Electric or classic thermal? When choosing your new car, it is not easy to know which engine to choose. Between the two, there is a tempting option: the hybrid. A temptation encouraged by manufacturers, pressured by the authorities and public opinion to limit their contribution to global warming, and who see this technology as an interesting growth driver.
The hybrid car is often presented as a solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from our travels. Even more tempting is the fact that the acquisition of such vehicles benefits from public support. But if you lift the hood, the environmental balance is more than meager.
First, let’s remember what it is for those who are interested from afar, what is hidden behind the wheel. Hybrids are a motorization halfway between thermal, which runs on oil (whether gasoline or diesel) and electric, whose battery is recharged by connecting the power.
Hybrids actually have both: an internal combustion engine and a battery. The latter can either be rechargeable (by plugging it into a socket, like 100% electric vehicles) or non-rechargeable (it is then the fact that you drive with the internal combustion engine that charges the battery).
Almost 10% of sales
Promises of carbon footprint reduction are mostly for plug-in hybrids, as non-plug-in hybrids rely solely on oil to run. Plug-in hybrids make it possible to carry out daily trips with the electric battery.
This gives a range of 30 to 70 km, allowing it to be recharged with possibly carbon-free energy. On the other hand, the heat engine is used for longer trips. In any case, this engine is presented by its promoters as the best of both worlds.
Plug-in hybrid cars are still few on the road, but their sales are increasing strongly. In 2021, they represented 8.4% of new car sales in France, almost as much as electric cars. They are also encouraged by the public authorities and benefit from support such as eligibility for the retraining bonus.
In addition, until the end of 2022, buyers of plug-in hybrids can benefit from the ecological bonus of 1,000 euros. Support that will only concern 100% electric cars from 2023.
The heaviest cars on the market
Another device in favor of plug-in hybrid cars: they are considered low-emission vehicles and can therefore circulate unimpeded in large cities with low-emission zones (ZFE).
Latest public “support”: Companies must have an increasing proportion of low-emission vehicles in their fleet. Technically, the corporate fleet market is strategic as it represents more than a quarter of car sales. Hybrids are therefore eligible for this commitment to “green” corporate fleets and, not surprisingly, the proportion of hybrids is on the rise.
While the approval standards assume an electric mode adoption rate of between 70 and 85%, it would rather be 45 to 49% for individuals and 11 to 15% for cars in company fleets.
But in recent years, the reports have set out to wind up their environmental promises. First of all, plug-in hybrid cars are the heaviest cars on the market. This observation is partly logical: these cars, which combine the two motorization systems, become heavier mechanically.
But beyond this “mathematical” predominance, sales of plug-in hybrids tend to concern large models, and especially SUVs (sports car), these particularly energy-demanding urban 4x4s. So, on average, plug-in hybrid cars sold in Europe in 2020 weighed almost 2 tons (1,921 kg to be exact), 300 kilos more than electric cars and almost 500 kilos more than the average new car.
In addition, there is a low use of the electrical mode. While the certification standards rely on a utilization rate for the electrical mode of between 70 and 85%, the reality would be much lower. According to a study by the non-governmental organization International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), the use of electric mode would rather be 45 to 49% for individuals and 11 to 15% for cars in company fleets. This reduces all promises of reduced fuel consumption.
“Due to the low rate of use of the electric mode, the heavy weight of the vehicles or their poor aerodynamics, the fuel consumption of hybrids is high. », summarizes Aurélien Bigo, transport economist in an article on the Bonpote site. Brussels NGO Transport & Environment calls for “final purchase subsidies and generous tax exemptions for plug-in hybrids”.
The NGO points out an important paradox here: Like thermal cars, the sale of new hybrid cars will be banned in Europe from 2035. But in the meantime, this motorization is considered a kind of transitional technology, and it therefore continues to be beneficial. from certain support measures.
Good industrial plan?
If they are a false good idea for the climate, what about industrially and economically? At first glance, the boom in hybrid cars may benefit the French industry. These cars are sold at a high price and can therefore be more easily assembled on French territory and its high wages.
In addition, the two largest French manufacturers are doing well on the market. With their 3008 and their Renault Captur, Stellantis (ex-PSA) and Renault monopolize the two best-selling places in the country. And most of these hybrids are assembled in France.
Market growth and support for hybrids comes primarily to good car manufacturers, i.e. German (BMW, Mercedes) and Swedish (Volvo)
But this good French ranking is largely misleading. The growth of this market benefits above all high-end car manufacturers, the category to which most plug-in hybrids belong.
It is therefore the German (BMW, Mercedes) and Swedish (Volvo) manufacturers who enjoy the most of the dynamism. If the first two places in the sales ranking in France escape them in favor of French brands, these foreign companies dominate the other steps of the ranking. In addition, their models are on average more expensive: their market share in value is therefore higher than their share in volume.
To be convinced of this, a look at the trade balance for plug-in hybrids is instructive, as this balance is in deficit. We import 2.6 billion euros of these cars from abroad (mainly from Germany and Sweden) and export only 243 million, a deficit of more than 2 billion euros. In short, in addition to being a false solution for the climate, support for plug-in hybrids mainly benefits foreign manufacturers.