpg, although its cloth interior, lack of navigation and 17in alloys may push buyers towards the Luxury spec. Doing so brings emissions up and fuel economy down, due to the 18in wheels on the Luxury, though.
Refinement is top-notch, being smoother and quieter than most rivals, with only harsh acceleration breaking the GS300h’s composure. At low speeds and when cruising, the GS is eerily quiet; although some mottled British roads may cause noise issues.
Premium spec carries a hefty £12k premium over the relatively Spartan entry-level SE-spec while the F-Sport’s alloys hamper low emissions and fuel economy, so plump for the Luxury-spec for the best all-rounder.
Pick of the range: GS300h Luxury
Mercedes-Benz E-Class Hybrid
The E-Class hybrid impressed with its combination of refinement and low running costs. Its closest BMW rival sits a full five bands higher than the E300 in company car tax and trounces rivals on price for company car buyers.
Another diesel-electric hybrid from Mercedes-Benz, the combination of a 2.1-litre four-cylinder diesel engine and electric motor provides compelling claimed figures of 68.9mpg and just 109g/km of CO2. Below-par driving dynamics and a lumpy brake response mar the total package slightly, but those looking for a frugal everyday E63 AMG are in the wrong place.
The quietly competent E-Class’s healthy serving of equipment will not disappoint; with sat-nav, a leather-effect interior with heated and electrically adjustable front seats, Bluetooth and USB, DAB radio, automatic wipers and LED lights as standard from bottom-spec SE trim and above, the list of optional extras ought to remain short.
We prefer the hybrid E-Class to its petrol- and diesel-only variants, while the Bluetec Hybrid AMG Sport adds too much to the price for too little in return; stick with the SE and add extras if you have to.
Pick of the range: E300 Bluetec Hybrid SE
It may have been pipped in our twin test by the Mercedes C-Class hybrid, but the IS300h is not to be dismissed; it’s strikingly designed, and at low speeds the Lexus can run almost exclusively on electric power, meaning unrivalled refinement around town.
Although diesel rivals are more at home on the motorway, Lexus’s petrol-hybrid pedigree hasn’t let it down on the IS300h; claimed figures of 67.3mpg and 97g/km of CO2 keep running costs at a minimum, especially considering Lexus’ formidable reputation for reliability.
Just like the GS, the larger wheels of higher-spec models dent the fuel economy, with the 18in alloys of the Sport denting the fuel economy by 5.7mpg over the SE. The ride quality of the IS is better with smaller alloys, too, but the generous equipment of the SE spec and the few trinkets brought by Luxury, Sport and Advance spec means higher trim levels aren’t worth the higher running costs.
Pick of the range: IS300h SE
The third Lexus in our list, the RX is a hybrid SUV that provides an alternative to big diesel 4x4s, and the result is one of the cleanest cars in the segment. Not only does the RX cost little to run when compared to others in this market, residual values are strong and deals with online brokers can yield impressive savings.
Claimed fuel economy of 44.8mpg and CO2 emissions of 15g/km are impressive, more so when considering that on short journeys, it can run on battery power alone. As with other Lexuses, this means silent driving until the petrol engine kicks back in, as well as a level of refinement that few others can match.
The RX came out on top of the 4×4 pile in the JD Power customer satisfaction survey, and despite an interior which falls behind rivals in terms of plushness, has oodles of safety kit as standard, including 10 airbags and laminated side glass.
Top-spec Premier trim improves the ride but isn’t worth the £11,000 premium over the entry-level SE, which already has keyless entry, Bluetooth, xenon headlights, dual-zone climate control and rain-sensing wipers as standard.
Pick of the range: RX450h SE
Toyota’s Prius technology finds itself in a more conventionally-shaped package in the Auris hatch. Its staidness in comparison to the rest of those on this list should outweigh its capability and status as an incredibly cheap company car option too.
Our Reader Test Team praised the Auris’s roomy cockpit, and the interior space is on par with rivals in its class, if somewhat behind the class leader. A relaxed driving style is rewarded with decent refinement, although this isn’t always possible; when driving urgently petrol engine is louder than it ought to be. Thankfully, the way the Auris drives is much improved over the previous model.
The low running costs are down to the fuel-sipping 1.8-litre hybrid motor with CVT transmission, which achieves a claimed 78.5mpg while pumping out just 79g/km CO2 under Hybrid Active guise. The low running costs are accompanied by a low buying cost too, so don’t expect Toyota dealers to budge far below the advertised price.
With those cheap running costs and low starting price comes the temptation to opt for the bells-and-whistles Auris Excel, but private buyers will find even lower-end Auris hybrids expensive, so it’s best to stick to lower-down specs, with as much kit to match competitors.
Pick of the range: Auris 1.8 VVT-I Icon Hybrid
It’s impossible to talk about hybrids without a nod to the Prius. From humble beginnings, many attribute the initial success of the hybrid to the Prius; now gearing up to enter its fourth generation, the Prius’ steadfast reliability and mass market appeal made it an enticing prospect in its own right, as well as a bonafide diesel substitute.
The official claimed C02 figure of 89g/km means VED is absolutely free, and although the official government 76.4mpg fuel economy figure may be a little on the generous side, users regularly report 65mpg and up from Priuses.
Five people fit remarkably comfortably in the Prius thanks to the flat floor and lots of head- and leg room, and the sizable boot means there’s room for their bags as well.
The Prius is lavished with abundant safety kit, including anti-whiplash headrests and a driver’s knee airbag, and the bottom-spec T3 includes electric windows all round, Bluetooth, a head-up display and air conditioning. The plug-in Prius will set you back £11,400 on top of the T3 which, although expensive sounding, can save drivers considerably at the fuel pumps.
Pick of the range: Prius T3
Toyota Yaris Hybrid
Toyota continued its multi-segment assault on the hybrid market with the Yaris Hybrid three years ago. Although still in its first-generation infancy, Toyota’s littlest hybrid is a convincing mix of supermini nimbleness and hybrid efficiency.
Those in the market for an inexpensive company car will be pleased to know that the Yaris Hybrid is one of the cheapest potential company cars on sale; it sits comfortably in the 5% band for company car tax thanks to a tiny claimed CO2 output of just 75g/km, with a real-world economy figure of around 60mpg.
Inside, the Yaris has been given the once-over by Toyota’s European division, so soft-touch plastics have been used on the dashboard and doors.
Niggles like lower-rent plastics in some places detract from the overall quality finish of the Yaris, but on the whole the switchgear feels solid. The hybrid specs get more kit than the standard Icon and Excel trims due to their higher price points, but the Excel hybrid is a bit too pricey for a supermini to really recommend. As is the rule with all economy-focused cars, avoid larger wheels for better emissions and fuel consumption figures.
Pick of the range: Yaris 1.5 VVT-I Hybrid Icon
By Jimi Beckwith