A hybrid vehicle is simple: It uses a combination of a gasoline-fueled engine and an electric motor. But what does that mean for you? Why would I want a hybrid? Why would I not want a hybrid? The very simplest answer is that a hybrid will generally sacrifice some power delivered to the wheels in order to give the best fuel efficiency in every driving scenario, from the city to the highway and at all speeds and accelerations.
But there’s more to a hybrid than that. First of all, there are both hybrids (HEVs) and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs). Then you’ve got the full-electric vehicles that are becoming more and more common nowadays. These can range from “mild” hybrids with small electric motors that help out with acceleration, stopping and starting, and recover energy while braking, to big-battery long-range EVs. But while those are at the two extremes of the spectrum, HEVs and PHEVs land somewhere in the middle. They’re the most common and the most practical, so lets dive into the differences and similarities between them to help you decide which option is the best for you.
How Does A Hybrid Car Work?
The first hybrid to hit the market was the Honda Insight, which they first released in 2000. However, the Toyota Prius, which came out soon after, almost immediately surpassed the Insight and became the prototypical “hybrid” in the eyes of most consumers. These conventional hybrids have modest batteries which serve to supplement their traditional gasoline engines. The engine charges the batteries as you drive. There’s no need to plug them in as with PHEVs and EVs.
Today, virtually every single car manufacturer offers a wide range of HEVs, from cars to SUVs to full-sized pickup trucks. These vehicles excel at stop-and-go city driving, where frequent breaking helps the car recapture energy. There is a trade-off, however. HEVs don’t particularly outperform traditional gas engines on the highway. Their added complexity also comes with a higher price point.
They also have a very limited ability to drive under pure electric power, if they can at all. However, they don’t need to be plugged in like PHEVs and EVs.
Plug-In Hybrids: You Get What You Pay For
As electric automotive technology advances, more and more car manufacturers are offering hybrids with more substantial batteries. You can recharge these batteries either with your standard 120-volt household outlet or with a specialized 240-volt charging unit. The typical PHEV, such as the Prius Prime, will offer a range of 25 electric-only miles, and will charge in about 5.5 or 2 hours with a 120-volt and 240-volt charger, respectively.
The main drawback of a PHEV is simple: Price. Larger batteries, plus added hardware and software means that PHEVs will generally cost several thousand dollars more than a conventional hybrid. However, you get what you pay for. PHEVs offer the ability to drive on pure electric power for 25 miles or more, bridging the gap between the hybrid and a true electric vehicle.
An important point to note is that while PHEVs can offer pure-electric driving, they don’t have to be plugged in. If you haven’t charged your PHEV, it will still function the same as a regular hybrid as long as there’s gas in the tank.
Hybrid Costs vs. Hybrid Benefits
So should you buy a hybrid? That’s a calculation you have to make for yourself. Should you shell out the extra cash to get an HEV or PHEV? That depends on a number of factors. From a purely financial point of view, traditional gas-powered cars are still generally the most cost-effective option, even factoring in the improved gas mileage of an HEV. However, less frequent trips to the gas station are an undeniable benefit. Then there’s the fun of driving under pure electric power, and the obvious environmental benefits of switching to electric, even gradually. In the end, the decision will be up to you, but at least now you’re a little more knowledgeable on the subject.