Electric vs. Hybrid vs. Plug-In Hybrid Vehicles: How to Choose

If you want to reduce your environmental impact on the road, you’ve likely considered switching to an all-electric, hybrid electric or plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. But when it comes to electric vs. hybrid or hybrid vs. plug-in hybrid, which of these is really your best choice? Discover how each of these vehicles work — as well as their unique advantages and drawbacks.

Electric vehicles (EVs or BEVs)

All-electric vehicles, sometimes referred to as battery-electric vehicles (BEVs), don’t use any gasoline at all, so you never have to make a trip to the pump. Instead, they always run in electric mode, with one or more electric motors, which rely on a powerful battery. Depending on the make and model, you can drive from at least 110 miles to about 400 miles on a single charge, according to the U.S. Department of Energy

If you’re a homeowner, you can charge your battery by connecting to one of your regular outdoor or garage outlets — or for faster charging, install a Level 2 charging station right in your own driveway or garage. You may also be able to charge up at your workplace. If you rent from a property that offers EV charging stations, you can use those (note: there might be an extra fee). Otherwise, you’ll need to rely on one of the more than 160,000 public charging ports across the country.

With prices starting at about $28,000, the upfront cost is generally higher for EVs than other types of vehicles. However, electric vehicles have fewer parts that need maintenance and repair, which means lower upkeep costs over the life of the car. Because electricity is cheaper than gas or diesel, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, EVs are also less costly to power.

EV advantages

  • The most eco-friendly choice, with zero tailpipe emissions.

  • Long battery life of 12-15 years under normal driving conditions.

  • Electricity is cheaper than gas or diesel.

  • Lower maintenance costs than other vehicle types.

  • All EVs have regenerative braking, which makes them even more efficient.

  • Vehicles have instant torque, which makes acceleration quiet and fast.

  • You may be able to charge your car at home or work.

EV disadvantages

  • Higher upfront price (EVs are more expensive than gas vehicles), and your auto insurance premiums may be higher as well.

  • It may be hard finding a place to charge in certain locations.

  • Charging takes a lot more time than gassing up.

  • If you have to replace your battery, it can be expensive.

  • Temperature extremes can reduce your driving range on a charge.

  • Regenerative braking and the weight of the vehicle usually result in faster tire wear (compared to a gas car). 

Hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs)

HEVs get their power from a gas (or diesel) internal combustion engine, and either one or more electric motors that draw their power from energy stored in a battery. The battery is charged through regenerative braking and through the engine itself, rather than plugging in. Full HEVs can run on battery power alone only for short distances and at slower speeds — improving your fuel efficiency in stop-and-go traffic — but not so much on the highway. You’ll still have to gas up to keep your car fueled — and most of the time, it’s still gas that powers your car.

HEVs drive much like conventional gas-powered cars. This tried-and-true technology has been available for over two decades.

HEV advantages

  • Typically a lower sticker price than all-electric vehicles.

  • There’s no need to charge the vehicle.

  • Better fuel economy than regular gas-powered vehicles, particularly in city driving.

  • Lower emissions than regular gas-powered vehicles.

  • Regenerative braking, which recharges the hybrid’s battery.

  • Long-lasting batteries, with a life of up to 15 years.

  • Battery is smaller and cheaper to replace than a plug-in hybrid or EV battery.

  • Typically more powerful than their traditional gas-powered equivalent vehicles.

HEV disadvantages

  • Generally a higher sticker price than a conventional gas vehicle.

  • Not eligible for federal tax benefits.

  • Still produces emissions, and runs on gas in most conditions — runs solely on battery power for only short distances.

  • While less maintenance may be required, hybrids still require oil changes and basic maintenance.

  • Although batteries are long-lasting and cheaper than EV batteries, they’re still expensive to replace (when compared to a gas vehicle’s battery).

  • The environmental impact of disposing of batteries is not yet fully understood.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs)

Like HEVs, plug-in hybrids use both an internal combustion engine and an electric motor that uses energy stored in a battery. Unlike regular hybrids, however, plug-in hybrids can often operate in all-electric mode for extended periods, and are able to go for approximately 20 to 40 miles on electricity alone. This means as long as you keep your battery charged, you may never have to use gas at all for relatively short trips.

If the battery runs out while you’re driving, the gas engine kicks in, and the car will run like a conventional gas-powered vehicle. Typically, plug-in hybrids have larger, more powerful batteries and engines than regular hybrids.

With a plug-in hybrid, you can charge the battery externally by plugging into a regular 110-volt household outlet — or for faster Level 2 charging, a 240-volt charging unit, which you can install at home. Your place of employment may also have a charging station, or there may be public charging stations in your area. These are the same chargers that electric vehicles use.

In addition to using an external charge, the batteries can also charge through the engine’s power, using regenerative braking.

PHEV advantages

  • Lower overall fuel costs because the vehicle runs on both a battery (like an electric vehicle) and gas.

  • Better mileage than traditional gas-powered vehicles.

  • Lower emissions than traditional gas-powered vehicles — and zero emissions when driving in all-electric mode.

  • Ability to drive completely in all-electric mode for as much as 20 to 40 miles, depending on make and model.

  • You may be able to charge your car at home or work.

  • Batteries can last up to 15 years, under normal driving conditions.

  • Some models are eligible for a federal tax credit of up to $7,500.

  • Typically less expensive to maintain than traditional gas-powered cars.

PHEV disadvantages

  • Upfront price is higher than hybrids and gas-powered cars.

  • Still produces some emissions, unless you’re in all-electric mode.

  • Higher price tag than gas-powered vehicles upfront.

  • Certain maintenance and repairs may be more costly due to mechanical complexity.

  • Batteries are expensive if you need to replace one.

  • Charging is time-consuming.

  • Some plug-in hybrids get worse mileage than a gas-powered car if you don’t plug them in.

  • Because PHEVs are so new, it’s still uncertain what their resale value will be.

  • The environmental impact of disposing of batteries is not yet fully understood.

Which one is right for you?

Which vehicle type is best for you ultimately depends on your budget, your access to charging places, the type of driving you do and how concerned you are with whether your car gives off tailpipe emissions. Be aware that the trade-off for zero tailpipe emissions is time spent charging up — which always takes longer than gassing up, even if you can charge at home. If you don’t have that time to spare, a hybrid electric vehicle might be a better choice.