Wondering what the difference is between a hybrid car and an electric car? Whether you’re thinking about buying a more fuel-efficient vehicle or are just curious about how they work, there’s a lot to know when it comes to hybrids vs. plug-in hybrids vs. EVs. We’ve broken down the basics for you in this handy guide to electric and hybrid vehicles. Let’s get started!
How Do Fully Electric Cars Work?
With no gasoline engine under the hood, full-electric vehicles (EVs) are powered by a battery pack and electric motor (sometimes more than one). An EV’s high-voltage battery pack can consist of hundreds to thousands of rechargeable battery cells (typically lithium) that store electric energy and send power to the motor when you press on the acceleration pedal.
The more you press the accelerator, the more electricity the motor receives. The motor then converts electricity from the battery into the mechanical energy needed to turn the wheels and get you moving.
Even though most electric cars cannot currently beat the range and fast-fueling of internal combustion engine (ICE) cars, EVs have many upsides. Namely, zero tailpipe emissions, cheaper fuel costs per mile, and fewer maintenance requirements.
Note: Some extended-range EVs come equipped with a combustion engine. This engine serves as a generator for the battery instead of propelling the vehicle's wheels.
Gas-powered vehicles are still far more common than electric vehicles. However, EVs like the Tesla Model S and Nissan LEAF are rising in popularity as battery technology improves, manufacturing gets cheaper, and public charging stations become more widely available.
Electric Vehicle Pros
No need to fill up a gas tank (some exceptions apply)
Zero tailpipe emissions (some exceptions apply)
Electricity costs less per mile compared to gasoline
Less overall maintenance (including no oil changes) (some exceptions apply)
Instant, smooth, and nearly silent acceleration with no gear shifting
Electric Vehicle Cons
Limited driving range without EV charging stations
Requires longer charge time compared to filling up on gas
Public charging may not be available in your area
Typically requires home charging station installation
Typically more expensive than conventional cars and hybrids
How Do Hybrid Cars Work?
When you think “hybrid,” you probably think of the Toyota Prius, one of the first mainstream hybrid cars on the market. Hybrid cars, like the Prius, use both gasoline and electricity to balance fuel efficiency across a variety of driving conditions.
Hybrids have all the components of a standard internal combustion engine as well as an added battery and electric motor (sometimes more than one). While most hybrid vehicles are still propelled by gasoline, they also draw power from their electric motor to offset fuel consumption under various driving conditions. For example, a hybrid car may use its electric motor while driving at low speeds and switch to its gasoline engine during highway travel.
The electric motor in a hybrid car (as well as an EV) may also work by using a process called regenerative braking. When you press the brake, the rolling wheels turn the electric motor to create electrical energy. This energy is captured and stored in a battery until the next time you accelerate. Regenerative brakes also assist the conventional friction brakes (pads, rotors, drums, or shoes) in slowing down the car when the brake pedal is pushed.
Hybrid systems can be classified as either “mild” hybrids or “full” hybrids. Mild hybrids have small batteries and an electric motor that typically helps start the car and may also assist in regenerative braking. Full hybrids have larger batteries and stronger motors that are usually capable of powering or helping to power the vehicle. Further, full hybrids may also use the combustion engine to either propel the wheels or to work as a generator to help charge the battery.
Hybrid Vehicle Pros
Fast fuel-ups at any gas station
No range anxiety thanks to gasoline engine
Does not rely on plug-in charging for its battery (some exceptions apply)
Typically the least expensive type of electrified vehicle
Hybrid Vehicle Cons
Least energy-efficient type of electrified vehicle
ICE requires oil changes and other regular maintenance
Typically has a limited electric-only range
How Do Plug-In Hybrid Cars Work?
As the name suggests, plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) can be plugged into an external power source to charge their battery. Like standard hybrids, PHEVs often have both a gasoline engine as well as an electric motor.
However, on a plug-in hybrid, the electric motor typically performs most of the propulsion. When the battery runs low, the gasoline engine turns on and helps propel the car so you can continue driving uninterrupted.
Plug-In Hybrid Pros
Runs entirely on electricity over shorter ranges, such as a weekday commute
Still drivable once battery is depleted
No range anxiety thanks to gasoline engine
Fast fuel-ups at any gas station
Plug-In Hybrid Cons
Requires external power source to plug in and charge
Cannot completely avoid using gas over longer distances
Oil changes and other regular maintenance required
More expensive than a standard hybrid
What’s the Difference Between a Hybrid and Electric Car?
The biggest difference between hybrid and electric cars is that hybrid cars still use a gasoline engine, whereas most electric cars have no internal combustion engine at all.
EVs rely on massive battery packs that must be recharged regularly to operate the vehicle. Most electric vehicle owners recharge the battery by plugging them in overnight, either with an at-home charging station or one on the street. For renters with no garage or nearby charging stations, this makes owning an EV more complicated.
Hybrids, on the other hand, still rely almost entirely on gasoline, but thanks to regenerative braking (which helps to recharge the battery), there's added fuel economy. Many hybrids also don't need plugging in since they get their electric power through the combustion engine (which works as a part-time generator) and regenerative braking. This makes owning a hybrid as worry-free as any conventional gas-powered car—with some added savings on fuel consumption.
What About Hybrid vs. Plug-In Hybrid?
The main difference between regular hybrids and plug-in hybrids is that plug-in hybrids connect to an external power source to charge their larger battery packs. Both types of vehicles have regenerative braking capabilities.
Whereas conventional hybrids typically only assist the gasoline engine for propulsion, PHEVs usually depend on electricity for primary propulsion. Plug-in hybrids should have enough electric power to handle some commutes without relying on gasoline, but they can seamlessly switch to gas power assist for longer drives, like road trips, if needed.
The Bottom Line: EV vs. Hybrid vs. Plug-In
In the end, these three vehicle types currently represent the majority of electrified vehicles. Hybrids and EVs each come with their own pros and cons, depending on your needs. EVs offer significant savings on fuel costs and maintenance over the lifetime of the vehicle—not to mention zero tailpipe emissions for most EVs. EVs are best used by city dwellers and homeowners with shorter commutes and access to overnight charging.
For drivers who don’t want to compromise on range, hybrids and plug-in hybrids offer more versatility for a lower price. Keep in mind, however, that while hybrids offer greater fuel efficiency than their conventional counterparts, they also come with similar upkeep and maintenance expenses.
For some, plug-in hybrid vehicles may offer the best of both worlds. No matter which type of vehicle you choose, one thing is clear: our automotive future is electric!
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