Hybrids, Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars – What’s the Difference?

Being Airdrie’s newer vehicle service leader means we get a lot of questions about modern cars and new car technology – and we’re always happy to answer them! We’re often asked what the difference between a hybrid and a plug-in hybrid is, or what the difference between a hybrid car and an electric vehicle (EV) is.

You’re going to to be seeing a lot more hybrids and EVs on the road soon, because most automakers have committed that within the next 5-7 years most of their vehicles will include some form of electrification. Today we classify electrified vehicles into four main categories: mild hybrids, hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles. We’ll break down the differences between each type in this post!

Hybrid Vehicles

airdrie hybrid repair
Under the hood of a Toyota Prius C, with its 1.5L engine and two-motor electric drive unit.

The term hybrid, when applied to cars, describes a vehicle that combines some degree of electric propulsion with a traditional gasoline engine. In most hybrid cars, a small (and not very powerful) gas engine is paired with one or more large electric motors. The motors are powered by a high voltage battery that is usually installed in the rear, or underneath the vehicle. At low speeds and under light loads, the electric motor can propel the vehicle by itself. Under high loads, the motor can provide extra power to assist the gas engine in situations where normally it would require extra fuel, or where a larger engine would be needed.

When it’s not propelling the vehicle, the electric motor operates in reverse as a generator, recharging the high voltage battery. This happens when the engine is idling, or under coasting/braking conditions. Most hybrids also feature regenerative braking, where the force required to turn the generator can be used to slow the car, instead of using the conventional brake system. (This means that brakes on hybrid vehicles usually last a very long time.) Because of all this, hybrids use less fuel than a similarly sized gasoline-only vehicle.

Plug-in Hybrid Vehicles

A plug-in hybrid utilizes a much larger battery than a traditional hybrid; so much larger that most can be driven on electric power alone for a certain distance – even at highway speeds. Once the battery is depleted to a certain level, these vehicles switch from EV mode to hybrid mode where they function like a traditional hybrid with the engine turning on and off periodically. The Chevrolet Volts that we operate as courtesy cars are a good example of this: They can be driven for up to 90 km on just battery power before the gasoline engine begins to run part-time.

This offers an interesting “best of both worlds”: Many plug-in hybrid owners will never use any fuel during their day-to-day commuting, but still have the freedom to take longer trips on gasoline power if needed. Of course, as their name implies, plug-in hybrids can’t generate enough on-board electricity to fully charge their batteries; you need to plug them in if you’d like to operate in EV mode or achieve optimum fuel economy.

Mild Hybrid Vehicles

airdrie hybrid repair
Ram eTorque 48 volt belt-driven motor generator unit.

The most basic form of vehicle electrification is a mild hybrid setup, which usually involves a much smaller battery and and an electric motor-generator. The motor-generator is coupled to the engine and while it can’t propel the vehicle by itself, it can provide additional torque to help the engine under load. Under light load or coasting conditions, it generates electricity to recharge the battery. The motor-generator also performs the job of the traditional alternator and starter, replacing both of these parts.

The Ram “eTorque” system is a good example of this. The system houses a small 48-volt battery inside the truck, which powers a belt-driven electric motor under the hood. The system adds about 130 ft-lbs of torque to the engine under low RPM conditions (such as accelerating from a stop) and yields a 10% fuel economy increase.

Electric Vehicles

airdrie electric car repair
Plugging in a Chevy Bolt EV. Most EVs today use a common charging connector.

As you would suspect, electric vehicles (EVs) operate on battery power alone; with no gasoline engine on board. EV batteries are very large, with 8-10 times the capacity of most hybrids and around 4 times that of our Chevy Volt plug-in cars. These batteries operate at voltages of between 350 volts (like most hybrids) and 800 volts – with voltages expected to increase further in the coming years. Like hybrids, EVs also feature regenerative braking to capture back some energy spent during driving.

Electric vehicles offer a unique and refined driving experience. Acceleration is smooth and silent, with no engine noise and no transmission shifting gears. Throttle response is instant and brisk, because electric motors do not have to rev up and actually make the most torque at low speed. While EVs do suffer from lower range (more on that below) on cold winter days, they always “start” and most feature a heater that blows warm air instantly.

Currently in Canada, the primary barrier to EV ownership is range. When an EV battery is depleted, it can’t be filled in minutes like the fuel tank on a conventional vehicle. Some electric vehicles require many hours to reach a full charge. This isn’t a problem if you’re charging your car overnight, but could create issues on a long road trip. Luckily, this problem is already starting to go away as battery technology improves, and the roll-out of fast charging infrastructure continues. New EVs like the Audi e-tron (yes, that’s the name) can add 90 km of range in 10 minutes, or 256 km after a half-hour charge.

Electric vehicles are less costly to maintain than gasoline or diesel vehicles because they feature less moving parts. They require no spark plugs, no oil changes, etc. This is worth considering when choosing between a hybrid and a full EV; while the hybrid offers freedom from “range anxiety”; it is actually more maintenance intensive than the average car since it features all the same gasoline vehicles systems plus the electrified components.

Did you know? Interesting Hybrid & EV Facts:

  • As of January 2020, the EV with the longest driving range is the aptly named Tesla Model S Long Range, which can travel 600 km on a single charge.
  • The current EV with the shortest range is the Smart Fortwo EQ, at only 92 km.
  • As on 2018, federal law requires EVs to make some kind of “noise” below 30 km/h for pedestrian safety, played through a speaker outside the vehicle. Carmakers can choose any noise they want; our Chevy Volts make a futuristic “spaceship” sound.
  • 80% of the energy in a EV battery is transferred to powering the car, vs only 15% in a gasoline engine. (Most of the energy in gasoline is lost as waste heat.)
  • Electricity isn’t free, but right now it’s cheaper than gas: charging an electric vehicle costs about 60% less (per kilometer) than fueling a gasoline car.
  • Insurance for an EV currently costs about 20% more than a comparable gasoline vehicle, because of uncertainty about how much they will cost to repair after an accident.

Owning a Hybrid or EV in Airdrie:

Do you own a hybrid or electric vehicle in Airdrie? Are you thinking of purchasing one? Did you know you have a local dealership-level service option right here in our city? My Garage Auto & Tire is a future-focused auto service business, and we’d be happy to help. Our skilled, caring technicians and non-commission service staff will take excellent care of you and your electric or hybrid vehicle. Our work is all warranty-approved and we offer the highest quality service in the area.

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