Hybrid vs. Electric Cars: How They Work

2020 Kia Niro Hybrid Plug-in Hybrid Electric

As history goes, the first-ever automobile was built in 1769 and was steam-powered. However, the modern vehicle that we’ve come to know was developed by Karl Benz more than a century later in 1885. His three-wheeled vehicle combined an internal combustion engine (ICE) with an integrated chassis and was the first to go into production for consumers to buy. But just as these early people movers varied in propulsion, so do today’s vehicles.

The ICE remains the power core of a vast majority of vehicles on the road today — new and used. But the first Toyota Prius, a gasoline-electric hybrid introduced in Japan in 1997, was the catalyst for change. Today, electrified and alternative powertrains are now part of mainstream conversation. Even fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) are increasingly a part of discussion. 

FCEVs, unlike the electric vehicles (EV) we’ll discuss below, are not widely available because a lack of public infrastructure limits their use to California and Hawaii. But automakers, and Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota in particular, continue to make advancements in the technology, which is proposed to offer better-than-battery electric driving range combined with 5-minute refueling times.

2020 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell Transparency

With an FCEV, hydrogen, which is the most plentiful element in the universe, is converted by fuel cells to generate the power supplied to an electric motor. Emissions amount to nothing but water vapor. 

With regard to EVs, Tesla, the most infamous producer of them, has further pushed the boundaries of what a conventional vehicle can be thanks to its lineup of high-powered, technology-heavy models. But Tesla is no longer the only game in town. Due to environmental concerns, government regulations, and growing consumer interest, every global automaker has an EV already in the lineup or in development. And this doesn’t even take into account the new EV-only automakers that seem to pop up on a nearly monthly basis, such as Karma, Lucid, Rivian, and more.

Nevertheless, as familiar as the terms hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and EV may be, how each vehicle type actually works — from driving range and battery charging times to costs and maintenance — remains a mystery to many consumers. Consider what follows to be your cheat sheet.

How does a hybrid car work?

2021 Honda Insight Transparency

Simply put, a hybrid combines an ICE with an electric motor to power the vehicle. However, this category is further defined by mild and standard hybrid subsets. The aforementioned Prius is a standard hybrid, which means the vehicle can run solely on its ICE, its electric motor, or a combination of both. 

The high-voltage battery pack in hybrids is separate from the vehicle’s standard 12-volt battery and recharges by capturing energy when the car is braking or, in some vehicles, coasting. With a hybrid, the electric motor handles light-effort duties such as low-speed acceleration and driving in stop-and-go traffic. 

Because the gas engine is not working during this type of driving, fuel isn’t being consumed. This is why hybrids outperform their ICE-powered counterparts in terms of EPA-rated city mileage. But once the vehicle is traveling at higher speeds, like on a freeway, the ICE takes on the primary responsibility as the power source. Therefore, the highway mileage rating for a hybrid remains similar to non-hybrid vehicles. 

2020 Ram 1500 eTorque Transparency

How a mild hybrid differs is that its smaller electric motor and less powerful battery or electrical system cannot support EV-only driving. In fact, some people don’t consider mild hybrids to be hybrids at all. Rather, “mild hybrid” is a reference that automakers use to explain these types of electrified vehicle systems. “Light electrification” is another way that car companies refer to these types of systems.

Because hybrids combine a standard-sized engine with a large electric motor, overall fuel economy range does exceed that of non-hybrids within the same vehicle segment. Another advantage of this flexible powertrain is that the vehicle can be driven just like a conventional ICE-powered car with no added stressors like range anxiety. This is the concern EV drivers sometimes feel related to dwindling battery range and a lack of charging station availability, which could strand them without a working vehicle.

Also, the implementation and widespread use of dedicated hybrid systems has allowed automakers to produce hybrids within existing model lineups. So rather than limiting such powertrains to hybrid-only models like the Toyota Prius, consumers can opt for hybrid versions of more familiar vehicles, ranging from the family-friendly Honda Accord to the performance-oriented Porsche Panamera. 

Crossovers, SUVs, and trucks are not without hybrid options either. Additionally, the price disparity between a hybrid and otherwise identical ICE has decreased substantially. For example, the 2020 Honda CR-V Hybrid is only about $1,200 more than its non-hybrid twin, regardless of trim level.

How does an electric car work?

The battery electric vehicle (BEV), or simply EV in broader use, is powered by an electric motor and a large battery pack. That’s it. There is no traditional engine. You never need to visit the gas station. Instead, the entire vehicle runs on power generated from a high-capacity battery pack. The actual batteries used are typically lithium-ion cells that are stacked and then grouped into modules. Combined with other components, this incorporated system makes up the battery pack. 

And unlike a conventional ICE, the battery pack can be designed to be located anywhere in the vehicle. For reasons like added stability, improved driving dynamics, service accessibility, and extra cargo capacity, these packs are typically lain across the bottom of a vehicle’s platform, residing under the floor of the interior. So, with no engine, you can have both a rear trunk and front trunk (also known as a frunk).

2020 Chevrolet Bolt EV Transparency

Now, the advantage of an EV compared to a hybrid is that everything associated with a traditional engine is eliminated. Not only are fuel stops a thing of the past, but so are once-routine services like oil changes. And with no engine to warm up before reaching its performance peak, EVs offer instant power on demand, especially from a stop.

Vehicle charging also is more affordable and steadier in price than ever-fluctuating gasoline and diesel prices. And, of course, minimizing your carbon footprint benefits all of us, especially when charging coincides with the use of green technologies like solar panels.

Additionally, although EVs have been popularized by Tesla, they have also followed the road that hybrids have taken. In other words, your path to EV ownership is getting easier and less expensive with each passing model year. Automakers from Audi to Volkswagen currently offer a variety of EVs, and a continuous stream of future models continually make headlines, like the Ford Mustang Mach-E and Nissan Ariya

Of course, we’ve already mentioned a few disadvantages of EVs. Range anxiety is still a palpable fear, especially for those who enjoy long drives. Although many EVs can now travel farther than 200 miles before requiring a full recharge, this is still lower than the 300-mile-per-tank average of a traditional ICE. 

Also, on road trips, gas stations are more plentiful than EV charging stations, and refueling an ICE takes much less time than recharging an EV, which typically requires 30 minutes to reach 80% battery capacity when using the fastest, most powerful, and most expensive chargers. Choose a more affordable or lower-powered charger, either by choice or because you have no other choice, and recharging could take hours. 

How does a plug-in hybrid work? 

Now, a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) is the Goldilocks of the ICE and BEV temperature test — more so than a hybrid. Equipped with much larger battery packs than hybrids, PHEVs offer anywhere from 20-35 miles of electric-only driving range and up to freeway speeds. Hybrids, on the other hand, typically offer electric-only driving only at slow speeds and only for a mile or two.

However, just like a hybrid, a PHEV has a gas-burning ICE. It turns on when maximum power is necessary for acceleration or climbing a mountain grade, and it also takes over when the battery pack reaches a minimum state of charge and can no longer power the vehicle by itself.

Jeep Wrangler 4xe

A PHEV’s combination of range and speed from both electric and gasoline sources of power means they can operate exclusively as an EV during a typical commute, yet at the same time travel cross-country without any range anxiety or need to plug-in and recharge the battery. Furthermore, when used as a gas-electric hybrid, a PHEV gets superior fuel economy compared to an ICE. And because their battery packs are not as large and powerful as those in an EV, recharging is fast. You can even do it overnight using nothing more than a standard household wall outlet.

Granted, a PHEV’s emissions are not zero. They are also a tad pricier than hybrids and ICE vehicles and they still do require gasoline and oil changes. Still, a PHEV is a worthwhile option as an alternative-energy vehicle if you’re not ready to make the full BEV commitment.

Which is best: Hybrid, Plug-in Hybrid, or Electric?

If you’re set on getting a greener machine than a traditional ICE vehicle, your choice between a hybrid, a plug-in hybrid, and an electric vehicle is dependent on your situation and comfort level.

Choosing a hybrid is a great way to improve efficiency and burn less gas, which means your vehicle will emit fewer pollutants into the air. Hybrids don’t require any changes to existing driving habits, either. And they typically don’t cost much more than a traditional ICE.

Choosing an EV eliminates trips to the gas station, eradicates oil changes, and provides a big boost in terms of performance combined with zero emissions from the use of the vehicle. But if you’re not ready to install a Level 2 home charging station, you’re not comfortable with finding sources of electricity away from home, and you’re not willing to pay a big premium in order to get an EV, this might not be the right vehicle for you.

Choosing a PHEV represents the best of both worlds. When driving in a predictable way, you can use electricity. When life throws you for an unpredictable loop, or you just want to take a road trip, the gasoline engine handles the job without any need to find a way to recharge the battery. And the price of a PHEV falls between hybrid and EV models.