How Do Hybrid Cars Work?

Innovative cars that run in part on electricity have been around for more than 100 years, but hybrid cars didn’t become a mass-market phenomenon until 2000, when Toyota released the Prius. Now, drivers can get a range of vehicles, from sedans to trucks and SUVs, with a hybrid electric engine, and consumer demand for new and used hybrids is expected to grow through 2031.

Despite the longevity and popularity, drivers still have questions about how hybrid cars work — Consumer Reports noted that the most common question they get about hybrids is whether they need to be plugged in. Now, a new category of hybrid, the plug-in hybrid, is creating even more confusion for consumers who are in the market for a fuel-efficient car.

So, how do you know which type of modern car is right for you? Knowing the difference between a traditional hybrid, which doesn’t get plugged in, and a new plug-in hybrid electric vehicle will help you make the right call if you’re shopping for one of these cars.

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How Do Hybrid Cars Work?

So, how do hybrid cars work if they don’t plug in? Popular gas-hybrid models, such as those from Toyota, Kia, Honda and Hyundai, don’t ever need to be plugged in because the battery charges as you drive them.

Hybrid cars are driven by a hybrid battery-electric motor and a gas-powered internal-combustion engine, thus the name. The car can use either the electric motor or gas engine exclusively, or both can work together for more efficient driving than gas-only cars.

Hybrids charge their batteries via the internal-combustion engine and regenerative braking, which works to top off the battery by capturing energy from the car as it slows down or coasts. Drivers can usually see when they are using the regenerative braking system as hybrid cars often inform users on the dashboard when they’re driving efficiently.

In general, as you’re driving a hybrid, the battery powers the electric motor as the car operates at lower speeds, below 50mph. Combine that efficiency with the battery charging as the car slows and it’s easy to see what makes hybrids ideal for stop-and-go city driving. However, hybrids tap into the gas in the tank for tougher tasks, like climbing hills or keeping up highway speeds.

These efficiencies add up to hybrids getting excellent gas mileage and producing much lower emissions than gas-only vehicles. And while the gas savings alone is helpful as prices have soared with inflation, hybrids themselves have become more affordable over the years, with hybrid models that start under $24,000, with some starting just under $20,000.

Hybrid, ecologic car symbol.
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How Do Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles Work?

Though you’ll never have to plug in a traditional hybrid, a handful of new hybrids have appeared on the market in the past year that drivers will want to plug in, whether in the garage or at a charging station, to get the best fuel efficiency. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, or PHEVs, combine the battery operation of electric vehicles with the go-anywhere freedom of traditional hybrids.

With a PHEV, you can drive around town, running errands or commuting to work, using only the battery, making it much like a short-range electric vehicle. But for longer trips, these cars can switch to gas, giving them the convenience and longer range of gasoline-powered cars.

Here’s how a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle works: PHEVs have an electric motor and battery as well as a gas tank and internal-combustion engine, and they use both gas and electricity for power. Their batteries are usually larger than traditional hybrid batteries, and you can plug the car in to charge the battery. Some PHEVs can rely almost exclusively on electricity until the battery is nearly drained. That’s when the gasoline starts to burn in the engine to power the car and recharge the battery.

You’ll find two types of fuel economy ratings attached to a PHEV: one for when it’s solely being powered by electricity, and one for when the car is operating on gasoline.

These cars often have a longer range than EVs but better fuel efficiency than standard hybrids. PHEVs are perfect for people who make short trips, where most of the driving runs on the battery, but sometimes want to take longer trips without relying on stops at charging stations.

2023 Ford Escape Plug-In Hybrid
Ford Motor Company

Traditional Hybrid Vs. Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles

The main difference between a hybrid and a PHEV is that a PHEV has the added option to recharge the battery by plugging it into an outlet, allowing the cars to run solely on electric power for short distances. PHEVs can travel between 20 and 40 miles on electricity alone and only produce emissions when gas is in use.

While PHEVs are still relatively novel in America, new models from Ford, Hyundai and Kia cost $35,000 or less, making them the most affordable ones for now.

Ford Motor Company

While hybrids are common across the market, you can now also find electric vehicles and plug-in electric-hybrid vehicles in multiple vehicle classes. There are currently more than 30 plug-in hybrids on the market, and more models are being announced for production all the time.

By Emily O’Brien, for Newsy.

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