What is the difference between electric, plug-in hybrid, and hybrid cars?
2nd Jun 2021 Danny Morgan
Full electric, plug-in hybrid, mild hybrid, self-charging hybrid – what does it all mean? We will remove the clouds of confusion when it comes to electric vehicle terminology in this guide to electric, plug-in hybrid and hybrid cars.
The world of electric cars can seem daunting at first, especially when you hear a bunch of jargon. This article will explain the key terms you need to know about and what they mean.
We have deliberately stuck to three key categories of electric vehicle – all-electric, plug-in hybrid and hybrid.
If you’re after an explanation of a specific term, you can click these links to go straight there:
Why is there so much jargon surrounding “electrified” vehicles?
It’s partly down to the changing technology and genuine differences between something like a plug-in hybrid (or PHEV) and a normal hybrid.
Plus, different carmakers have subtly different ways of saying the same thing. Then throw in a bunch of marketing bods who want to do away with technical jargon by inventing their own jargon and you arrive at the situation we have today.
Lots of clever terms related to electric cars that don’t mean much to a whole lot of people.
What does “electrified” mean?
You have no doubt heard the term electric vehicle, which most people would assume means it is pure electric, without a drop of fuel in sight.
You’d be right, but those pesky car manufacturers have muddied the waters somewhat with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it terms like “electrified” that are deliberately vague.
An electrified vehicle is essentially a catch-all term that refers to any car with some form of electric power. It is an especially useful term if the manufacturer actually doesn’t have any all-electric cars to shout about, but rather a lot of hybrids.
“Check out our range of hybrids that rely entirely on petrol” somehow doesn’t quite cut it when you’re trying to show just how progressive your company is. Sneak in the word "electrified" though and you’re in business.
Electrified includes things like all-electric, plug-in hybrid, hybrid, mild hybrid and yes even the dreaded self-charging hybrid.
We explain what these terms mean below, but the key takeaway is electrified does not mean fully electric – it just has electric bits in there like a battery or electric motor.
What is an all-electric car?
Sometimes referred to as EVs, pure electric, fully electric or simply just electric, all-electric cars do what they say on the tin.
They are cars that are all electric and must be plugged in to a power source to recharge the battery. All-electric cars can also recharge their batteries when slowing down – this is called regenerative braking.
The battery size (measured in kWh) determines how much electricity can be stored to power the electric motors which drive the wheels. The bigger the battery, the more energy that can be stored and generally the further it can drive on one charge.
Typically, all-electric cars have much bigger battery sizes than their plug-in hybrid counterparts. Battery sizes generally range between 50kWh and 90kWh, though you can find some with much smaller and much bigger batteries.
Obviously, car size, weight, power and efficiency all affect the range just like in a petrol car. However, a 50kWh battery is typically going to offer between 200 and 250 miles of range. Larger 100kWh batteries can offer in excess of 300 miles and close to 400 miles in some cases.
What is a hybrid vehicle?
A hybrid vehicle combines the use of a petrol or diesel engine with a battery or small electric motor to provide assistance.
Hybrid covers a number of different technologies, and you may hear terms such as “mild hybrid” or “self-charging hybrid”.
While there can be subtle differences, they all share the same main ingredient – an internal combustion engine.
Most hybrids have a small electric motor and small battery to assist the petrol/diesel engine at low speeds. For example, a hybrid vehicle like a Toyota Prius may accelerate the vehicle using the electric motors alone, but once a certain speed is reached (typically anything over 10mph) then the petrol engine kicks in.
A hybrid vehicle can also not be charged via mains electricity as there is no way to plug it in. Instead, a hybrid relies on the petrol engine to recharge the battery while driving.
A small amount of energy can also be recovered into the battery during braking. This is called regenerative braking.
What is a plug-in hybrid vehicle?
As the name suggests, a plug-in hybrid vehicle can be plugged in to charge the battery.
Like a hybrid, it still combines a petrol or diesel engine with a battery and electric motors. However, the batteries in plug-in hybrids are much bigger than a normal hybrid so they drive much further on electric power alone. You can usually manually select a mode, such as electric power only, petrol power only, hybrid mode, or even "e-hold" mode which reserves the electric power for later use.
A typical plug-in hybrid car, sometimes referred to as a PHEV, has a 14kWh battery size with a range of 20 miles and above.
As their popularity increases, so do the battery sizes and pure electric range, but they are still much smaller than the average all-electric vehicle which is usually around 50kWh and higher.
PHEVs, like the Mitsubishi Outlander or the BMW 330e, are a great option for those who aren’t ready to take the all-electric plunge just yet, as they offer the benefits of pure electric driving and charging at home with the flexibility and “comfort blanket” of a traditional petrol engine.
Should I get a plug-in hybrid, hybrid or all-electric car?
We are going to perch just nicely on this fence, because it really comes down to personal choice and circumstance.
If you’re looking for some guidance, it largely boils down to this…
If you can charge at home, get an all-electric car.
The driving experience is wonderful, the range on modern EVs is terrific, it’s easy and convenient to “refuel” at home, plus the public infrastructure is very decent now albeit not perfect.
If you can’t charge at home or you can but still nervous about all-electric, then get a plug-in hybrid car.
This has many of the benefits of an electric car, such as being able to plug it in, lower running costs (if you can use electric power alone regularly), but also offers the flexibility of a petrol engine.
Even if you can’t charge at home, it can still operate like a normal hybrid with the battery and electric motor assisting the petrol engine when it can.
A plug-in hybrid is also a great way to “road test” the electric car lifestyle as you can charge it at home and get a feel for driving on pure electric power. Many all-electric car owners have owned a plug-in hybrid previously and enjoyed the all-electric element so much they wanted to get the full experience.
Plus, there are lots of plug in hybrids in the UK to choose from.
What about hybrids?
For this reason, we struggle to recommend a normal hybrid vehicle. Yes, the hybrid element obviously helps with overall efficiency, but you lose all the benefits of being able to “plug in”.