SALES of The Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV (which stands for Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle) have been astonishing. In fact, this car has sold so well, it’s been almost single-handedly responsible for a surge of interest in the relatively new technology.

According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, between January and March 2016, 10,496 plug-in vehicles found homes which represented a year-on-year rise of 22.7%.

Total registrations then increased further to 16,056 throughout April and May and a lot of this is down to Mitsubishi’s current best-seller, which last year found nearly 12,000 buyers.

Outlander-PHEV5In fact, Mitsubishi has had to defend its own popularity after the provider of motorway charging stations introduced a £6 fee for their use and blamed the rise in popularity of plug-in hybrid cars.

So just what is a plug-in hybrid car, exactly? Well, a conventional hybrid would ordinarily use an internal combustion engine for its daily grind, backed up by a battery-powered electric motor for short bursts of electric propulsion, or longer bursts of electric assistance.

A plug-in version simply carries a bigger set of batteries and often more powerful motors which will enable the internal combustion engine to shut down for much longer distances.

Outlander-PHEVHowever, this bigger bank of batteries, unlike in a conventional hybrid, cannot solely rely on the energy of the car’s movement and unused energy from the engine to charge it fully, so owners have a lead which they can plug in at home or at a charging station to top the battery up.

It’s simple and, in the short term at least, many believe it’s the future. Battery power alone isn’t enough for long-distance driving, so the “PHEV”, as I’m going to call it from now on, represents the best of both worlds.

And, because Mitsubishi’s Outlander is the best-selling PHEV on the market, surely it’s the best one, right? Well, not exactly, but it is very good.

Outlander-PHEV2Let’s start by taking a step back and considering what this car is. It’s an SUV. That’s the same category as the Range Rover, the Volvo XC90, the BMW X5 and all those cars that inexplicably ooze desirability in the school-run mum set.

But, unlike the afore-mentioned gas-guzzlers, this one can waft you along silently and cheaply for an electrically-fuelled 16 miles on a full charge. That’s not a huge range when it comes to plug-in cars, but it’s enough for most school runs.

And even if you do have to make a second trip to school because Charlie forgot his pencil case the first time, there’s a two-litre petrol engine that will kick in when the batteries cough out their last bit of juice.

Outlander-PHEV3What’s also clever is the car will charge itself using its own kinetic energy. Switch it on to “Charge” mode and it can top up the batteries surprisingly quickly, especially if Daddy is driving and Daddy’s late for a meeting.

What makes this really impressive, and here’s the rub, is the PHEV, in theory, can return a rather brilliant 158mpg. Remember, this is a car that will happily tow a caravan, swallow up an IKEA wardrobe, trek across a muddy field and seat five people and their luggage in very high levels of comfort. Impressed? You should be.

This, along with the obvious tax advantages and the benefits of using one as a company car, is why the PHEV is such a strong seller.

It’s not perfect. The ride and handling are a bit primitive, the interior feels cheap in places and, despite the fact it has a combined 200bhp, it doesn’t really skip off the line as quickly as you’d like it to.

Outlander-PHEV4But as you’d expect, there’s bags of space inside, it’s very comfortable and some of Mitsubishi’s technology might look a bit aftermarket, but it all works very well.

What this car is a workhorse, but with a high-tech twist. It’s a practical family car and a competent mile-muncher but a little bit cheaper to run and with some very impressive numbers for company car drivers.

It has its flaws, but they’re out-weighed by the simple common sense-based desirability of owning a car which isn’t just clever and economical, it’s practical and comfortable too.

At a time when everyone seems to be in on the plug-in act, it’s surprising that a relative minnow such as Mitsubishi could be taking the crown but it has. And deservedly so.