Car Advice

Understanding hybrid, plug-in hybrid and battery electric cars

What’s the difference between a hybrid car vs a plug-in hybrid vs a battery electric? Here’s the latest explainer.

Last updated 19 August 2022 by Editorial Staff

HYBRID, PLUG-IN HYBRID, full battery electric… if you’re thinking of going a bit greener or are keen on checking out electrification you have probably noticed there are lots of different types of electric cars. Just look at the Hyundai Ioniq (picture above), which comes in all three types we just mentioned.

What does it all mean?

Put simply, a hybrid vehicle is one that runs a petrol or diesel motor (most usually a petrol) as its primary source of propulsion with a supplementary electric motor (sometimes two) and a small battery to offer a helping hand or drive for short distances only. 

A plug-in hybrid, on the other hand, is one that runs a petrol motor, an electric motor or two, and a larger battery pack that allows the vehicle to travel for about 50km or more on battery electric power alone. 

A full-electric car, like the name suggests, has no petrol motor and instead relies on electric motors for propulsion drawing energy from a large battery pack that can be recharged; this usually allows for a greater driving distance of up to 400km, or more.

This article is intended to give you a brief overview of what the various types of hybrid vehicles are and how they work, as well as fully electric cars.

Different types of hybrid explained

Toyota launched the Prius in 1997 as the spearhead of its hybrid revolution and now, depending on where you live, offers a range of different hybrid vehicles; locally we get the upcoming Toyota Yaris, Prius, Corolla hatch and sedan, Camry and Rav4 all as hybrids. 

And there are other manufacturers doing hybrids like Hyundai, Mitsubishi and Honda… to name a few.

A hybrid is a vehicle that draws off two or more power sources. In the context of this article, a hybrid refers to a vehicle with a petrol engine (internal combustion) and an electric motor with a supporting battery pack. The most common type of hybrid is the full hybrid which sees a petrol engine provide 99% of the drive in 99% of the situation, with the electric motor and its low-capacity battery pack able to power the car for only a kilometre or two of travel; this is good for stop-start traffic or slipping away from home quietly in the morning. The difference here is that one or the other engine type can be used independently of the other.

The Toyota Rav4 hybrid does have good fuel economy

Off the back of this type is the plug-in hybrid which offers a larger capacity battery pack allowing for a greater electric-only driving range. In this situation, the petrol motor can act as a generator to keep the electric batteries topped up, or the vehicle can be driven on pure petrol power alone. As the name suggests, you can also plug-in this type of hybrid to charge the battery pack.

Next is a parallel hybrid which sees an electric motor act as supplementary grunt for the petrol motor. Neither one or the other works in isolation; in this situation, the electric motor is generally only small and is intended to allow a smaller engine to be used to reduce fuel consumption.

And then there’s the series hybrid which sees an electric motor do all the work while a petrol engine acts purely as a generator to keep the battery topped up.

Finally, there’s the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, which is better known as a PHEV. This arrangement allows the vehicle to be plugged in and the battery charged via an outlet. A PHEV can be driven as one or the other, meaning, you can drive it as a conventional internal combustion-engined vehicle, as an electric-only vehicle, relying on the battery pack, or as an electric vehicle with the petrol engine and regenerative braking keeping the battery topped up. Read our review of the latest Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, which is a good family SUV and now can even put energy back into your home (well, once vehicle-to-grid is supported by infrastructure).

How do you charge electric vehicle batteries?

Depending on the type of hybrid EV you have will determine how they’re recharged. With a PHEV you can plug-in your vehicle and recharge the batteries. Via a normal household plug (10amp) this will take several hours, but some can use fast chargers that do just that. And depending on the time of day or night you’re charging your vehicle will mean that ‘topping up’ can be done off-peak, which is much cheaper per kW. That said, a PHEV allows you to use your petrol engine as a generator to combine with regenerative braking and feed electricity back to the batteries.

Then there’s a hybrid like that of the new Toyota Camry which has a very short electric-only range and no ability, not on Australia-delivered cars anyway, to recharge the batteries via a plug. It means the batteries rely on either the petrol motor to act as a generator or via regenerative braking to feed electricity back into the batteries. 

What’s regenerative braking?

Regenerative braking converts energy from when the brakes are applied into electricity used to recharge the batteries. This works every time you place your foot on the brakes or lift off the accelerator; it’s capturing energy that would otherwise be lost as either heat or noise (from the brakes).

How long do hybrid car batteries last?

Carmakers offering hybrid cars generally state a life-cycle of around 11 years with no limit on mileage.

Are hybrid cars actually better than normal petrol/diesel?

Like talking politics and religion at a dinner party, this is one question guaranteed to get a heated debate going. If you’re driving a non-PHEV hybrid then, yes, you will save fuel over an equivalent internal combustion-engined car but then there are enough efficient engines around that a non-PHEV might be as useful as the proverbial appendages on a bull depending on how many kays you travel.

But, if you’re making the case that a hybrid with enough charge left in its batteries will help you sneak away from home early in the morning without waking anyone then, sure, it makes sense. But then, by the same token a PHEV makes more sense, because it’s got a practical, real-world driving range whereas a standard hybrid doesn’t.

If you’re arguing that, compared with a pure electric vehicle, there’s no range anxiety with a hybrid then you’d be right. But, perhaps that’s kind of missing the environmental point.

If you don’t want to go for a full EV, then a PHEV makes far more sense. Cue debate.

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6 years ago

Sadly, we have very few hybrids or PHEVs available in Australia (or full Electric Vehicles (EV)). There has been very negative press in Australia as far as all 3 categories of vehicle – I’d ignored them for years listening to motoring journalists who are more likely to suggest that a Twin Cab truck would be suitable for a family car (I don’t buy that concept either).

I have owned the present PRIUS for 18 months – there are other factors not mentioned in the article. One is, they are relatively low maintenance, as brakes, transmission will likely last the life of the car as regenerative braking does most braking duty. It has averaged 4.1 l/100km (documented, not dash readout) (that’s 70MPG in the old scale) over 18 mths. A comparable car (like Corolla, Maz3, though they’re smaller) uses between 8 and 10+ l/100.

The other factor is that PRIUS is far cheaper than almost all PHEVs in Australia – like about ½ the price unless you want to buy a truck like an Outlander on Run-Out. I’d buy a Panamera PHEV – except my fiscal situation deems it unattainable.

Your mention that “A plug-in hybrid, on the other hand, is one that runs a petrol motor, an electric motor …”. Not entirely correct – Volvo and AUDI at least have DIESEL motors instead of petrol.

6 years ago
Reply to  Alan

I have a funny feeling you no more, !!!!!!!! than the bloke righting the article ,so much to learn about. Theses new units ,all I nead is a power. Wall battery ,$13,000 now the car $50,000 ,a small one ???? . And friendly bank ?????🤔🤔🙏🏼🙏🏼 WISH ME LUCK 😋😋

6 years ago
Reply to  1250

Hi 1250, I’m not suggesting that hybrid cars don’t have a place. They’ve facilitated an attitude shift making room for more fuel efficient cars to flow through, but they’re not the solution. I’m driving a hybrid at the moment and in the sort of driving I’m doing the advantage of its battery and electric motor are having little effect… to the point where it’s not as efficient as my diesel car across the same journey. In town, sure, it’ll cream my diesel. But when you consider horses for courses, I believe you’re better off stumping up for a second-hand PHEV. Hybrids are just a tease. – Isaac

6 years ago

Isaac, I TOTALLY agree. As I said in my other post, we test drove the hybrids, not even remotely impressed. Then we drove, and subsequently bought a second hand Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV and absolutely love it! We often go weeks without starting the engine, but even when the battery is exhausted the fuel economy is excellent as it’s still got the benefits then of any hybrid. (One actually has to be careful to avoid the fuel getting too stale.)
Our next new car in a few years will definitely be pure EV, more than likely a Tesla Model 3 when they eventually get here. The PHEV won’t go- other family members will draw straws over it, a few have already said they want it.

6 years ago

We went looking for a new 2nd car earlier this year. We test drove a PriusC, a Corolla hybrid, and a full size Prius, and finally was also considering a Honda Accord hybrid, but none were available. In any event we were not in any way impressed with ANY of the hybrids. Better fuel economy? Yes, but no plug in option so we couldn’t drive anywhere effectively on full electric.
Then we looked at a near new Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV and immediately fell in love. It has tons of room in the back being a full size wagon, a real world 45klms electric range (though I have squeezed over 50 out of it with careful driving.)
A PHEV makes so much more sense compared to a plain hybrid. I charge our PHEV in the garage on off peak power after midnight, which costs us only around $1.20 for a full charge, so as cheap as chips to run.
My wife was a bit concerned about the high tech, but I said just drive it like an auto, (but watch the power gauge to avoid needing to start the engine. If you plant your foot, it will start the petrol engine for a power boost.) So after nine months of ownership, our fuel economy is sitting on 1.5 litres/100, and would be even better if not for the regular longer runs we do most weeks. Even when the battery is flat, the fuel economy is excellent at around 6.5litres/100 on the highway, and even better at around town speeds.

I don’t understand why Mitsubishi hasn’t pushed the PHEV more in Oz, they’re a terrific vehicle (and have sold very well overseas.)
Anyway, we love driving the PHEV as a pure EV while the battery lasts, and our next vehicle WILL be pure EV. You literally have to drive one to know how good they are.

6 years ago
Reply to  David

PS. I forgot to add, very impressed with your article Isaac. For once, a motoring journalist who has done his homework properly and not living in the past. Well written, a good balanced and thought out article, congratulations. A very pleasant change from most other journos who are so, umm, 20th century in their thinking.

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3 years ago

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Queen B
3 years ago

Thanks for sharing your informative article with us. Keep up with the GOOD work.

2 years ago

Thx mob for the this beautiful informative post. However, in your analysis u completely forgot us in LDCs especially in Africa like Uganda where owning a hybrid vehicle can be a mess. No good Mechanics in such hybrid vehicles, servicing one like getting fluids or batteries in case can be a hustle. When we try to import vehicles we get them online where most times the info displayed varies from the actual performance. Incapacitated to get good mileage as such hybrid cars need some good low mileage (at least below 100,000kms ) for one to cruise it for some good few years like 5 before incurring replacements like batteries. Governments impose exorbitant taxes and fees . For example I tried to import a Toyota Prius prime c CVT transmission 2013 model , but the total investment after paying taxes and fees was about $17,000 taxes and fees alone form over $11k) This is too much for a used vehicle of 90,000 mileage. That’s why in our African countries like Uganda, hybrid vehicles don’t take any lead. Our gasoline powered vehicles are the only option. When u compute the savings on total initial cost between hybrid and nonhybrid vehicles, that saving (approx $7k) can buy fuel for gasoline vehicles for about 7 years with ease of maintenance and repairing of the vehicles.

thx u once again for that educative post I have clearly gotten the core differences between the different hybrid models and has to be cautious before getting one , otherwise it may result into some good dollar wastage.

kindly advise on what we can currently do

Isaac Bober

Isaac Bober