Revealed: are hybrid SUVs really better for the environment?

Before the SUV – or sports utility vehicle – became so popular that now every manufacturer offers more variety of shapes and styles, it was seen as a polluting, thirsty and needlessly heavy vehicle. Perhaps because everyone now has one that attitude has changed, meaning small city cars and regular family hatchbacks that could be more efficient are being overlooked.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Traditionally SUVs and 4x4s have been expected to last longer, and inspire the sort of care and long-term pride of ownership that means the embodied energy – the materials and power consumed and emissions produced during manufacture – can deliver a much longer period of use before a replacement car is needed. And that’s our starting point to find out if a hybrid SUV is better for the environment.

Let’s look at a typical used hybrid SUV, the Lexus RX. One of the first of its kind, it offered comfort and prestige comparable to a Range Rover Sport, but without the Range Rover’s legendary thirst. Many of the earliest models are still in daily use, and still returning relatively low fuel consumption and emissions.

That’s reflected in high prices for 2nd hand cars that are 12 years old. With just under 300hp and a smooth petrol V6 engine in the RX450h, the official figures of 44mpg and 145g/km CO2 are more suited to something like a Ford Fiesta of the same age. Your Range Rover Sport of the same performance produces 352g/km and achieves just 19mpg…

Hybrids – a growing market

The Lexus is the groundbreaker, but there are many more options available. The first plug-in hybrid SUV to achieve real success is the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, which won sales partly due to beneficial tax and company car costs but is also genuinely capable of covering small school runs, shopping trips and commutes without needing to burn fossil fuels.

That means no local emissions which in the most basic sense, is also the best for your environment. The health benefits of reduced pollution in cities like London have lead to enforced ultra low emissions zones, and oddly enough, it’s the SUV that’s leading this efficiency drive.

Now you can get plug-in hybrid and hybrid SUVs from Ford, Land Rover, Jaguar, Audi, Mercedes, Toyota, Jeep, Renault and Range Rover. Some of the biggest, heaviest ones are also the most suited to city use, but modern hybrid SUVs have the potential to last beyond the ban on new car sales and cut emissions.

Why SUVs are better plug-ins

Most of the small hybrid cars you see are mild hybrid – plug-in SUVs use their size and weight to absorb the bulk of a big battery pack. The bigger the battery, the further they can go without producing exhaust, and because electric motors produce so much torque it doesn’t matter that the car is heavy – even a small motor can move a big 4×4 from standstill without revs and racket that a small engine would need.

In cities, there’s an extra benefit. Your old Range Rover might have returned 13mpg in a busy town, but that’s because it’s burning fuel (and producing emissions) even when waiting at lights or driving at walking pace. Your plug-in Range Rover only uses power when it moves – and it only uses fuel when it’s run out of power – so it can have a small engine.

That engine also doesn’t have to work as hard as it would in a traditional car, so it will last longer. With less oil and exhaust flying about, the car will stay cleaner and easier to maintain, and regenerative braking reduces wear on components too.

Is it really the environmentally-friendly choice?

No; for that, you need to give up your car – and perhaps in the future that’s what will happen, just hiring a car when needed, and using other solutions for short trips. However, if you want an SUV there is a strong case for a hybrid, whether new or used, and you can use it safe in the knowledge that it is genuinely better for the environment than an old, non-hybrid car or SUV.

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