If you’re weighing the options for cars with better fuel economy on the market, you may be considering both electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrids. EVs and hybrid cars strive to move away from the gas-powered engine to save owners money spent on fuel and reduce total fuel emissions.
Both types of car have their benefits as well as their drawbacks. The technology is newer, so infrastructure for cars that run off electricity is a work in progress, and maintenance for the more-complex battery systems can be expensive. However, there are some federal, state, and local tax incentives available to approved cars, as well as HOV/carpool lane access in certain areas.
When deciding between an EV and a hybrid, it’s important to understand what qualifies them as a hybrid or EV, their differences, and the pros and cons to owning either.
Hybrid cars are a combination of internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEs) and chargeable electric cars. They feature both a traditional engine fueled by gasoline and rechargeable battery functionality. Hybrids receive power from either both engine types for optimized power or solely one depending on the driving style of the user.
There are two main types of hybrids: standard hybrids and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs). Within the “standard hybrid” umbrella there are also mild and series hybrids, each differing in its incorporation of electric-powered vehicle technologies:
Mild hybrids add small levels of electric components to the ICE-powered car. When going downhill or coming to a total stop, such as at a stoplight, a mild hybrid’s ICE might shut off entirely, especially if it carries a light load. The ICE restarts on its own, and the electric components of the car help power the stereo, air conditioning, and, in some models, regenerative braking and power-assistance. However, at no point can it run exclusively on electric power.
- Pros: Mild hybrids can save fuel expenses, are relatively lightweight, and cost less than other types of hybrids.
- Cons: They still cost more than ICE-only cars in purchase and repairs and lack full-EV functionality.
Also known as a power split or parallel hybrid, series hybrids use a small ICE to power the vehicle at high speeds and when carrying heavy loads. A battery-electric system powers the car in other conditions. It strikes a balance in optimal ICE performance and fuel efficiency by only engaging the engine when it will work best.
- Pros: Great for city driving, series hybrids only use gas for faster, longer drives, and are often very affordable in combined terms of fuel efficiency and price.
- Cons: Due to the complexity of electrical parts, series hybrids remain more expensive than traditional vehicles of the same size and often have a reduced power output.
Plug-in hybrids have the capacity to charge at electric-vehicle charging stations. Though they still have ICEs and use regenerative braking for battery power, they can drive longer distances powered exclusively by an electric motor. They also have a larger battery pack compared to standard hybrids, making them heavier but allowing them to use electrical power to greater advantage and overall driving range.
- Pros: Plug-ins have an extended range compared to battery-electric cars because of the additional gas-powered engine, are cheaper to buy than most EVs, and cheaper to run than standard hybrids.
- Cons: They still cost more to purchase than standard hybrids and traditional ICE cars and carry more weight than standard hybrids with the larger battery pack.
- Fuel: Since hybrids run on fuel as well as electricity, there remains fossil fuel expenses that can be limited depending on driving style. Hybrids can switch from electric to fuel-power, which gives them an extensive range in certain cases. For instance, a driver is more likely to run out of electric charge before running out of gas.
- Maintenance: Hybrids retain all the maintenance issues ICE car owners face in addition to the risk of battery replacement costs. They can be more cost-effective when it comes to gas prices but have similar maintenance costs to traditional cars.
According to Seth Leitman, an electric car expert, the newest generation "deliver[s] zero-emissision vehicles with enhanced power, range, and safety." EVs are powered by a large battery with at least one electric drive motor wired for power and a complex software system to manage the battery. They are less mechanically-complex than ICEs but more complicated in battery design. EVs have a higher fully-electric power range than plug-ins but don’t have the extended gas-powered range.
- Pros: EVs have a low maintenance cost due to structural simplicity, and offer a nearly silent drive, cheap electric fueling options (including in-home charging), and zero emissions.
- Cons: Still a work in progress, EVs are pricey and limited in range with long charging times. Owners need a home charger, and the overall environmental impact of used-up batteries is not yet known.
- Fuel: Electric vehicles save owners money on fuel costs so long as they have a home charging station. Currently, electricity is cheaper than gas, and the electricity needed to charge the car goes on household electricity bills.
- Maintenance: Many maintenance costs for traditional cars are irrelevant to EV owners due to the lack of a combustion engine. However, owners still need to watch their tires, insurance, and any accidental damage. The EV’s battery can also cost a lot to replace if it degrades after the car’s battery warranty period.
Electric Vehicle or Hybrid Car?
Choosing between an electric vehicle or a type of hybrid comes down to individual affordability, which depends greatly on driving style. Electric vehicles don’t have the same benefits to those with frequent long drives when compared to plug-in hybrids, or even internal combustion engine cars. Tax benefits and rebates are applied to both EVs and hybrids, but the total savings amount varies between states and localities. Both reduce the number of emissions and cut back on gasoline engine use, but pros and cons remain for both types of cars. The choice comes down to your own driving needs.