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 provides several hundred additional miles of range using conventional fuel until you have the opportunity to recharge.

Unlike a traditional hybrid, which can charge its smaller battery from the combustion engine and regenerative braking, the larger PHEV battery must be plugged into a socket to recharge. Depending on the car, a normal wall outlet can charge a PHEV in about six hours, while a dedicated, higher voltage outlet can charge a plug-in hybrid in about 3 hours. A very high voltage charger might do the job in as little as 15-20 minutes.

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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 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.

Advantages of plug-in hybrid cars

The primary advantage of a PHEV is that it offers the low running costs, low emissions, and possible tax incentives of an electric vehicle without the range anxiety. With a plug-in hybrid, you might be able to commute and run your daily errands without ever using the gas motor, and because of the backup gas-powered engine, you won't have to worry about getting stranded without a charge on long trips.

Disadvantages of plug-in hybrid cars

Disadvantages of the plug-in hybrid vehicle include its heavy battery, which can cause it to get worse mileage compared to a non-hybrid vehicle when running exclusively on the combustion engine. The battery packs are expensive, too. PHEVs usually cost more upfront than either a traditional hybrid or a gas-only vehicle. If you want to make the most of your PHEV, you'll want to install a 240V outlet or charging station at your house, which can also be costly.