What is a hybrid car?

"Hybrid car" is a catch-all term for any car that has an internal combustion engine (ICE) and an electric motor that's powered by batteries. There are three main types of hybrid cars (mild, full, and plug-in), categorized by how and when the electric motor and battery are used to power the car and its components.

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How does a hybrid car work?

A hybrid car has an internal combustion engine (ICE) and electric motor which work together to power the vehicle and its systems, such as the climate control, stereo, and more. Depending on the type of hybrid, the electric motor may either provide additional power to the ICE to reduce fuel consumption or propel the vehicle itself.

An additional battery helps power the electric motor and stores energy from regenerative braking, a system that converts the vehicle's forward momentum into electricity while braking.

Does a hybrid car use gas?

Yes, just like a conventional car, a hybrid car uses gasoline to power the ICE. For mild and full hybrids, the gasoline-powered engine either directly powers the vehicle or shares duties with an electric motor and its battery. For plug-in hybrids, the engine serves as a backup energy source for the electric motor when the battery runs out.

What happens if a hybrid runs out of gas?

If you have a full hybrid or plug-in hybrid, your car's electric motor and battery will keep you going when you run out of gas. In a mild hybrid, the electric motor/battery isn't designed to move the vehicle by itself, so you're out of luck until you can put more gas in the tank.

Are hybrid cars expensive to repair?

Maintenance and repairs can be more expensive with hybrid cars because you're dealing with two power systems (the ICE and electric components) instead of one. Plus, the battery will degrade over time, requiring replacement at some point in the future.

However, the amount you spend on gas with a hybrid car is often significantly less. Plus, hybrids also have reduced emissions and higher fuel efficiency, making them more environmentally friendly to drive.

Should you buy a hybrid car?

According to Consumer Reports, many hybrids cost about the same as their gas-only counterparts, and those that do cost more typically make up the difference in fuel savings. If the price of the hybrid model you're looking at is roughly the same as the gasoline model, then your decision may come down to potential repair costs and how important fuel efficiency is to you.

Because of their reduced emissions, hybrid car purchases may also qualify for tax credits, incentives, and rebates at the federal, state, and local levels.

If reducing your carbon footprint is a major selling point, then you might consider an all-electric vehicle instead. All-electric vehicles are entirely powered by their electric motor and battery, producing zero emissions. EVs tend to cost more than hybrid and gas-powered cars up front, but make up some difference through lower maintenance costs and not needing gas.

Learn more about the differences between hybrid vs. electric cars and hybrid vs. gas cars.

Hybrid cars: Pros and cons by type

There are three main types of hybrid cars, each with advantages and disadvantages:

  • Mild hybrid cars have an electric system that only provides a brief acceleration assist to the gas-powered engine when the car is fully stopped. It also powers things like the heating and air conditioning, stereo, and other non-driving components. Mild hybrid cars tend to be the least expensive hybrid type and offer some fuel savings over gas-only cars.
  • Full hybrid cars have an electric system that drives the powertrain. The electric motor usually handles city driving, and the ICE/gas engine takes over for highway driving. Full hybrids are more expensive than mild hybrids (and ICE-only cars) but can retain a higher value throughout their lifespan. They also have greater fuel savings and a reduced environmental impact, though they may be more expensive to maintain because of the added engine complexity.
  • Plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) are designed to be able to use an electric motor and battery as their primary energy source. The ICE may run simultaneously or only be a backup — coming online when the electric battery is running out of power. These tend to be the most expensive hybrid cars, and the potential fuel savings are highest. Plug-in hybrid cars also have the lowest emissions impact on the environment. You'll want to make sure there are charging stations available at home and along any longer routes you take so you can take full advantage of the electric motor and battery.

Important note: A fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) might be considered a fourth type of hybrid car, but they're not widely available yet. Instead of using gasoline, FCEV hybrids use a hydrogen fuel cell that has zero emissions — only water vapor and hot air come out of the tailpipe. If you live near a hydrogen refueling station (most, if not all, U.S. stations are in California) then you may find a fuel cell EV worthwhile.

Pro tip:

Want to learn more about how hybrids work? The Department of Energy's Alternative Fuels Data Center has diagrams showing how the powertrains of full hybrids, plug-in hybrids, fuel cell EVs, and more vehicle types work.

What are the disadvantages of hybrid cars?

Generally speaking, hybrid cars are reliable, especially since the technology has been around for multiple generations of cars. However, there are some common hybrid-specific maintenance issues you might encounter:

  • Batteries: Getting a hybrid means having a second battery in the car, and it's one that may not (yet) perform as well as its ICE counterpart. It's also more expensive and may need to be replaced more often.
  • Catalytic converters: This car component helps convert exhaust gases into less toxic emissions. Catalytic converters are more expensive to replace on hybrids than on ICEs.
  • Evaporative emission systems (EVAP): This is another part of the car that controls emissions. The need to fix leaks and replace parts tends to be more common with hybrid cars.
  • Oxygen sensors: Oxygen sensors don't necessarily fail more often in hybrids versus ICE cars. However, a faulty oxygen sensor in a hybrid can lead to significantly lower fuel efficiency.

Are hybrid cars worth it?

Hybrid cars can be worth it if one of your priorities is your car's environmental impact, and you can invest in a car that's more expensive now but may save you money in the long run.

Deciding what kind of hybrid can depend on where you live, how you commute to work, and your lifestyle. For example, plug-in hybrids work best for people who own their own homes, don't have excessively long commutes, and don't typically drive long distances for pleasure.

On the other hand, full hybrids work well for shorter commutes and city driving because this driving type can lead to greater use of the electric-vehicle aspect of the car. Full hybrids also tend to have excellent fuel economy for longer drives.

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