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What is a hybrid car, plug-in hybrid and battery electric car?

Practical Motoring logo Practical Motoring 02-01-2018 Isaac Bober

a red car parked on the side of a road © Provided by Practical Motoring Put simply a hybrid vehicle is one that runs a petrol motor as its primary source of propulsion with a supplementary electric motor, and sometimes two, to offer a helping hand or drive for short distances only. More on this below.

A plug-in hybrid, on the other hand, is one that runs a petrol motor, an electric motor, or two, and a battery pack that allows the vehicle to travel for more than 30km on battery electric power alone. We’ll get into this in greater detail below.

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

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

The 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 Prius and Camry hybrids.

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.

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 Audi A3 e-tron which is one of our favourite PHEVs.

While Toyota continues to peddle, in this country at least, the hybrid line, it really should be offering PHEVs; these vehicle types are far more practical as an EV and more efficient in terms of fuel consumption and thus emissions, too. Many PHEVs have a range of up to 100km.

How do you charge the batteries?

Depending on the type of hybrid you have will determine how they’re recharged. With a PHEV you can plug-in your vehicle and recharge the batteries via an outlet which can take several hours. And, depending on the time of day or night you’re charging your vehicle will mean that ‘topping up’ can cost as low as 25 cents. 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 sees energy from the brakes captured and converted into electricity used to recharge the batteries. This method works everytime 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 does a hybrid's battery last?

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

Are hybrids really that beneficial?

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 is about as useful as the proverbial appendages on a bull…

…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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