Can hybrid electric vehicles beat diesels on mpg?

Hybrids have always had a miles-per-gallon advantage in urban driving but new EQUA Index data shows that they are gaining on diesels in motoway or highway driving and, if current trends persist, hybrid electric vehicles (excluding plug-in hybrid electric vehicles) are set to take the lead in 2017.


The dotted trend lines in the above graph, representing motorway mpg for diesel vehicles and gasoline hybrids tested by Emissions Analytics, are converging. While the downturn in diesel mpg may be due to a change in manufacturers’ focus from fuel economy to NOx emissions, what is more striking is the improvement in gasoline hybrid performance on the motorway as a result of technological advances.

The step change in technology is even more noticeable when European EQUA data is compared to North American EQUA results. The graph below shows gasoline hybrid performance in the US is particularly impressive on our combined cycles. With this level of fuel economy it seems unlikely that diesel vehicles will ever make a significant impact on market share in the US. With the mpg penalty of some NOx aftertreatment systems, perhaps it was to gain a fuel advantage over hybrids that Volkswagen resorted to using a defeat device when bringing their diesel models to the US market.


Another noticeable effect of the different product mix in the US is the level of carbon monoxide emissions. Both regular gasoline cars and gasoline hybrids have much lower CO emissions than their European equivalents, with regular gasolines 30% lower and gasoline hybrids 64% lower. This is despite the fact that the US have a less strict limit, at 2.1g/km, than the EU’s, 1.0g/km limit.

When we last wrote about hybrid vehicles back in October 2014, we concluded they were delivering “good but not best-in-class fuel economy, but [were] typically the cleanest, and if you are a light-footed, congested town driver, they are ideal.” Two years on hybrids, particularly in the US, have really upped their game. They are still a cleaner drive than a diesel and may soon offer better fuel economy wherever you drive them but heavy-footed drivers should still exercise caution.

Hybrid efficiency put to the test

Despite common perception, the advantage of hybrids over frugal diesels is often illusory, if judged solely on fuel economy. Having tested over 30 hybrids in the UK and US, Emissions Analytics is able to analyse the data to understand how they really perform.

To illustrate the point we have taken a sample of 10 vehicles tested since 2013 – two standard hybrids versus 8 diesels – from the real-world fuel economy testing we conduct with What Car? in the UK. Each has an engines in the 1.5 to 2.2 litre range, power up to 150bhp, two-wheel drive and with hatchback, saloon or estate body style. The table shows the sample, ranked by fuel economy with the best MPG at the top:

hybrid efficiency

While hybrids deliver good fuel economy in real driving, they can be eclipsed by up to 10mpg by some non-hybrid diesels. And that is after having taken into account any net changes in battery charge levels, to ensure that the hybrids are not penalised over our cycle. For certain driving patterns however, hybrids may still be the better option. Over our complete dataset of more than 500 vehicles in the UK, we can quantify how average MPG changes under congestion and aggressive and fast driving.

hybrid efficiency

What this data shows is that hybrids suffer much less than their ICE equivalents under congested urban driving: on average a 3% penalty compared to 7%. In contrast, by doubling the average rate of acceleration the MPG falls by more for hybrids, especially diesel hybrids.

Comparing motorway driving to town driving, all types of vehicle show better MPG on the former, but the difference between hybrids and ICE vehicles is dramatic – typically because the downsized engines found in the hybrids are less suited for high speed motorway cruising.

Even more than their tolerance of congestion, the value of hybrids may be in their pollutant emissions, as even the cleanest diesels typically exceed the regulated values of NOx. In a recent report by the International Council on Clean Transportation, which analysed data from Emissions Analytics, the average exceedance was seven times for the latest Euro 6 diesel cars.

This compares to petrols, which generally meet the regulated NOx standards, even in real-world driving. Carbon monoxide is higher for the petrols, but again within the regulated values. Therefore, petrol hybrids have the benefit over ICE diesels in their effect on air quality, made even better as a proportion of urban driving will be on battery, with zero emissions. Although not included here, plug-in hybrids can show this pattern even more strongly.

In summary, hybrids deliver good but not best-in-class fuel economy, but they are typically the cleanest, and if you are a light-footed, congested town driver, they are ideal.