7 min read

The big debate: petrol, diesel, hybrid or electric?

Hannah Salih
18 September 2017

Want to know what difference your fuel choice could make to your wallet or the world? Here’s a rundown of the pros and cons of each.

The government has recently announced it will ban petrol and diesel car sales from 2040. This may be quite a long way off, but the type of fuel you go for is still something to consider before you buy.

Whether you go for the more traditional options of petrol and diesel, or opt for a forward-looking electric or hybrid car, it's going to have an affect on your general driving experience, your wallet and the environment. So how do you decide?

Petrol

While sales dropped in July, petrol cars are still very popular in the UK.

The pros:

  • Cheap to buy. Petrol cars typically have the lowest upfront cost. This applies to whether you're buying a pre-loved car or a brand new car.

  • Petrol is cheap and easy to refuel. Filling up only takes a few minutes and the price you see on the petrol station forecourt is usually less than diesel.

  • Petrol engines give a smoother drive. Many people find petrol cars the nicest cars to drive, they tend to have more power and quicker acceleration than diesel engines.

The cons:

  • Poor fuel economy. Even though petrol is cheaper per litre than diesel, petrol engines usually consume more fuel per mile than other engines. For instance, according to Which?’s fuel efficiency calculator, fuelling a petrol Ford Fiesta costs £204 a year more than the diesel version.

  • Depreciation. Cars with petrol engines tend to lose their value more quickly than other engine types. This means you may get less if you choose to re-sell your car. This is mainly because petrol is less fuel efficient and so causes more wear and tear to the engine.

  • It's bad for the environment. Burning petrol produces harmful greenhouse gases, and petrol engines emit higher levels of Carbon Dioxide than diesel cars.

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Diesel

Diesel cars used to be the environmentally-conscious driver’s choice. For a time, the government even promoted them as a clean alternative. However, it was discovered that many diesel cars weren’t actually as environmentally-friendly as first thought, and so their popularity has dropped slightly.

The pros:

  • Diesel is more fuel efficient. Diesel engines consume less fuel per mile, especially over longer distances. This means, they work out cheaper than petrol, even though diesel costs more than petrol per litre.

  • Diesel cars need fewer repairs. Diesel engines are generally considered sturdier and more reliable than their petrol-fuelled friends, which means less frequent trips to the mechanic.

  • Lower C02 emissions. Even though diesel cars aren't as environmentally friendly as once thought, they still emit lower levels of the greenhouse gas, Carbon Dioxide, than petrol cars.

The cons:

  • It's more expensive. Diesel cars are more expensive to buy and insure. It takes at least five years to make this cost back through fuel savings. What’s more, while they seldom break down, any repairs can come with a hefty price tag. Plus the fuel itself is more expensive.

  • They’re not great for driving in cities. Modern diesel cars have a diesel particulate filter (DPF), which turns harmful chemicals to ash. If you don’t drive at motorway speeds regularly, this can clog and damage the engine. It's also been linked to health conditions like Asthma.

Hybrid

Hybrids have a traditional engine (usually petrol) and an electric motor. Older hybrids like the original Toyota Prius use electricity when you’re driving at lower speeds and switch to fuel at higher speeds. Newer hybrids - called plug-in hybrids - use electricity until the battery drops, then switch to fuel. They were properly introduced to market in the early 2000s so they're a relatively new option. However, they're becoming increasingly popular and the cars continue to improve.

The pros:

  • They’re better for the environment. While not 100% emission-free, hybrids are much cleaner than petrol and diesel, because they’re mainly powered by electricity. They also use less fuel.

  • They’re eligible for government incentives. Plug-in hybrids bought before April 2017 are exempt from road tax for life. Those bought after 1 April 2017 pay road tax. However, depending on CO2 emissions, the tax can still work out cheaper than petrol or diesel. You can also get a government grant to cover part of the upfront cost of the car.

  • Lower maintenance costs. Due to the way they’re built, hybrid car engines suffer from less wear and tear. This means fewer trips to the mechanic.

The cons:

  • They’re expensive cars to buy. Even with a government grant, hybrids are expensive. The maximum grant is currently £4,500. But eligible cars are priced well over £25,000.

  • Charging stations are harder to find. Rapid charging stations are still quite hard to find on British motorways. Charging also takes time - usually about 30 minutes. By contrast, refuelling a petrol or diesel car takes less than 5 minutes.

  • They’re not good for long distances. Hybrids are mainly designed for city driving, so they lose efficiency at higher speeds. According to Emission Analytics, they’re about as fuel efficient as diesel engines on the motorway.

Electric

Electric cars work entirely on electricity. Sales are up globally, but only 0.2% of cars worldwide are currently electric. But watch this space.

The pros:

  • Zero emissions. Electric cars don’t burn any fuel, so they don’t produce emissions, which is much better for the environment.

  • Attractive tax incentives. You can get a government grant to cover part of an electric car’s purchase price. They’re also exempt from road tax, congestion charges and fuel tax.

  • Low running costs. Electric cars only have one moving part - the motor. Maintenance can be up to 35% cheaper. You can also charge them completely for as little as £3.

The cons:

  • They’re very expensive. The ‘budget’ Tesla Model 3 will cost $35,000 (about £27,000) in the US. It’s UK price is expected to be similar.

  • They can’t travel very far. There’s no fuel tank to fall back on, so if the battery dies, you’re out of luck. Since the UK still has relatively few charging stations, driving over long distances might be tricky. Charging takes time, too - at least 30 minutes at a rapid charging station.

You still have some time to enjoy that thrilling petrol engine rumble or the reliability of your diesel, but there’s no doubt that hybrids and electric cars are the future.

by Hannah Salih

Hannah reads all the finance info on the web so you don't have to. She knows all there is to know about your finances but still spends all her money on brunch. 

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