So you’ve decided you want a car with an electric powertrain. Now you have to decide exactly which type of electrically-powered car to buy.
There are hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electrics to choose from, and each has its advantages and disadvantages. Understand the differences between these cars and you’ll be able to pick the one that’s best for your needs.
What are they?
Hybrid cars are powered by more than one powertrain, which generally means they have an internal combustion engine that requires gasoline and at least one electric motor.
Yes, you’re still using gas and you’ll still need to stop at the pump for a fill-up. The difference is that you won’t need to stop nearly as often as you will in a car with only a gasoline engine.
Hybrid cars run their electric motors only in select circumstances, not all the time. Even fully-charged, there is a maximum speed and distance at which they can operate solely in electric mode.
That electric-only distance and speed vary greatly, so it’s something you should understand clearly when you’re looking at buying a hybrid. The average is roughly 40 miles, but there are some cars with numbers much higher or lower.
Hybrid cars recharge themselves and cannot be plugged in to charge. Instead, they use something called regenerative braking. Every time the driver uses the brakes, it converts that mechanical brake energy into electricity to recharge the car’s battery.
If the battery depletes, then the car automatically switches over to the gasoline engine. You can run through the charge on your battery, but won’t be in trouble unless you run out of gas, too.
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Plug-in hybrids are very similar to straight hybrids, but with one big difference. You can plug these in and charge them to avoid having to use the gasoline engine altogether. They’re the middle child of electric powertrains.
They still operate much the same way as a hybrid with an electric motor that works at select speeds and for limited ranges. Run out of juice and it switches over to gasoline so you’re not stranded.
You can, however, plug these in for recharging so you can go back to using that electric motor even sooner. This means all those charging stations you see at the mall and in rest areas along the highway can charge you back up while you’re going about your business. There are also electric vehicle chargers you can buy to install at home so you can quickly charge up your car in your own garage.
Since gasoline is usually more expensive than electricity, there is a cost-savings to be had by going with a plug-in hybrid. Remember, however, that electricity still costs money. You’ll have to pay to use many public charging stations and charging up at home is going to raise your monthly electric bill.
Pure electric vehicles, EVs, have no source of power beyond their batteries. You will never need to stop for a fill-up, and you can feel good about knowing you’re not polluting the air on your drive to work each day.
These cars have longer ranges than their hybrid counterparts and can typically travel 80 to 100 miles on a single charge. That range is still a lot less than what you’ll get with a combustion engine and it’s one of the big challenges to going full electric.
If you have a commute that falls within a vehicle’s specified range and access to a charging station once you get there, then the limited range might not be a problem. Otherwise, you might end up dealing with range anxiety, which is the fear that you aren’t going to make it to the nearest charging station before your battery runs dry.
There are limited opportunities for charging electric cars today. Although the number of charging stations continues to grow, you will not find them as easily as you will gas stations. They’re not on every corner, and it’s going to be awhile before they’re commonplace.
Often, there are only a few of them available at any one location so you could end up finding one, but not be able to use it until someone else charges their car first. You might find yourself running out to plug or unplug your car during the middle of the workday, too, which isn’t exactly convenient.
Road trips are particularly challenging if you choose an EV. Depending on where you’re going, there might not be ready access to a charging station at all. Planning your trip becomes a little more complicated when you have to plan your route around charging stations.
Which are the pros and cons?
There are good reasons to buy each of these powertrains, and there are also compelling reasons to avoid them. Which electric powertrain will work best for you depends on your personal needs and preferences.
One big consideration is how the batteries in these cars will perform over time. The technology is still relatively new, so there isn’t a lot of data about long-term reliability. They all come with warranties, but when those warranties expire these batteries are expensive to replace.
Hybrids are the best of both worlds. They give you the improved fuel economy of having an electric engine do some of the work without having to worry about stopping for charging or changing your driving habits. They also eliminate range anxiety.
You drive these just like you would a car with solely a combustion engine and only have to worry about keeping an eye on the gas gauge. It’s no different driving a hybrid than driving that gasoline-powered car you’ve been driving for years.
The drawback is that hybrids cost a premium over their gas-only counterparts. You’ll pay more to put one in your driveway, so you need to figure out if the additional cost is worth the improved fuel economy and savings at the pump.
Sometimes, it’s not just about fuel economy. The environmental impact of driving a hybrid is another driving factor for many buyers. Greenhouse gas emissions are lower for these cars, which for many people is worth the extra cost, even if it doesn’t make the best financial sense.
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Plug-ins let you travel more often on electric power, which means even greater savings on gas. Electricity is cheaper, so even if your electric bill goes up, you’ll still be paying less than if you were fueling solely with gasoline.
To reap the greatest benefits from a plug-in, your daily travels need to take you past charging stations. If there’s nowhere to charge at the office, or at the places you’re likely to park for extended periods of time, then you may end up relying on gas to get around.
You’ll also have to invest a little cash to get a charging station installed at your home. It’s a one-time cost, but it does add to the initial cash outlay of getting into a plug-in hybrid vehicle.
Depending on the exact year, make, and model you choose, there may be rebates available from the government for plug-ins and electric vehicles. Make sure you ask what’s available on your car before you buy as these can offer significant savings if you pick the right model.
You can say goodbye to gasoline completely when you buy an EV. The good thing is that you’ll pay less to fuel your car since its fuel is electricity. The bad news is that you can’t rely on gasoline as a backup.
You have no choice but to charge up when your battery runs low, so you absolutely must plan your driving with possible charging stations in mind. You need a short commute or a charging station at work to make an EV practical.
EVs also limit your flexibility, especially on a road trip. Although the number of charging stations is growing, they’re still nowhere near as easy to find as a gas station. You simply must plan ahead when road tripping in an EV.
On the flip-side, these are the best choice if protecting the environment is a the top of your list. This is why you’ll find some of the greatest government rebates and incentives for buying these cars. They can help reduce your initial cost and make you feel even better about driving an EV.