What is a plug-in hybrid vehicle?

Plug-in hybrids are also known as PHEVs, which stands for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. PHEVs have two motors: one that uses battery power to run, and an ICE (internal combustion engine) that uses gasoline or diesel to run. Compared to a traditional hybrid car, a plug-in hybrid has a larger battery and offers a greater all-electric range. A PHEV can run on its battery and then switch over to run on the engine. A PHEV can get some charge from its ICE and regenerative braking, but you'll likely need to plug it in to fully recharge the electric battery.

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How does a plug-in hybrid work?

PHEVs work by combining a combustion engine with an electric motor — so they can use gas, battery power, or a mix of the two to run. Plug-in hybrids have a larger electric battery and a different recharging system than traditional hybrid vehicles.

Depending on the model, an average plug-in hybrid's range is anywhere from 10 to 30 miles per charge, with some models reaching nearly 50 miles using all-electric power. In comparison, a traditional hybrid battery might only power a car on full electric mode for a mile or two, or it might only use electric power for non-driving functions. When the battery in a PHEV runs out, the combustion engine takes over and allows you to continue driving as long as the car has conventional fuel.

What happens when a plug-in hybrid runs out of charge?

When a PHEV runs out of charge, it will continue driving like a conventional car as long as there's gas in the tank. Unlike a traditional hybrid, which can fully charge its smaller battery from the combustion engine and regenerative braking, the larger PHEV battery typically must be plugged into a socket to fully recharge.

Do plug-in hybrids charge while driving?

Yes, PHEVs may get some charge while driving, using these charging methods:

  • Regenerative braking

    When the vehicle slows down or brakes, the electric motor acts as a generator converting the kinetic energy of braking to electrical energy to recharge the battery.

  • ICE-powered generator

    In some PHEVs, the engine also serves as a generator to charge the battery. If the battery runs low while the engine is running, it can generate electricity to power the electric motor or add charge to the battery. Using the ICE to charge the battery isn't the most efficient, but it can serve to extend the battery range and improve fuel efficiency.

While a PHEV can recharge while moving, plugging in to a wall charger or charging station is the best way to maximize the electrical benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

How long does it take to charge a plug-in hybrid?

A PHEV may take one to six hours to fully recharge, depending on the vehicle and the type of charger used. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has established the EV Charging Minimum Standards Rule, providing the following charging time standards for PHEVs based on the charger type:

  • Level 1 chargers can take 5-6 hours to charge a PHEV
  • Level 2 chargers can charge a PHEV in 1-2 hours
  • Direct current fast charging (DCFC): Most PHEVs currently on the market do not work with fast chargers, per the U.S. DOT

Learn about the EV revolution and how to manage battery life.

Advantages of plug-in hybrid cars

  • Low running costs, low emissions, and possible tax incentives of an electric vehicle
  • You can commute short-range and run daily errands without ever using the gas engine
  • You won't have to worry about getting stranded without a charge on long trips, thanks to the built-in ICE

Disadvantages of plug-in hybrid cars

  • When running exclusively on the ICE, a PHEV's heavy battery can diminish mileage compared to a non-hybrid vehicle
  • PHEVs usually cost more upfront than a traditional hybrid or a gas-only vehicle
  • EVs can be complicated to maintain, and the ICE will still require the regular maintenance that a traditional gas vehicle would

Are plug-in hybrids worth it?

Plug-in hybrids are best suited for people who do a small amount of driving on most days and take longer trips with some regularity. For instance, if your round-trip work commute is less than a PHEV's all-electric range and you regularly take weekend trips that would require using the gas-powered engine, the plug-in hybrid can be worth it. Plug-in hybrids are also a good fit for drivers who want lower day-to-day operating costs and don't mind paying higher upfront costs.

On the other hand, if your day-to-day routine involves more driving than the vehicle's all-electric range and you're wondering if you should buy a plug-in hybrid, the benefits may not outweigh the costs. A traditional hybrid may offer you better fuel economy and cost savings.

If you want to make the most of your PHEV, you may want to install a 240V outlet or charging station at your house, which can also be costly but worth it in the long run.

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