Electric cars vs hybrid cars vs plug-in hybrids

Electric, hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles all have their pros and cons, but which is best for you?

If you’re new to electric, hybrid and plug-in hybrid cars, you may be unfamiliar with some of the jargon surrounding the latest technology. And if that’s the case, you’re probably not really sure what the benefits and drawbacks are for each type of vehicle.

This is a big problem, because if you’re searching for a new car, you could be overlooking a model that might save you a lot of money in the long run.

So, in order to show the benefits and negatives or electric, hybrid and plug-in hybrid cars, we’ve put together the following guide to show you exactly how they all work. Hopefully it'll clarify some of the technical terms, and give you an idea of the type of car you'd be best suited to.

And if you scroll down to the ‘Which should I buy?’ section, we’ve laid out some things you’ll need to consider when deciding which type of ‘electrified’ car will most suit your needs.

What is an electric car?

An electric car runs solely on electricity. That’s it. No added complications or footnotes here, it really is that straightforward. They are sometimes referred to as battery electric vehicles (BEVs) or just electric vehicles (EVs), but they mean the same thing.

Their energy is stored in a physical battery, which typically contains hundreds, if not thousands, of individual cells. The size of a car’s battery is measured in kilowatt-hours – usually denoted as kWh – and the larger the battery, the more range an electric car is likely to be capable of.

The battery is charged from an external source, almost always using a plug. Adapters for domestic household sockets are usually provided. But these typically deliver around 2.3kW of power in the UK, which means charging is quite slow.

Most manufacturers recommend that you install a 'wallbox' charger for your electric car at home. These are a lot faster (capable of around 7kW in most cases) and will usually charge even the biggest batteries overnight. They're a good option to consider, and there's a Government grant that could subsidise your installation cost by as much as £500.

You may also have heard of 'fast charging' and 'rapid charging'. Both offer quicker charging times than wallboxes, although they're slightly different. Fast chargers usually deliver between 7 and 50kW of power, while rapid chargers are capable of 100kW and up. They're commonly found at car parks and service stations.

While electric cars are powered by batteries, the wheels are driven by electric motors. Some manufacturers fit a single electric motor, others opt for one at the front and one at the back, while some cars even feature one on each wheel.

What is a hybrid car?

This is where things get a tad more complicated. There are a few types of hybrid car, but all of them have one thing in common in that they combine a petrol or diesel engine with an electric component to boost a car’s efficiency.

In a ‘mild hybrid’, the effect of this is minimal and only apparent at low speeds. Mild hybrids usually employ a ‘starter generator’ in place of a petrol or diesel car’s starter motor, and can recover energy from the engine when slowing down using technology called regenerative braking. A mild hybrid will aid stop-start systems and allow an engine to be switched off for longer when stationary, reducing emissions. Some models even provide a brief electrical boost when accelerating, improving a car’s fuel economy.

A full hybrid (sometimes called a 'self-charging' hybrid) is slightly different. Here, a portion of the engine’s power is used to charge a battery, which in turn powers an electric motor that can – for very short distances only – propel the car unaided. This is useful for keeping emissions to a minimum when driving around town, although at motorway speeds you’ll still rely on petrol or diesel power.

What is a plug-in hybrid car?

A plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (often called a PHEV) builds on the mild-hybrid and self-charging-hybrid technology described above with a bigger battery that – just like an electric car – can be charged using a plug.

Plug-in hybrids are capable of travelling much further on electric power alone: lots of the latest models will do around 30 miles without needing to use petrol or diesel. This means you could commute to work and enjoy the low running costs of an electric car, but not have any 'range anxiety' about making longer journeys.

Better still, a plug-in hybrid can also travel faster than a standard hybrid in electric only mode. Some models will do as much as 80mph under electric power, so you don’t need to stick to low speeds in order to enjoy the benefits provided by the battery.

Which should I buy?

The benefits of an electric car are numerous, with exceptionally low running costs arguably offering the most appeal. If you charge up at home on a typical electricity tariff of around 14 pence per kilowatt-hour, your car's 'fuel' bills will likely amount to around 3 pence per mile; three or four times cheaper than the most efficient petrol and diesel models currently on sale.

However, you need to think carefully about how an electric car would work for you on a day-to-day basis before heading to the nearest dealership.

First, consider where you're going to charge your electric car, and how. If you have a driveway or garage, and you’re open to installing a wallbox charger, then great. But if you can only park on the street, or if you need to rely on a slow domestic socket to charge your car, an electric vehicle might not be for you.

Range is also a big factor to bear in mind. Depending on the model, you could have anything from 50 to 375 miles at your disposal, which in turn regulates how often you’ll need to charge, and how long a charge will take.

A small city car such as the Smart EQ ForFour – with a real-world range of 65-80 miles – might serve you well for things like the school run and the weekly shop, but would be impractical for longer journeys. So if you haven’t also got a second petrol or diesel car as a backup for those occasions, only the likes of the Kia e-Niro – with 282 miles of range – could really meet your needs.

You should also bear in mind that the UK's recharging network is still in it's infancy, and many charging points at service stations and retail parks aren't yet as reliable as they need to be. If you regularly drive long distances - 200 miles or more at a time - an electric car isn't for you just yet.

Hybrids and plug-in hybrids are a more realistic proposition for a greater proportion of drivers. A plug-in hybrid especially could save you a lot of money, provided you can charge the battery at home or at work, and that the majority of your journeys are either short or medium distance.

If you're a very regular long-distance traveller, then you'll feel the benefits of a plug-in hybrid less often than those doing lots of short drives. In that case, a standard hybrid would be your best bet: you’ll get the benefits of lower emissions at low speeds, but without the hindrance of a plug-in hybrid’s extra weight on longer journeys.