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Hybrid vs. Plug-In Hybrid vs. Electric Vehicle: Understanding the Difference

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You may be surprised to discover there is more than one type of hybrid and electric vehicle. With an alphabet soup of acronyms such as PHEV, BEV and hydrogen FCEV, you may long for the days when you simply had to decide between a 4-cylinder versus a V-6. It seems not too long ago, an actual horse was required for any giddy-up.

When deciding between a hybrid versus a plug-in hybrid versus an electric vehicle, you’ll have to weigh factors like cost and mileage range. In general, the greatest mileage — and price — go to plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles. We’ll first explain the jargon and what each type could mean for your wallet to help you make the best choice for you.

Hybrid vs. Plug-In Hybrid vs. Electric: What’s the Difference?

Good to know: engines, motors, batteries and acronyms

Many people use the words “engine” and “motor” interchangeably, but they mean different things. And there is a grand difference in what a battery can do, depending on the type. Here are short, basic definitions of what each does in the advanced car world:

  • Engine. An internal combustion engine turns fuel (usually gas or diesel) into movement.
  • Motor. An electric motor turns electricity into movement. It does not use fuel (no gas or diesel).
  • Battery. A battery stores electricity. All cars have batteries that can help start the engine and power electronics such as the car radio. Hybrid and electric car batteries do the same thing, but on a larger scale — they store enough electricity to power the entire vehicle. Just like a car with an engine has a gas tank, a car with a motor has a large bank of batteries.

You don’t necessarily need to know all of these terms to buy a hybrid or electric vehicle, but here are the most common and what they mean.

  • EV or Electric Vehicle. If you see EV as part of any other acronym, you’re most likely talking about a type of electric vehicle. EV can refer to any type of electric vehicle, from a hybrid to what most people usually call an “all-electric vehicle,” a type of EV that runs only off batteries.
  • HEV or Hybrid Electric Vehicle. Most people simply say “hybrid.” We may refer to this type as a “regular” hybrid to differentiate them from the plug-in hybrids we talk about next.
  • PHEV or Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle. Most people say “plug-in hybrid.”
    • EREV or Extended Range Electric Vehicle. It is a type of PHEV.
  • BEV or battery electric vehicle. Most people call a BEV simply an “electric vehicle.”

Hybrids

A hybrid vehicle has both an engine and a motor with a sizable battery. The engine means you don’t have to worry about running out of battery juice because you have the backup of a gasoline engine, which you could refuel from a large network of gas stations. The motor and battery system help to power the car with electricity, improving fuel efficiency over all-gasoline powered vehicles. How much of an improvement depends on the vehicle — a hybrid SUV, for example, may see only slightly better mileage rates than its less expensive traditional gasoline version.

Just like you don’t need to charge the battery of a regular car with an engine, you don’t need to charge the battery of a regular hybrid. It is charged by the engine and by what’s known as regenerative braking.

  • Regenerative braking. Whether you lightly tap or slam on the brakes, you’re stopping a lot of forward energy. In regenerative braking, that energy is turned back into electricity and stored into the battery to be used later.

Out of all the types of electric vehicles, hybrids cost the least up front.  Looking for one? You can check out the best hybrid cars for the money.

Plug-in hybrids

The difference between a hybrid and a plug-in hybrid is in the name. They both have engines, motors and batteries, but the battery of a plug-in hybrid is much larger. It’s so big, it is not efficient or entirely possible to charge it from the engine or from regenerative braking alone. Ergo, you have to plug it in.

The advantage of the bigger battery in the plug-in hybrid is that the car has even higher fuel efficiency, because it can store more electricity. Some plug-in hybrids can travel up to 100 miles on electricity alone. But you’re not out of luck if you run out of electricity — if you don’t have the time or place to easily plug in and charge the battery, you have the option of running on fuel alone as well.

  • Extended range electric vehicle (EREV). You may notice that some plug-in hybrids have an extended range option, which can make them more expensive. An EREV is a type of plug-in hybrid, in which the engine makes electricity for the motor to use, increasing efficiency and thus increasing how far you can go without recharging or refueling.

The least expensive plug-in hybrid models have manufacturer recommended prices (MSRP) starting around $25,000. You could check out these best plug-in hybrid cars.

Electric vehicles

You won’t be stopping at any gas station with an electric vehicle. They don’t have engines at all, only motors and batteries. This can lead to large savings in powering your vehicle — electricity is much cheaper than gas, almost no matter where you live. However there are some trade-offs.

Without an engine, you’re dependent on recharging stations instead of gas stations. It takes much longer to recharge a battery than it does to refuel a gas tank. And recharging stations are still rare. You either need to ensure you can get to and from a place on one charge or do more logistical planning. You could consult a trip planner — Tesla owners, for example, can type in their particular vehicle type and route to find charging stations along the way.

The least expensive all-electric vehicles are around $30,000, although it may be able to qualify for tax incentives, both federal and state. You could measure what you would save in gas and oil changes to how much more the car costs outright. If you’re in the market, you could check out the best EV cars and take a look at how much a Tesla costs.

 

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