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Hybrid, Plug-in, Electric: What’s The Difference?

To paraphrase Mark Twain, “the reports of the internal combustion engine’s death have been greatly exaggerated.” Nevertheless, automotive manufacturers are continuing to evolve vehicle powertrain technology. Many are embracing gasoline-electric hybrid and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, while others are actually throwing petroleum out the window and focusing solely on electric power.

As a result, automobiles are entering a new age of efficiency. Fuel economy figures for petroleum-burning engines continue to soar to new heights, while battery packs are now able to power electric motors for more than 100 miles between charges. So what’s the difference between these technologies, and which is best for you?

2013 Ford C-MAX Hybrid 01


Gasoline-electric hybrids rely on both a gasoline engine and electric motor(s) for momentum. The battery pack that supplies energy to the electric motor is recharged by the vehicle, be it through the traditional internal combustion engine or regenerative braking. 

2016 Chevrolet Volt

Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV)

As the “hybrid” in its name implies, a PHEV also relies on a gasoline engine and electric motor(s); however, unlike a standard hybrid, a PHEV can be “plugged in” so that the battery pack can be recharged from the grid instead of from the vehicle itself.

PHEVs can travel a number of miles on electricity alone. While some use the gasoline engine to help foster momentum in certain conditions, others simply use the gasoline engine as a generator. While the electric-only range of PHEVs is often competitive with that of pure electric vehicles, many consumers prefer the peace of mind that comes with having a gasoline generator on board, as it is quicker to refuel and allows for traveling distances that are greater than the battery pack’s range.

BMW i3 Review

Electric Vehicle (EV)

Like a PHEV, EVs can travel many miles on nothing but electricity. Unlike PHEVs, EVs rely only on the electric motor for motivation. There is no gasoline engine to contribute to momentum or to generate energy for the vehicle’s battery pack. EVs have come a long way, and many of today’s electric vehicles can be fully charged in a few hours. More important, a number of today’s EVs can travel more than 100 miles between charges, which is more than enough range for almost any scenario short of a road trip.
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