What's the difference between a hybrid and a plug-in hybrid car?
The biggest differences between full hybrid vs. plug-in hybrid cars are the size, cost, and purpose of their electric batteries. Also, a plug-in hybrid's electric battery can be recharged at home or a public charging station. A full hybrid car recharges its electric battery using its gas-powered engine.
Plug-in hybrid vs. hybrid: The basics
You may see "HEV hybrid" vs. "PHEV hybrid" used to describe hybrid cars, so let's sort out these acronyms and definitions.
A PHEV hybrid car is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, which you can plug into an external power source to recharge its electric battery.
An HEV hybrid car refers to two different types of hybrid electric vehicles: the mild hybrid and the full hybrid:
- An HEV mild hybrid car has an electric motor and dedicated battery to support it. But the hybrid part is only used to power systems like the stereo and heating and air conditioning. When it comes to driving, the most it does is give the internal combustion engine (ICE), or gas-powered engine, a brief boost when you're accelerating from a full stop.
- HEV full hybrid cars work like electric cars at slower speeds, and they work like gas-powered cars at higher speeds. In some full hybrid models, the electric motor and ICE work independently and hand off control to each other. In other full hybrid models, they can work together to deliver extra power.
Full hybrid vs. plug-in hybrid: The biggest differences
The biggest functional differences between full hybrid and plug-in hybrid cars center on the electric battery in each:
- The battery's purpose differs in a plug-in hybrid vs. a hybrid. In a plug-in hybrid, the electric battery is the primary power source for the car. When the battery runs down, the internal combustion engine takes over. In a full hybrid, the battery only provides enough power for driving the car at slower speeds — in residential areas and cities, for example.
- The battery size and cost differ since the electric battery in a plug-in hybrid is larger and more expensive to replace than a full hybrid's electric battery.
- Battery recharging capabilities also differ in a plug-in hybrid vs. a full hybrid. A plug-in hybrid may be able to get a little charge through regenerative braking. But since a plug-in car has a larger battery that it relies on more, it needs to be connected to an external power source to fully recharge. Full hybrids can recharge their electric batteries through regenerative braking. They take the heat created by the braking process and convert it to electricity that the electric battery can store.
There's one similarity between plug-ins and full hybrids: If their batteries run down, both cars essentially become gasoline-powered cars. Use this table for a quick summary of plug-in hybrids vs. full hybrids:
Comparing full hybrid and plug-in hybrid cars
|Full hybrid cars||Plug-in hybrid cars|
|Electric power||Full hybrid carsCan power the car at slower speeds||Plug-in hybrid carsCan power the car in all uses|
|Battery size and cost||Full hybrid carsSmaller, less expensive||Plug-in hybrid carsLarger, more expensive|
|Recharging||Full hybrid carsRegenerative braking||Plug-in hybrid carsExternal power source|
|Gasoline power (ICE)||Full hybrid carsUsed in most driving conditions||Plug-in hybrid carsUsed simultaneously or only when electric power runs low|
What's better, a hybrid or a plug-in hybrid?
When determining which kind of hybrid is better, consider your driving habits, priorities, and what's realistic for you. For example, if you don't live somewhere you can install a charger (and you don't have access to a charger elsewhere), it simply may not be practical to get a plug-in hybrid.
If you drive long distances, you'll have to stop to recharge a plug-in hybrid often to continue using electric power, and that requires more time and planning than gassing up a full hybrid. But if environmental impact matters more to you, you may be fine with the trade-off. Furthermore, you can consider the difference between car insurance for pleasure vs. commuting, depending on how you plan to use your hybrid.
Plug-in hybrids are more expensive upfront, but you can spend less on fuel over the car's lifetime than with a full hybrid. The U.S. Department of Energy created a metric, the "eGallon," to help drivers more easily compare the cost of using electricity versus gasoline as fuel. And though full hybrids are more fuel-efficient than similar ICE-only cars, plug-in hybrids running on their electric batteries and motors are even more fuel-efficient by comparison.