Hybrid vs. Electric vs. Plug-In: What Are They & How Are They Different?


New powertrain technologies are coming out constantly, and carmakers often struggle to explain and market their newest products clearly. Surveys have shown that some consumers assume the term "vehicle electrification" means the end of the gasoline engine, while others think electric vehicles use some gasoline. Neither is true. It's time to revisit the question: "What is a hybrid car?" and apply that to the electric versus gasoline debate. We'll also touch on plug-in hybrids, an increasingly compelling third choice.

What is a hybrid car?

A vehicle is a hybrid if it is 100% gasoline-fueled but doesn't rely solely on its gasoline engine for propulsion. Hybrids also have electric motors that sometimes power the car in order to delay the use of the gasoline engine and save fuel. At times, both systems work together for added power. How do hybrid cars work? Their electric motors function as generators when you press the brake, and the energy that's regenerated during braking is stored in a small battery for immediate use the next time you accelerate from rest.

Examples of a hybrid car include the Honda Accord Hybrid, the Lexus RX 450h and the Toyota Prius.

What is a plug-in hybrid car?

A plug-in hybrid vehicle (PHEV) is a gasoline-powered hybrid with a much larger battery and a means to recharge it using an external power source. A plug-in hybrid behaves much like an electric vehicle, with its gasoline engine essentially dormant, when its battery has charge. The engine comes to life when the battery runs down, allowing the vehicle to continue uninterrupted as a regular gasoline hybrid. It also uses regenerative braking to save fuel. Note: Some PHEVs are incorrectly marketed as hybrids. If you can plug it in and also fill it up, it's a plug-in hybrid.

Examples of a plug-in hybrid vehicle include the BMW 530e, the Toyota Prius Prime and the Volvo XC90 T8.

What is an electric vehicle?

An electric vehicle (EV) has a battery that is large enough and an electric motor that is powerful enough to deliver adequate range and performance without the need to include an engine or gas tank at all.

Examples of an electric vehicle include the Chevrolet Bolt, the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla Model 3.

Hybrid vs. Plug-In Hybrid — Pros & Cons

Hybrids and plug-in hybrids are often confused in the marketplace. But many people wonder: Which is better, a hybrid or a plug-in hybrid? It depends on your circumstances. Hybrids can be driven anywhere because they are 100% gasoline-fueled. There's no hassle because you never plug them in.

Plug-in hybrids can also be driven anywhere. They typically provide enough all-electric range to help you avoid using gasoline on a daily basis. But you do need to plug them in regularly for them to make economic or climate-conscious sense — a PHEV costs more than an equivalent hybrid.

Hybrid Car Pros & Cons

Pros

  • Fast and easy fill-ups at any gas station
  • Most inexpensive type of electrified vehicle
  • No need to think about plugging in
  • No issues for apartment dwellers
  • Can be your only car

Cons

  • Not as much gas-saving potential as a plug-in hybrid
  • A hybrid's gas engine tends to be meek and lack power
  • No rated electric range

Plug-In Hybrid Pros & Cons

Pros

  • Can function as an EV during a typical weekday commute
  • Run it out of electricity and it'll keep going
  • Gasoline engine allows for road trips
  • Can be your only car
  • Federal and state tax incentives may offset higher cost

Cons

  • Costs more than a regular hybrid
  • Not enough electric driving range to fully avoid gasoline
  • Need to regularly plug it in to make sense (but might not need 240-volt equipment)
  • Space taken up by the powertrain may compromise space or functionality

Hybrid vs. Electric — Pros & Cons

Hybrids and electric vehicles represent opposite ends of the electrification spectrum. Hybrids can go anywhere and are just as hassle-free as any regular car. They are entirely fueled by gasoline and derive the electricity they need through brake regeneration and by harnessing excess engine power. Fully electric cars, on the other hand, are entirely powered by batteries that must be recharged regularly. Most EV owners do the charging at their homes overnight. So EVs are best for homeowners who can control their own charging destiny. And while it's not strictly necessary, EVs are easier to own if you have a second car for long road trips.

Hybrid Vehicle Pros & Cons

Pros

  • No need for charging
  • Gas propulsion means you can go anywhere without range anxiety
  • Can be your only car
  • Inexpensive to buy

Cons

  • Not as energy-efficient as an electric car
  • Need to change oil and look after the engine
  • Lacks an EV's drive-away smoothness and silence
  • Initial acceleration feels weak by comparison

Electric Vehicle Pros & Cons

Pros

  • Zero tailpipe emissions
  • Smooth, immediate and quiet acceleration with no shifting
  • Little regular upkeep apart from tires and wipers
  • Per-mile electricity costs less than gasoline
  • No need to stop at gas stations

Cons

  • Range anxiety is a concern because it takes time to recharge
  • You must plug it in (and may need a 240-volt home station)
  • Difficult for renters to manage charging
  • Long trips require finding fast-charging stations
  • More expensive to buy

What About Plug-In Hybrid vs. Electric Cars?

People who want an electric vehicle often overlook plug-in hybrids. This is a missed opportunity because a PHEV can represent a best-of-both-worlds solution. Part of the trouble could be because some automakers market their PHEVs as just regular hybrids. But it also stems from a recent lack of truly desirable PHEV choices.

That's about to change with the imminent introduction of plug-in hybrid versions of some popular small SUVs. These include the Ford Escape PHEV and the Toyota RAV4 Prime. There's even going to be a Jeep Wrangler 4xe. These promise to be compelling family-oriented choices that combine EV-like operation during the week with weekend freedom of movement on gasoline.

Next Steps

The exciting aspect of this issue is that new products are coming out all the time: cheaper EVs with more charging options, diverse and family-friendly plug-in hybrids, and more refined and full-featured hybrids. Edmunds gets early access to test and rate these new machines and uses that time to create videos, first drive articles, and shopper-friendly pricing and information pages. Subscribe to our social media feeds to get that latest information, and visit Edmunds to find out more about any hybrid, plug-in hybrid or electric vehicle that catches your eye.


Sponsored