Best hybrid cars 2021 – our picks
Can high-performance fun and a plug really coexist in one car?
Ferrari SF90 Stradale
The twin-turbocharged combustion V8 engine sits behind the driver, with a small electric motor sandwiched between it and an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission. The transmission itself does without a reverse gear, with the subsequent two electric motors on the front axle taking care of that.
Those electric motors on the front axle power each wheel independently, but decouple from the powertrain above 135mph. All three motors are powered from an 8kWh battery pack, which together with the combustion engine peak at an equivalent 987bhp. With lots of hardware comes lots of weight, and at around 1700kg with fluids there’s a lot of physics at play.
Yet, Ferrari being Ferrari, the SF90 is quite simply astonishing to drive, with immense pace and capability wrapped up in a driving experience that could only come from Modena. Whether the SF90 is the most involving or visceral Ferrari ever is a different question, but as hybrids go this one’s a good one.
There are mild hybrids, and then there’s the Lamborghini Sián, which isn’t exactly a garden variety hybrid, but a very interesting way of incorporating electrification in a lightweight form. Joining the Sián’s naturally aspirated 6.5-litre V12 engine is a small 34bhp electric motor that acts as a subtle torque fill during hard acceleration and gear changes.
Where the Lamborghini differs from other mild hybrids is that the Sián doesn’t use a battery to drive the electric motor, but a supercapacitor. While it might sound like science fiction, it’s actually a simple technology that works in a very similar way to batteries, but with different deliverables.
In a simple sense, if we consider a battery as a bottle full of water, batteries absorb and expel charge as if the lid was mostly closed. A supercapacitor on the other hand might have the same amount of water inside, but will dump it out all at once, as if the top of the bottle was chopped off entirely – the flip side is that it’s then able to recharge equally as fast.
With a higher energy flow, the hybrid’s ancillary components all require more brawn to be able to handle it, not to mention extra cost, but in the form of a £2.6m hypercar is one more easily absorbed. In the Lamborghini Sián, under full throttle the supercapacitor will happily drain in less than four seconds at full throttle, but will be able to replenish itself with just one heavy braking application.
Peugeot 508 PSE
The 508 PSE’s powertrain is a tale of two halves, as while both axles are driven, they’re entirely independent. The front end is powered by Peugeot’s 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine that produces 197bhp mated to an eight-speed torque-converter automatic transmission. Within the transmission casing is then a 109bhp electric motor, which together with the petrol engine powers the front wheels.
The rear wheels are driven from a second 111bhp electric motor mounted on the rear axle through a single-speed transmission, with both motors drawing power from an 11.5kWh lithium-ion battery pack. Due to the nature of plug-in powertrains, the total power isn’t a simple sum of all those elements, rather totals of 355bhp and 386lb ft of torque are the peak figures the PSE is able to produce at any one time.
To drive, the 508 is supple, fluid and clearly set up to make fast progress, but finds its problems in the calibration of its powertrain. Push too hard and the electric motors and boosty turbocharged engine produce their peaks too far apart, with a generous prod of the accelerator giving you an initial burst of acceleration, but leaving a momentary pause in the mid-range until the petrol engine comes on song further up the rev band. The transmission doesn’t help the situation, acting to the combustion engine’s best interests without taking into account the 200-odd extra bhp found elsewhere within the drivetrain.
Calm things down and the powertrain certainly finds a much more comfortable groove, but when in a high-performance application like the PSE it leaves lots to be desired, especially if the chassis is as willing as it is in the 508.
The Honda NSX features a similar hybrid layout to that of the SF90 above, but does so all with lower figures, both in power and price. Built upon a foundation set by the 550bhp twin-turbo V6 hybrid powertrain, it’s mounted in the middle with no fewer than three electric motors sending drive to all four wheels.
Zero to 62mph takes a smidgen under three seconds, which is hypercar performance in something that will set you back ‘only’ £130,000. The NSX is another supercar that at least gives a nod to the environment with its fuel-saving hybrid tech and the option of a quiet mode which offers all-electric running over short distances.
On mashing the accelerator you can watch the ‘assist’ gauge rise and fall, showing the ‘torque fill’ from the three electric motors through the lower and upper regions of the rev range. Honda’s NSX doesn’t only offer great engine performance – you get responsive steering and pin-sharp handling with a natural and progressive feel, too.
The Polestar 1 has a similar set-up in theory to the Peugeot’s, but takes things up a notch with a total of over 600bhp. Like the 508, the Polestar 1 has a combustion engine, this time a transversely mounted turbocharged and supercharged 2-litre petrol engine that’s fitted with a 68bhp ISG motor. This powers the front wheels through the usual eight-speed automatic transmission.
The rear axle is pure electric, but features two rear motors – one powering each rear wheel. Each of those electric motors produces a further 114bhp, driving each rear wheel independently, negating the need for a rear differential, and giving the rear axle complete torque vectoring. The rear motors are driven from a 34kWh battery pack, which is comparatively large by plug-in hybrid standards and allows for a quoted 77-mile range.
To drive the Polestar is complicated, as like the Peugeot it operates best when driven below peak velocity. Ask for all 602bhp at once and the different powertrain elements fail to work together as harmoniously as you’d hope. With so much power being generated, the Polestar’s quite astonishing 2350kg kerb weight also comes into focus as the physics start to take over, and due to a typically unassuring brake pedal makes the big coupe feel much more at home a few pegs back from maximum attack.