Hybrid vs Plug-in Hybrid vs Electric Cars

By Anthony Sophinos

Take a look around at dealer lots these days and you’ll realize that the future, whether you like it or not, has arrived. Recent technological advancements have led most automakers to offer at least one or two models that are either hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or fully electric. Many more such models are in the pipeline, from brands spanning Ford to Ferrari.

To help make the future of the automobile more approachable, we’ve outlined in layman’s terms how these three powertrains generate power and what makes each design unique. We’ve also explained what needs to be taken into account when determining which is right for you. If you’re ready to get schooled in the world of electrified cars, read on.

How Do Hybrid Cars Work?

In the last 20 years “hybrid” has become a common automotive term, even if the technology behind it remains somewhat of a mystery to most people. The hybrid’s place in everyday speech can be credited to one car: the Toyota Prius. Introduced in Japan in 1997, the Prius - which is a Latin word for original - was the first mass-produced vehicle to marry gas and electric power for enhanced fuel efficiency. In 2000 it was first exported to America.

At the time, the Prius was a revelation. The nondescript compact sedan (the familiar hatchback design wouldn’t arrive until 2003) was rated by the EPA at 41 mpg in the combined city/highway cycle. To put that in perspective, the Toyota Corolla of the time was rated at 30 mpg combined. 

The secret to the stellar fuel economy of the Prius has always been its hybrid powertrain. Hybrids are called so because they use both an internal combustion engine and an electric motor-generator in order to produce power. A large battery pack supplies juice to the electric motor. Depending on the situation, hybrid cars can operate exclusively on electricity or gas, or use both power sources simultaneously. 

There are two main types of hybrids: full hybrids and mild hybrids. Full hybrids typically get going under electric power before switching over to gas at a certain speed. Under heavy throttle the gas engine works together with the electric motor to provide the necessary power. Once at cruising speed, the gas engine runs the show. Mild hybrids are similar, but cannot operate only on electricity. They instead augment the gas engine in all situations, including initial take-off.

In both hybrid designs, cruising speeds allow the gas engine to simultaneously charge the battery by running the electric motor in the reverse direction. The regenerative braking systems found in most hybrids also serve the same purpose, using the spinning wheels from the slowing car to drive the electric motor in reverse and recharge the hybrid battery pack.

The battery packs in hybrids are smaller than what’s found in plug-in hybrids and full electrics. This is because hybrids do very little all-electric driving, thereby significantly reducing the load on the electrical drive system. The operation of the regenerative brakes and the engine are enough to keep the relatively small hybrid battery pack sufficiently charged, negating the need to ever plug in.

Plug-In Hybrid Cars

The massive commercial success of the Prius almost immediately opened the floodgates for further research into automotive hybrid technology. The resulting industry fervor led to the development of plug-in hybrids and fully electric vehicles

Plug-in hybrid vehicles were a natural next step from the standard hybrid. One limitation of the conventional hybrid is that it doesn’t provide any sort of all-electric driving beyond initial acceleration. The plug-in hybrid rectifies that by using a larger battery pack and upsized electric motor. The added battery capacity is what provides that all-important usable all-electric range. 

But even a plug-in hybrid’s big battery packs run down quickly, and in most models the total range of all-electric driving is never more than 25 or 30 miles of gentle driving. Some, like the Chevrolet Volt, managed 40 miles to a charge. After the electric range is depleted the car reverts to operating much like a traditional hybrid. The battery pack won’t regain enough charge from regenerative braking and gasoline-engine operation to run as an electric. The only way to fully recharge a plug-in hybrid is - you guessed it - to plug it in. 

All-Electric Cars

Full electric cars - also known as battery electric vehicles - need to be plugged in as well, but they offer usable range that’s often equivalent to an entire tank of gas. Electric cars are probably best represented by Tesla, the scrappy upstart company out of California that turned heads with its sleek 2012 Tesla Model S sedan. 

Tesla has introduced other vehicles since then, including the Model X, Model Y, and Model 3, but it was the original Model S - and the impact it had on the collective automotive culture - which led other brands to pursue full electrification. Today, electric cars and crossovers can be purchased from a variety of brands, including Chevrolet, Hyundai, Kia, BMW, and Porsche

Ditching the gas motor entirely, electric cars rely on at least one motor to directly drive the front or rear wheels; these motors pull their juice from a large battery pack. In order to provide enough charge for long-distance motoring, the battery pack in a full electric is much larger than what’s found in a plug-in hybrid. It’s why many electrics are 5,000-pound machines - a good half-ton heavier than comparable gas-engine vehicles. 

Yet despite their excessive poundage, electrics have an ace up their sleeve: their batteries can be packaged under the floor, freeing up hood space and lowering the center of gravity. The latter is important: from behind the wheel, a lower center of gravity provides better handling and enhances the driver’s confidence in the car’s abilities. Even electric crossovers like the Jaguar I-Pace drive more like sport sedans due to having the brunt of their weight underneath the car. 

Hybrid, Plug-in, Electric: How to Choose

Despite some similarities between the three powertrain designs, their differences are distinctive enough that knowing which is right for you will take some careful deliberation. We’ve outlined some of the more important factors to consider here.

Range Considerations for Hybrid and Plug-In Cars

This is likely the most important differentiator between the three designs. A conventional hybrid has no electric driving range, just electric assist - it significantly improves gas mileage, but at the end of the day you’re still emitting tailpipe emissions on even the shortest trips. Plug-in hybrid cars have enough battery capacity for some real-world range, but it’s typically limited to about 30 miles or less. Unless you don’t stray out of city limits, you’ll still find yourself filling up at the local gas station. Once the gas engine does kick on, you’ll enjoy fuel economy on par with the hybrid.

Opt for the full electric and you’ll never have to go to a filling station again. The maximum range for the current crop of electric cars varies widely: a Mini Cooper SE has only about 110 miles of range, while a Tesla Model 3 will travel up to 373 miles on a single charge. Multiple popular models, including the Chevrolet Bolt, Nissan Leaf, and Hyundai Kona, offer around 240-260 miles of range. 

Range Considerations for All-Electric Cars

Just like a combustion engine doesn’t get the same gas mileage in every situation, the same is true with electric cars: range varies, sometimes considerably, depending on a variety of factors besides driving style. Steep hills and extreme temperatures, for instance, both negatively affect gas mileage. Consumer Reports tested both the Tesla Model 3 and Nissan Leaf in temperatures between 0 and 10 degrees fahrenheit and found their estimated total range on a full charge fell by about 50 percent from the advertised maximum range.

High speeds and climate controls also do no favor to electric vehicles. Setting the climate control to 75 degrees will steal away range as the powertrain works harder to supply the necessary heat to the cabin; the same is true if you ask the car to keep the interior chilled to 60 degrees. And cruising at 75 mph will be less efficient than driving at 65 mph.

Hybrid and EV Purchase Price

Electrified vehicles are still a fairly new technology, so pricing remains higher than an equivalent gas-powered car. The government has attempted to kindle interest in fully electric vehicles by offering a tax credit up to $7,500 tax to buyers who purchase one of the first 200,000 electric vehicles produced by a manufacturer. (as Chevrolet and Tesla have now sold more than 200,000 cars, an electric-car purchase from either company no longer qualifies for this tax credit.) The tax credit effectively lowers the car’s purchase price by $7,500.

Plug-in hybrid vehicles also enjoy the benefit of a tax credit, but because the government determines the amount of the credit based on the capacity of the vehicle’s battery, the exact dollar amount of the credit varies by model.Typically, a PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle) credit is a couple thousand dollars less than the $7,500 EV credit. 

Hybrids don’t get any tax credit, but are only slightly pricier than their non-hybrid counterparts. A Toyota Highlander Hybrid, for instance, is $1,400 more than a comparably equipped non-hybrid Highlander. A Ford Escape Hybrid is $1,200 more than its gas-engined counterpart. 

Hybrid and EV Depreciation

An often-overlooked component of ownership costs is depreciation - a car’s loss of value over time. Any new car will get smacked with depreciation in its first few years of use, but our own research found that electric cars get hit particularly hard. 

By analyzing the five-year depreciation rates of select EV and hybrid vehicles, we found that hybrids, plug-ins, and electrics all suffered drastically worse depreciation than their non-hybrid counterparts. The Nissan Leaf was hit the hardest, losing 71% of its value in five years; the similarly-sized, gas-powered Nissan Versa Note lost only 55% of its value over the same period. 

The Ford Fusion is another good example. The standard Fusion lost 58.7 percent of its value over five years; the Fusion Hybrid, 64 percent. The all-electric Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid depreciated by 69.1 percent. 

These trends aren’t limited to certain brands or models - this is widespread for all hybrids and electrics. Even Toyotas aren’t immune, with the Camry Hybrid losing more value over five years than its non-hybrid sibling. Why is this the case? Low gas prices, apprehension over the reliability of an older electric car, and the appeal of getting a $7,500 tax credit for purchasing a new EV all are likely contributors to the lagging demand for used examples. 

The upside of all this? Pre-owned hybrids and EVs are bargains, so don’t discount the savings that could be had from purchasing used.

Hybrid and EV Reliability

The reliability of hybrid or electric powertrains doesn’t seem to be an issue so far. Our own analysis suggests that the Highlander Hybrid is in fact more reliable than the standard Highlander, per our study on longest-lasting cars; our data also found it to be one of the most reliable vehicles among all crossovers and SUVs. If that’s not enough, hybrids from Toyota and Ford have been used for years as New York City taxicabs, which is perhaps the ultimate test of a vehicle’s reliability.

As for electric vehicles, their design is actually less complex than any combustion engine, with fewer moving parts to contend with. That means there’s less components to break. Objectively assessing long-term reliability remains a challenge, however, as most EVs have only come to market in the last two or three years.

Hybrid and EV Performance

Stuffing additional kilowatts into an electric car is the modern equivalent of hot-rodding a gas engine: more power. A bigger battery and multiple motors can bestow an electric vehicle with some serious performance - just search YouTube for ‘Tesla Model S Ludicrous Mode’ and you’ll get the idea. Certain electrics, particularly those from Tesla, offer the potential for supercar-beating performance.

But don’t think this carries over to hybrids and plug-in hybrids. Aside from a select few supercars like the Acura NSX, hybrids and plug-ins don’t currently offer serious straight-line speed of some pure electric cars. Their calling card is enhanced efficiency, not enhanced performance. If you’re looking to quietly leave muscle cars in the dust, you’ll need an electric rather than a hybrid.

The Bottom Line

All three powertrain designs have their appeal for a certain type of buyer. The regular hybrid might be best for those who are trying to save some money upfront, cannot reliably plug into a wall charger each night, and have a long commute. Plug-ins are great for the driver who has a place to charge but enjoys straying from the interstates during road trips. The full-electric will appeal most to those who don’t ever want to pump gas again and whose driving habits are suited to range limitations.

Whichever type of electrified vehicle suits your needs, there’s no doubt each is an efficient and responsible choice. Whether you’re trying to just save a few bucks at the pump or eliminate your own dependence on fossil fuels, a hybrid, plug-in, or electric vehicle will be sure to satisfy. 


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