What is a plug-in hybrid? If you’ve not bought a car in a while, you’ll be amazed at how things have advanced in recent years. The arrival of hybrid and electric cars are major steps towards eco-friendly driving, but they have also made car buying vastly more complicated.
You’ll have realised this if you’ve just been bombarded with phrases like ‘plug in hybrid’, ‘mild hybrid’, ‘PHEV’, ‘kilowatt-hours’ and all the other jargon that has infiltrated the car world over the last decade.
Plug-in hybrids are especially difficult to decipher, because they combine the petrol powertrain you’re accustomed to with electric abilities that need explaining from scratch. That’s why you’re here, right?
What is a plug-in hybrid?
A plug-in hybrid car has a larger battery and offers a greater all-electric range than a traditional hybrid, but it can also be powered by gas or diesel like a regular car. Plug-in hybrids are often called PHEVs, which stands for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.
PHEVs have a larger battery than regular hybrids have, so they can be driven farther and more often on electric power. As with regular hybrids, regenerative braking can extend the battery’s range, and the gasoline-powered engine and electric motor switch back and forth as needed. Owners can get by with Level 1 charging (120 volts) because the battery packs are small compared with those in pure EVs.
- Most can travel between 20 and 40 miles on electric power.
- They get good fuel economy even after the electric range is depleted.
- They provide the benefits of a pure EV for short drives or commutes while still having a gas engine for longer trips without charging worries or range limitations.
- Some are eligible for a federal tax incentive of up to $7,500.
- They’re more expensive than regular hybrids or gasoline cars.
- To reap full efficiency benefits, owners must recharge frequently.
- Some are less fuel-efficient than regular hybrids once the electric portion is depleted.
- Plug-in components often take up cargo space.
- Charging can be challenging if you live in a multi-unit dwelling or don’t have access to off-street parking.
Other Plug-In Options
Because plug-in hybrids often account for a very small portion of a model line, we sent only a few through our test program this past year. But we rented several PHEVs from automakers to gain valuable intel.
Among those we particularly liked was the BMW 330e ($42,950-$44,950). It provides almost all the driving excitement of the regular 330i we tested, with about 20 miles of electric-only range.
We also rented a Lexus NX 450h+ SUV ($56,725-$57,975). It has an electric-only range up to 37 miles, and mighty quick acceleration—but the gas engine sounds coarse when you push it hard.
The Jeep Wrangler 4xe ($52,530-$58,105), shown above, can traverse off-road trails using whisper-quiet electric motors and has an electric range of 22 miles. But it gets Environmental Protection Agency-estimated fuel economy of only 20 mpg combined when running as a regular hybrid, and it costs about $7,000 to $12,000 more than a standard model.
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.
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.
How long does charging take?
Depends on the model. PHEVs have much smaller batteries than you’ll find in fully electric cars (typically measuring around 10 to 20kWh in size, though some blow this range out the water) but they also do without the rapid charging tech that allows EVs to be topped up in under an hour. Because, when you’ve got a tank of petrol to fall back on, that’d be overkill.
On a normal domestic supply of 2-3kW you’re looking at a charge time of five hours or more, which sounds rubbish but is perfectly adequate if you’re plugged in overnight at home or at the office during the day. One of those wallboxes mentioned above could bump you up to 7kW or more, thereby slashing your top-up times.
What else should I know about plug-in hybrids?
They tend to be more expensive than petrol and diesel equivalents because more tech equals more money. And although the batteries are smaller than those found in electric cars, even a few kilowatt-hours’ worth of cells is a hefty weight to lug around, so they’ll be heavier than non-hybrid versions as well as pricier.
The presence of a battery also has implications for interior space: most PHEVs will have theirs stowed somewhere under the back seats and boot, which typically means less room for bags and, y’know, stuff.
However, PHEVs have a habit of being the most powerful versions in model line-ups, as the combined power of engine and motor means hot-hatch embarrassing acceleration.
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.
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.
How far can plug-in hybrids travel using just electric power?
If you’re wondering how far plug-in hybrids travel using electric power, know that it varies from model to model.
At the top end of the spectrum, the 2023 Land Rover Range Rover P440e cruises for up to 48 miles with electricity as its sole power source. If you’re looking for something more affordable, the RAV4 Prime offers up to 42 miles of electric driving range.
However, not all plug-in hybrids are as gifted in the range department. For example, the Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid and Porsche Cayenne E-Hybrid travel just 17 miles on electric power.
How do you fuel a plug-in hybrid?
Unlike standard hybrids, PHEVs have a charge port. This feature allows you to use a charger to power the battery.
You can deliver this charge using charging equipment or a wall outlet. You also have options regarding where you charge. You can charge a PHEV at a public charging point or you can take care of this at home using a wall outlet or charger.
Also, as with standard hybrids, PHEVs deliver some charge to the battery using regenerative braking and power from the gas engine.
Plug-in hybrids typically run on electricity until the battery is almost depleted. At that point, the gas engine takes over.
Like other gas-powered vehicles, PHEVs have a fuel tank that stores gasoline until the engine needs it. You can use a fuel filler at a gas station to add gas to the tank.
How do plug-in hybrids impact the environment?
Since they’re able to run using just electric power, PHEVs have the potential to impact the environment significantly. But a lot depends on how you choose to drive these vehicles.
PHEVs emit zero direct emissions when operated in all-electric mode. Therefore, the more often you drive the car in this mode, the better it is for the environment.
In certain circumstances, you can drive your EV using electric power more often than you might think. Say, for example, you have a 10-mile commute to work; you can drive to work and back home using electric power if you have a PHEV with a 40-mile all-electric driving range.
In this scenario, you can commute to work daily using only electricity as power, provided you can charge your car each night.
What about if you never charge the car and use only gas power? Your PHEV will rely solely on its gas engine in cases like that. PHEVs produce tailpipe emissions when gasoline is the fuel source.
What’s the point of a plug-in hybrid?
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.
Do plug-in hybrid charge while driving?
Plug-in hybrid cars, known as PHEVs, are powered by an electric motor and an internal combustion engine (ICE). Their battery can be recharged whilst using a plug-in charging point and whilst driving. When the battery runs empty, the combustion engine will kick in.
What gets better mileage hybrid or plug-in hybrid?
Hybrids like the Toyota Prius can get as much as 57 miles per gallon, while PHEVs like the Kia Niro Plug in can get more than 50 mpg and go more than 30 miles in all-electric mode.
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