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Petrol, diesel, hybrid or electric? How do you know what the right powertrain is for you?

Autocar logo Autocar 30-07-2017 Jim Holder
Petrol, diesel, hybrid or electric? How do you know what the right powertrain is for you? © Autocar Petrol, diesel, hybrid or electric? How do you know what the right powertrain is for you?

These are confusing times for car buyers looking to buy the car that best suits their needs.

Campaigners against diesel are making the most noise, and with good reason if the focus is on reducing Nox and particulates. The announcement regarding diesel tax hikes suggests the government backs this view, although it is intriguing that it also continues to promote the benefits of the latest Euro 6 compliant engines, so far excluding them from tax rises and potential congestion charges.

This new, shifted stance overlooks the equally logical reasons diesel was incentivised in the first place, namely because it puts less CO2 in the air, reducing concerns around greenhouse gases and global warming. 

And therein lies one part of the dilemma, because choosing either fuel comes with an upside and a downside. One fuel type cannot deliver on both sides of the equation - at least not at present, although there is new tech in the pipeline looking to address this.

It was ever thus, and that is why car manufacturers invested so heavily in improving the emissions and economy of both, to the point that today’s Euro 6 engines are substantially cleaner than anything that has gone before.

Now, of course, there are alternatives, in the form of mild hybrids, plug-in hybrids and full electric cars. And guess what? None of them provide a holistic answer that can answer all of the conflicts raised by our desire for personal transport at no environmental cost.

Mild hybrid works well in certain conditions, plug-in hybrid works well in others and electric cars serve a niche of drivers perfectly today, and could potentially deliver for a huge proportion of drivers in the future.

All three present environmental issues, from how effective they really in are in the real world through to the knock-on pollution issues regarding where the energy to power them is generated and the environmental impact of both creating and disposing of their batteries.

So perhaps the most logical statement we can conclude from this is that, today, there is no silver bullet. Transport comes at a cost to the planet, however you fuel it.

The only way we can minimise that environmental cost is to select the most appropriate fuel type according to our needs and - to a large degree - reconcile that decision with our personal choices of how we want to pollute the planet.

What’s needed right now is some less emotive guidance. The government should be leading the agenda, but blew its leadership credentials on this issue once again with its muddled, misleading ‘line in the sand’ (which was nothing like a land in the sand) regarding electrification.

Make no mistake, it pushed the ‘no petrol or diesel engines from 2040’ line initially - only backtracking to concede hybrids would live on after half a day of headlines making them look like they were taking a tough stance. The truth is that everything it actually announced was happening anyway.

What we need is legislators who will keep the car makers under the cosh to hit targets they prescribe, and a car industry that is left to unleash its resources and brainpower to meet them.

Then, faced with a variety of option, it should be down to both sides to openly and honestly explain the pros and cons of every solution they deliver. Until that clarity is delivered, the muddle will go on.


Related: Engines revealed: power and beauty under the bonnet (Read Cars)

Engines revealed: power and beauty under the bonnet: Most people don’t give engines much thought, and there’s no reason why they should. All an engine is required to do is provide enough power to drive the car, certainly reliably and preferably without using too much fuel or making too much noise. As long as it can achieve this, you can reasonably ignore it.But they are fascinating things. The way they can convert fuel into energy which is then transferred to the wheels by way of innumerable gears and shafts is almost magical and, if you’re in the right mood, beautiful.In well over a century, thousands upon thousands of engines have been designed and built. Some have been so successful that they have found their way into an enormous variety of cars over anything from a few years to many decades. Here we take a look at some of the most celebrated, many of which could be described as classics. Engines revealed: power and beauty under the bonnet


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