Photo: Volvo

In theory, plug-in hybrid cars are the perfect stepping stone to shifting from internal combustion engines to fully electric cars, getting us all used to the idea of plugging in our rides instead of filling them up. But a recent report from the BBC suggests that a lot of hybrid sales in the UK came from large tax incentives, and then people just never bothered charging them.

Back in 2011, the UK passed a grant meant to incentivize people to buy plug-in hybrid vehicles by knocking £4,500, or roughly $5,740, off the sticker price and steeply undercutting the cost of most comparable diesel cars.

The incentive program worked, and over the years the UK has become the biggest market for plug-in hybrid cars. But the catch, as reported by the BBC this week, is that people and businesses weren’t buying the cars because they were hybrids, but instead because they were getting thousands of dollars off on a new car.

Here’s more from the BBC:

Mileage records from 1,500 models, including Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Volvo vehicles, showed an average real-world mpg of 39.27, against an average manufacturer advertised mpg of 129.68.

Figures for 2,432 hybrids - including non plug-in varieties - showed an average real-world mpg of 49.06, still vastly lower than the potential range.

“There are some examples where employees aren’t even charging these vehicles up,” said Paul Hollick, The Miles Consultancy’s managing director.

“The charge cables are still in the boot, in a cellophane wrapper, while the company and the employee are going in and out of petrol stations, paying for all of this additional fuel.“

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Instead of taking full advantage of the electrified aspect of the car, offering large estimated MPGe figures and range that would beat any standard combustion-engined car, many people just weren’t charging the batteries and were driving them like a normal car, anyway.

Most of the vehicles sold in the UK thanks to the government incentive were to fleet companies and businesses, who use the vehicles more for longer-distance motorway driving rather than smaller trips, where plug-in hybrids are most efficient.

So, in the end, the government essentially handed out discounts to companies buying cars in large quantities, which then turned around and apparently achieved worse mileage efficiency than if they had been incentivized to just buy European diesels.

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The UK has ended the grant incentives but plug-in owners still benefit form cheaper taxes and free parking in some regions, so there’s more to it than just, uh, accepting a $5,740 gift from the government.