Best small hybrid cars 2021

Published: 04 January 2021

► Worried about the environment, but don't want range-anxiety as well?
► Urban-friendly low-emission cars that can roam anywhere
► Superminis, hatchbacks and small SUVs

Listen to the experts, your social-media bubble and even the advertising on TV, and the emergence of the electric car as your 'personal mobility solution' is unavoidable. The idea of a small hybrid car might even seem pointless, if the battery-powered equivalents are so good. Why add all that cost and complexity – and emission-generating engine tech?

For the most part, EVs are great in towns and cities; no local emissions, no roaring down residential streets in an angry-sounding diesel, just one domestic plug and minimal drain on your household electricity to keep them topped up overnight for the shopping run. It's daily-drive nirvana, but your driving habits can't come as they are...

Further reading: electric cars

Best hybrid SUVs
• Longest range electric cars
• Electric Peugeots  - plug-in hybrid or pure EV across the range

For example, the most popular small electric car, the Renault Zoe, claims over 250 miles of range. If all you do is drive around town at 30-40mph, it'll deliver it too – a typical 8 to 15 mile round trip to the retail park and supermarket, or 2 to 4 mile school run, will leave the batteries so untroubled that you'll be lucky to get regenerative braking until you're almost home.

Want to visit family in the next city, about 70 miles each way? 250 miles is plenty, right? Except, for smaller electric cars in particular, the minute you want to travel at motorway speeds the range plummets. The 250 mile Zoe becomes a 150-mile exercise in charger roulette; the DS 3 Crossback E-Tense can drop to just 100 miles between charges if you're keeping up with traffic.

With so few fast chargers on the network, it could be that your largely urban drives with occasional forays into the rest of the UK are better served by a small hybrid car – and the number available is growing. Here are the best small hybrid cars you can buy now.

Best small hybrid cars

Toyota Yaris Hybrid

2020 Yaris Hybrid (preproduction)

The original small, hybrid car, the Toyota Yaris fulfils both criteria admirably as it enters its second generation. The 2020 Yaris is sportier, more spacious and less 'upright' than its predecessor, and although you're limited to five doors it's still got some of the wide-arched and flared attitude of the bonkers GR Yaris hot-hatch. That's where the similarity ends, though, with 114bhp squeezing through the front wheels and a focus on economy and green motoring the goal.

In town, though, you'll still enjoy a smirk as the revised hybrid powertrain gets away from the lights on electric power from an 80bhp motor, and the new battery pack is small and light, tucked under the back seats, so the Yaris is still 'small car' nimble.

At least up to 30mph, it's more than capable of surprising drivers complacently driving on diesel torque.

The aim of the Yaris Hybrid is to reduce local emissions, run on EV mode for slow, short trips and improve economy elsewhere; with more than two decades of experience, Toyota's got that bit sorted – but we've still to see if the UK-spec model has comfort or fun to match. The early-drive is promising.

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Renault Clio E-Tech

2020 Clio E-Tech

Renault's latest Clio is already impressive, with enjoyable handling and significant improvements in fit, finish and material quality throughout. The addition of an electrified model seems unusual given Renault's investment into pure EVs, but it's a very welcome development. It's got 140bhp and a lot of F1-style technology crammed under the bonnet, and a modest 1.2kWh battery in the boot, adding just 10Kg to the Clio's weight compared with the equivalent two-pedal automatic version.

1.2kWh is enough for typical short urban drives, but the real focus is bringing the emissions down. CO2 is less than 100g/km and economy is approaching the 70mpg levels often associated with super-efficient diesels. It's quick, it's clever, and it's reasonably priced.

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The definitive hatchback hybrid

Audi A3 e-Tron and Volkswagen Golf GTE

2020 A3 Sportback

Two for the price of one? For the purposes of this roundup, the hybrid technology is fundamentally the same; 200bhp from a 1.4-litre turbo petrol and an electric motor, 30+ mile range and an engaging hot-hatch style experience with lower BIK and running costs. The Golf's just been updated, and the Audi A3 e-Tron will follow suit (at the time of writing, you can still buy an older generation despite the A3 Sportback now going on sale).

2020 Mk 8 Golf GTE

Differences between them are badge prestige, interior style and what fits your taste and budget at the time, as they're equally competent, refined and impressive hybrid hatchbacks. The prestigious A3 e-Tron has been something of a bargain from lease brokers and large dealers as stocks are cleared for the new model, so it may even prove to be the more affordable option in the short term.

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Small hybrid SUVs

Jeep Renegade 4xe

2020 Jeep Renegade

Yes, it's a Jeep, but it's a small one – the Renegade shares its platform with the Fiat 500X and L. Short dimensions, high driving position and squared-off ruggedness make it really appealing for cities even without the batteries, but it's also one of the smallest plug-in hybrid SUVs on the market. A decent electric-only range should reduce BIK liability and allow the majority of urban trips to be free of local emissions, but it's still a Jeep – so there's a grippy four-wheel drive system that's Trail-rated and leverages the instant, controllable torque of the electric motor.

Combining both turbo petrol and electric motors for 240bhp means the Renegade 4xe is also fairly rapid, reaching 60mph in less than 7.0 seconds. It might be square, but it's also pretty cool.

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Kia Niro PHEV

Kia Niro PHEV

Seven-year warranty, surprisingly engaging handling and established, mature electric powertrain tech marks the Niro PHEV out, but the subtle marketing may mean it's easily overlooked next to the Sportage or Xceed, and for many drivers it's a second-choice to the attention-getting e-Niro. It may be the better choice, though, as it blends the best of both worlds and offers solid, traditional Kia value with cutting-edge tech. Its weakest aspect may be that for the budget, there are a lot of cars with greater kerb – and showroom – appeal.

We're running one on our long-term test fleet, so you can get more real-world experiences of the Kia Niro PHEV here.

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Mini Countryman PHEV

2020 Mini Countryman

This Mini isn't exactly tiny, but it's still one of the smaller SUVs you'll find on sale with a plug in powertrain. The overly cute styling hides serious engineering, as the PHEV's 218bhp-combined petrol and electric motors propel the all-wheel drive Countryman to 60mph in 6.8 seconds. In a 30 limit? It can achieve up 26 miles of pure-EV driving if you're in less of a rush, recharging with energy recovered during braking or by self-charging – so in common with the other hybrids here, you don't need to worry about having a wallbox or plug when you're limited to on-street parking.

Pleasing, tactile materials and interesting shapes meet high-tech displays in the Countryman's interior, for a futuristic but still welcoming ambience that softens the appearance of things like 'power distribution displays'. It's easy and fun to drive, a good size for growing families, and it's got that classic British badge (and flag hidden in the lights) that feel right at home when you're trying to be greener in this pleasant land.

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Not all hybrids are created equal

Hybrid is the 21st-centry buzzword that started out meaning one thing, and now encompasses a whole load of range-extending to emission-reducing solutions. Series hybrids, like the original Prius, deliver lower emissions by being able to run the engine as a generator at optimal load; only the shortest electric-only drives are possible.

2000 Toyota Prius in London congestion

Mild hybrid cars achieve a similar goal by using lower-weight technology, smaller batteries, to trim off the most inefficient stages of driving, but they can't move on electric power alone – look for 48V or MHEV in the name or specs to spot these.

Plug-in hybrid systems use larger batteries to greater effect, and are able to make short trips without producing local emissions. They usually operate as a series hybrid as well, reducing emissions and fuel consumption in more situations and topping up the battery with power than would otherwise be wasted.

However, the large batteries needed add weight and reduce space, so they're not ideal for the smallest cars, and they're often less economical than a diesel for high-mileage use.

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Is a small hybrid car a good buy in 2020?

For many drivers, it's a great option – particularly a plug-in model, if you've access to a socket for recharging. Reduced commuting, uncertainty around schools and offices, an overall improvement in air quality and the desire to avoid petrol stations and other places of cross contamination all support running a good hybrid, as any change in circumstances that means longer distances or more frequent driving won't cause the same stresses that running a pure electric car might involve.

Reliability and longevity are also improved as many hybrid cars spend as little time as possible using their fossil-fuel burning engine, too, and can usually use regenerative braking in town to save wear on pads and discs as well. No solution is perfect, yet, but small hybrid cars really can offer the best of both worlds for zero-emission city drives and freedom to escape the urban jungle.

By Richard Kilpatrick

Technology writer and photographer since the early '90s, now car-obsessed, too