Hybrid vs Plug-In Hybrid: Which is Best for Me?
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Hybrid vs Plug-In Hybrid: Which is Best for Me?

By Chris Teague | September 18, 2021

When you're setting out to buy a new car, it can be difficult to determine which model offers the best features, performance, space, and price for you and your needs. That is becoming even more true in today's auto market, where we have the choice to purchase a traditional gas-powered car, a hybrid car, a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) car, or an electric car. In some places, you'll even find the option to buy a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, but those are so limited in scope and availability that many people will never see one.

Fuel economy should be a big priority in your next car purchase decision as well, and with that comes reduced emissions, so you can feel a bit better about lessening your environmental impacts. Electric vehicles are an incredible way to do that, but electric motors require battery packs, which in turn require charging stations to operate. This can be a real hassle for people who live in rural areas where chargers are few and far in between. That leaves hybrids and PHEVs, both of which carry a gas engine and electric motors instead of just electric motors and a larger battery.

What's the difference between the two? While they both operate in a similar fashion, there are a few key differences to be aware of. Let's dive in and take a look.

Hybrid Cars

The first modern hybrid cars were the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius. Conventional hybrid cars, or HEVs, have an internal combustion engine, along with a battery and an electric motor or motors. Hybrids use their internal combustion engines to charge a small battery, so there's no need to charge. In fact, conventional hybrids do not have a charging port. They can also recover energy through regenerative braking, which uses the braking system and electric motors functioning in reverse to help recharge the battery.

Hybrids use their electric motors to supplement their gas engines. At times, the electric motor can provide propulsion or augment gas power, which helps conserve fuel. These cars are usually much better during in-town or stop-and-go driving, as regenerative braking recovers energy and the electric motor takes over for the gas engine at times.

It's worth noting that hybrid cars do not have a rated electric range. This means that they are not designed to travel any significant distance on electric power alone.

Last, we need to discuss cars with mild-hybrid technology. These vehicles use an electric motor that replaces the starter and alternator. These cars do not provide the same level of fuel efficiency benefits that a traditional hybrid would, but generally offer great performance. It's also possible for there to be exceptional power delivery from turbo engines. Automakers such as Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and others use the technology to provide electric assistance to their gasoline engines to great effect.

Plug-in Hybrid Cars

Plug-in hybrids, also known as PHEVs, function similarly to regular hybrid cars, but their powertrains need recharging to work at their full capacity. Unlike hybrids, PHEVs do offer a rated electric driving range, and can offer the ability to drive on electricity alone for people whose daily commutes are just a few miles. When in electric mode, a PHEV functions just like an electric vehicle, and do not use their gas engines for propulsion at all. When electric power is exhausted, they function similarly to a standard hybrid. The good news here is that, without access to a charging station, a PHEV can still handle long road trips and other driving scenarios where extended range is important.

It's important to note that plug-in hybrid cars require regular charging to operate at their designed efficiency levels. This requires charging at home, either with a standard or 240-volt outlet or hitting a charger.

Which Is Better?

The good news here is that your tailpipe emissions will be greatly reduced no matter which hybrid version you choose, and you should see fewer trips to the gas station. There's more good news in the fact that some automakers offer hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions of the same car, so you may not be faced with having to choose a different model to get the version you want.

Now, the answer of which car is best for you boils down to the type of driving that you do. If you have a short daily commute and have regular access to a charger, a PHEV can be great, as you may never face a situation where the gasoline engine is needed. PHEVs' larger battery packs give them a reasonable EV range for people who don't need to drive extended distances on a regular basis.

However, if your commute is longer, a hybrid may be better. While they don't deliver significantly improved fuel economy on the highway, hybrid cars do well in extended traffic and stop-and-go situations. Hybrids may also be best for you if you don't have a parking spot with easy access to a power source. For PHEVs to deliver their intended efficiencies, they need to be charged to use their batteries, which can be hard for people living in public housing, apartments, or other rental situations. All of that said, hybrid cars' gasoline engines can feel underpowered and even weak at times, so a PHEV may be a better choice if performance is your priority.

In terms of pricing, plug-in hybrids are typically more expensive than HEVs. The upside for buyers wanting a PHEV is that their federal and state tax credits and other incentives can help offset that extra dollar amount. These credits are not applied at the time of purchase, though, so you need to plan ahead. Automakers love to factor in the tax credits with their sales prices to make their cars more appealing, but buyers have to wait until the end of the year to see any financial benefit. These credits also phase out over time, so the most popular PHEVs and EVs offer a declining credit amount as they are sold in higher numbers. Recent legislation, if passed, will also limit the rebates to vehicles within a certain price range, so more expensive vehicles won't be eligible for credits.

The downside to both types of vehicles is that batteries only last so long, and their capacity decreases over time. Just like your cellphone's battery, which seems to die faster as time goes on, the batteries in electrified cars can only be charged and discharged so many times before they start to fade. To help with this issue, automakers offer longer battery warranties on their vehicles - usually to ten years or 100,000 miles. This should not be a reason not to buy either, as you'll likely be ready to buy a new vehicle by the 100,000-mile mark anyway, and gas engines usually need significant maintenance as they age.

What are Some Examples of Both?

There are many great versions of both types of cars on the market today. In terms of hybrid cars, there's always the Toyota Prius, but now there are so many more to choose from.

Examples include:

  • Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid
  • Honda Accord Hybrid
  • Toyota Camry Hybrid

Plug-in hybrid car offerings are just as extensive.

A few examples include:

  • Toyota Prius Prime
  • Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid
  • Toyota RAV4 Prime

What About EVs?

It's important to consider electric vehicles. Pure electric cars deliver exceptional torque and power, use no gasoline, and operate in near silence. While they are usually the most expensive option, for some people they can be a solution that really works. Cars such as the Tesla Model S, Chevrolet Bolt, Ford Mustang Mach-E, and the Nissan Leaf use no gasoline and can travel hundreds of miles on a single charge.

However, if you don't live near a charger, range anxiety is a real thing. Once your battery starts to run low on juice, recharging it is not as easy as pulling into a gas station and pumping a tank full of fuel. You'll need to plan ahead to find a charger and then spend time charging, as most EVs require at least half an hour or more to recover any significant amount of battery power.

Electric vehicles are expensive, which can be a big problem for hopeful buyers. Tesla, Porsche, and others are premium brands with premium car pricing, but even the Ford Mustang Mach-E and others can be out of reach for everyday car buyers. There's hope that, over time, technology and battery manufacturing will become cheaper, which will drive prices down, but that could take a while. Thankfully, we have a few affordable EVs, such as the Nissan Leaf, in the meantime.

No matter which type of electrified vehicle you choose, you'll enjoy a few key benefits. Fuel savings are probably top of mind, but you need to remember that you'll be paying more for a hybrid, PHEV, or EV upfront, so there's ground to be made up. The reductions in your emissions levels should make you feel better about your driving habits as well, but it's good to know that building battery packs requires energy and takes a mining effort to drive raw materials to do so.

Depending on where you live, you may also have fewer standard gas-powered cars to choose from in the near future. Automakers of all sizes and types have issued commitments to shifting to full or partial electrification, which means that the number of traditional vehicles they build will decrease over time as they focus more on low- or zero-emissions vehicles. Countries around the world are also slowly phasing out gas engines or banning their sale altogether, as global warming and climate change-driven catastrophes are becoming a big priority.