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A hybrid vehicle provides low emissions and high fuel economy by combining a gasoline-powered engine with an electric motor. It's an idea that's been around for a long time, but until Toyota and Honda brought out production models at the turn of the century, the hybrid automobile had never been part of the mainstream automotive landscape.
Toyota's third-generation Prius, which debuted for 2004, is credited with kick-starting the hybrid movement by providing 45 to 50 mpg with the room of a midsize car in a relatively compact footprint. Other carmakers, including BMW, Ford, Hyundai, Lexus and even Porsche, soon jumped onto the hybrid bandwagon.
There are now also plug-in hybrids, whose more powerful battery packs allow them to run solely under electric power for much higher speeds and for distances from about 20 to 50 miles. As the name suggests, they can be plugged into a home or a commercial charger. If you have a short enough commute, a plug-in hybrid can function largely as an electric car for much of the workweek.
Electric vehicles are just that: purely electric. Unlike a hybrid, they have no gas engine to fall back on and are thus limited to their battery pack's driving range. Models such as the Ford Focus Electric and Nissan Leaf have driving ranges from about 75 to 107 miles; the much more expensive Tesla Model S can go nearly 300 miles. Chevrolet's recently introduced Bolt sits in the sweet spot, with a range of up to 238 miles and a price much closer to mainstream models.