Farm Ireland

Saturday 23 March 2019

Petrol or diesel? Hybrid or electric? What's the best fuel choice for you?

Eddie Cunningham goes in search of answers on the best motoring options for farming families

The Toyota Prius
The Toyota Prius
The Skoda Octavia Combi

The big motoring question for many farm families this autumn is as troublesome as it is obvious.

Should you buy diesel or petrol? Or hybrid or electric?

To say there has been a dramatic change in perceptions and expectations of diesel - and petrol - in the past 12 months would be the understatement of the year.

Recent events have done little to halt that accelerating change.

Realistically the real questions arose this time two years ago - almost to the day - when the Volkswagen scandal broke.

It opened the floodgates to a wave of doubts, question marks, pent-up concern and, let's be honest, blatant political opportunism. Diesel became 'fair game'.

Many, many farm families have a diesel car/SUV because, obviously, they go further on less fuel, have more torque for pulling trailers etc and, up to now anyway, had better trade-in values.

And you could claim back the VAT. Is it any wonder diesel became so popular so quickly?

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So where are we now? And what is a farm family to do in the midst of all these uncertainties - not least about residual values and anticipated higher prices for the fuel at the pumps?

But first it is important to put a few things in context because there is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding out there.


There are, broadly speaking for the purposes of the current debate, two types - C02 and NOx.

Think of CO2 as contributing to global warming and NOx to health concerns in built-up areas.

Our new-car taxation, since 2008, has been based on C02 emissions. Not NOx. Be clear on that.

The lower the C02, the less road tax and VRT you pay. That's why diesels became so popular. They produce fewer emissions that harm the environment than petrol. Petrol technology is catching up now but diesel is still ahead on MPG, generally speaking.

However, diesel produces more NOx emissions than petrol and that is causing concern because studies say NOx has serious impact on health, especially respiratory systems, in urban areas.


Regulators have for many years been saying that automakers simply have to reduce their overall emissions - their tailpipe footprint if you like.

We are now at Euro6 stage which, compared with Euro5 or Euro4, is drastic in the levels permitted. The thing is we really haven't seen anything yet, if we believe the soundings coming from industry experts and the EU. It's going to get tougher and tougher for diesel to meet regulatory amounts of NOx especially.

The technology that made it king of the road for the best part of the past decade in Ireland (and for decades in countries such as France) is being pushed to the limit.

To tweak for further lower emissions will send costs disproportionately higher. So diesels will cost more or carmakers will cut margins. Either way diesel is under ferocious pressure. As if you needed me to tell you that.

Prices at pumps

Petrol is making strong gains and is increasingly popular with urban buyers and those not driving much more than 15,000km/17,000km a year.

As well as that there is widespread expectancy that excise duty on diesel will be increased in the Budget to bridge the 10c/litre gap to petrol. That would substantially add to fuel bills for those covering 20,000km a year. I suspect 20,000km is quite low for many farmers such is the dependency on transport in rural Ireland.

Indeed it has been claimed by Seamus Boland, CEO of Irish Rural Link that extra costs such as an 'equalisation' of diesel prices with petrol would damage family, farm, social, business life in many parts of the country. I think a lot of people at the Ploughing would share those views.

Trade-in values

And then there is the thorny and tricky matter of trade-in values.

A couple of years ago people would not touch a petrol car because they feared they'd get nothing for it at trade-in time.

Now there are no such reservations, particularly if the car has a relatively small engine and doesn't have major mileage.

In contrast people regarded diesels as blue-chip investments and were assured of getting back whatever premium they paid new when it came to be traded in.

That is no longer the prevalent mindset. People are worried they will take a hit.

Diesel or Petrol?

So, after all that, where does it leave the farm family thinking of trading in their current car for a new one either now, or more likely in the new year?

It really is a tough question and I am acutely aware of the financial implications of making the wrong call.

However, there are indisputable facts.

Diesel remains the practical option for farmers who don't just cover a lot of ground as part of their business but also need a car/4x4 capable of decent pulling power for trailers and the like while maintaining a decent level of fuel consumption. What else will do it at this point in time?

Petrol will to a point, maybe, but will it have the torque, grunt and MPG to match? Generally speaking, no. Not comprehensively enough yet anyway.


Worth thinking about in some instances, definitely. Hybrids (including plug-ins) deliver their best MPG in stop-start scenarios where the battery takes over from the engine more often. All relevant models are petrol + battery. Toyota are the dominant force here with Yaris, Auris, Prius and RAV4 hybrid versions among its range.

Plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) are becoming popular. You get more battery time if you charge up at home (typically 35kms).

In reality the SUV hybrid models are probably the best option for farmers because there is a growing number of them with the technology - such as the aforementioned RAV4, Mitsubishi Outlander, Kia Niro etc.

Electric cars are slowly catching on, mostly in urban areas/commuter belts. Range has improved on all, making it possible to commute to work and school and only have to charge twice/three times a week. Don't get hung up on the idea they are only for city use. Running costs are much lower if you can make them fit your needs - and if you can charge them without inconvenience.

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