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Hybrid vs. Plug-In Hybrid vs. Electric Vehicles: Understanding the Differences

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Choosing an eco-friendly car in today’s market can be downright confusing. Picking the right vehicle is not just about paint color or engine size, but also about how it fits into your lifestyle. If you want to go green, here are the differences between hybrid, plug-in hybrid (PHEV) and electric vehicles (EVs), and how to determine which type will suit you the best.

Hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles: The basics

Your research into alternative powertrains should begin before you leave the house. Here are a few key terms to understand before heading to the dealership:

  • Internal combustion engine: An internal combustion engine, or ICE, uses fuel to propel the vehicle. Conventional cars and trucks use gasoline or diesel to power the engine.
  • Electric motor: An electric motor uses the energy stored within one or more batteries to propel the vehicle.

All “green” cars have an electric motor and battery system instead of – or in addition to – a regular internal combustion engine. The crucial difference between them is how they are powered. A regular hybrid’s battery is charged while you drive whereas a plug-in hybrid gets its power from being plugged in. An EV has only a motor-battery system that gets energy from an outlet.

Hybrid vehiclesPlug-in hybrids (PHEVs)Electric vehicles (EVs)
Generally the lowest prices among “green” vehiclesTypically lower prices than EVsUsually the highest prices among “green” car options
Improved gas mileage; no stressing over EV mileage rangeFully-electric driving for a small range (20 to 35 miles) before the engine kicks inAbsolutely no money spent at the gas pump; but you need to plan for longer road trips 
Regular maintenance and repairs are requiredRegular maintenance and repairs are requiredSignificant savings – little maintenance is required

Hybrid vehicles

Best for: Drivers who want a lower-priced, eco-friendly car that still offers all the benefits of a gas-powered vehicle.

Hybrid vehicles combine an internal combustion engine with an electric motor that takes its power from the battery. These types of cars have a regenerative braking system, which captures the energy saved when braking and redirects it to the battery. A hybrid vehicle’s battery gets charged in two ways: from the engine and from the regenerative braking system, which saves up the power you’d otherwise lose every time you tap the brakes.

How strong your benefits are depends on whether you have a mild or a full hybrid. In a mild hybrid, your fuel economy is improved, but you cannot travel on battery power alone.

A full hybrid, on the other hand, can operate on electricity alone for short distances when driving at low speeds, and returns better fuel economy overall thanks to a larger battery and more powerful motor.

Hybrid vehicles are a good match for drivers who want better fuel efficiency without the hassle of plugging in at a charging station. New vehicle prices are on the rise, but hybrids are the cheapest alternative fuel vehicles available.

ProsCons

  Priced lower than other eco-friendly cars

  Better fuel economy and lower emissions than regular vehicles

  No need to stress over EV range 

  Priced higher than a conventional vehicle

  Still produces fossil fuel emissions

  No federal hybrid-car tax deductions

Plug-in hybrid vehicles

Best for: Drivers seeking the flexibility of electric power for shorter trips and gasoline for longer ones.

Plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) differ from hybrids because you can charge the battery by plugging it into an outside power source. Since PHEVs are equipped with larger battery packs, they can drive on electricity alone, usually a commuter-friendly 20 to 35 miles.

Drivers who rely solely on the ICE or regenerative braking system to charge the battery achieve fuel efficiency comparable to a hybrid vehicle. However, drivers who consistently charge the battery with an external power source can make short trips using electricity alone.

If you forget to plug your car in for the night or need to go on a longer road trip, there’s no risk of being stranded due to lack of charge because you still have an engine as your primary power source.

ProsCons

  Offers lower fuel costs

  A 20 to 35 mile daily commute may be fully electric

  May be eligible for a tax break

  Costs more than conventional and hybrid vehicles

  An at-home fast charger may be pricey

Electric vehicles

Best for: Drivers who have easy access to electric charging sources.

Most electric vehicles (EVs) on the market today can travel over 200 miles when fully charged, which is still about 100 miles less than what you’ll get on a tank of gas. Car makers continue to improve range, however, and EVs boast several advantages over hybrids and PHEVs.

Mainly, your long-term car ownership costs are drastically reduced. Electricity is much cheaper than gas and, without an engine, EVs have far fewer parts to maintain or repair. In addition, EVs can take your breath away with instant acceleration, are quieter than their gasoline-powered counterparts, have more storage under the hood and, with no tailpipe emissions, they’re the most eco-friendly of the bunch.

Keep in mind that some states are better than others at embracing EVs. You’ll find great tax credits and plenty of charging stations in some states, but few financial incentives or charging stations in others. If you’re in the market for an electric vehicle, read more about how much a Tesla costs.

ProsCons

  Lower cost to charge and maintain

  Quick and quiet acceleration

  No tailpipe emissions

  May save money with tax incentives

  Higher price tag

  Fewer EV charging stations than gas stations

  Takes time to charge

  Extreme temperatures can reduce driving range

Electric vehicle vs. hybrid vs. plug-in hybrid: Which is right for you?

When shopping for an eco-friendly vehicle, choosing the right one often depends on your driving habits and comfort level.

Shoppers looking for a more affordable vehicle with above-average fuel efficiency may find that a regular hybrid fits the bill. You don’t have to charge them up to drive them and the partial use of the electric motors make them environmentally friendlier than a conventional car.

For an increased price, plug-in hybrids offer the most flexibility. You can go gas-free on shorter drives and still fuel up for longer ones.

With zero tailpipe emissions, electric vehicles are certainly the most eco-friendly option. They have higher price tags than conventional and hybrid cars but you’ll most likely save money in the long term. There are also huge projects underway to increase the number of charging stations across the nation.

Frequently asked questions

Drivers who want to pay less at the pump may prefer a plug-in hybrid over a hybrid.

If your battery isn’t charged or runs out of charge, the gas engine takes over. If you don’t plug in your PHEV at all, its batteries are still automatically charged through the vehicle’s regenerative braking system and its engine, but the charge it receives may be minimal and not enough to allow you to drive without using fuel.

A plug-in hybrid can usually travel 20 to 35 miles in electric mode before switching to the gas engine.

An EV battery is estimated to last for the life of the vehicle, 10 to 20 years. Replacement batteries can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $20,000, but some manufacturers cover the battery in their warranty, commonly for eight years and 100,000 miles.

 

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