Hybrid vs. electric cars: What's the difference?
The difference between hybrid and electric cars comes down to how the car is powered. A hybrid is powered by both an internal combustion engine (ICE) and an electric motor, with separate batteries for each. An electric vehicle uses only a battery and an electric motor to run. Both have a lower environmental impact than ICE-only (gas-only) cars, but they differ in upfront cost, driving ranges, maintenance costs, and ease of refueling or charging.
Defining hybrid cars vs. electric cars
There are different types of hybrid cars, and all share this defining characteristic: They have some ability to use electric power but also have an ICE (gas-powered engine). Hybrid cars vary in their extent of electric power usage, depending on whether the hybrid is a mild hybrid, series hybrid, or plug-in hybrid (PHEV). But all hybrid cars can fall back on their ICE.
Electric cars, on the other hand, are defined by their complete reliance on electric power. When their charge runs low, there's no ICE to kick in with gas power — the only option for an electric vehicle (EV) is to charge up.
Another type of car, the fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV), runs on an electric motor but uses a hydrogen-powered fuel cell. You must fill it with hydrogen gas like you would fill an ICE car with gasoline. In that sense, it has more in common with a hybrid car. But like an EV, it has no tailpipe emissions.
Pros and cons of hybrid vs. electric cars
Consider these factors when deciding which is better for you, hybrid or electric cars:
- Homeowner vs. renter: If you own your home, you can purchase and install a charger to charge your electric car or PHEV overnight. This may not be an option if you rent, unless you live in a community that already has chargers or would be open to adding them.
- Charging stations en route: If you plan to take road trips and you're considering an electric car, make sure there are ample charging stations along the way. If there aren't, a hybrid may be better for you so you don't end up stranded.
- Costs: Hybrids have both an electric system and an internal combustion engine to maintain, which can increase costs. And generally, the less reliant a hybrid is on electric power, the less it will cost upfront. Fully electric cars can even be more expensive upfront, but they have fewer moving parts, which means fewer things can break down. That said, electric vehicle repair costs can be expensive due the higher cost of EV parts and labor.
Whichever you choose, hybrids and electric cars share these characteristics when compared to their gasoline-powered counterparts:
- They're more expensive upfront than gas-powered cars
- They may be eligible for rebates or tax incentives that can help offset their higher cost
- They allow you to use less gas-powered fuel
- They hold their value longer
What's the environmental impact of hybrid vs. electric cars?
Because they have an internal combustion engine that burns gasoline (a fossil fuel), hybrid cars emit some gases. The one exception is the fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV), a hybrid that uses hydrogen instead of gasoline and has no tailpipe emissions.
Electric vehicles have no tailpipe emissions. But keep in mind that the electricity used to charge an EV may come from a power plant fueled by oil, natural gas, or coal. Also, hybrids and electric vehicles use electric car batteries that will eventually need to be disposed of, and we don't yet fully understand the environmental impact of that.
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