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The Difference Between Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid Vehicles

Updated on January 10, 2017
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John is a fervent writer, avid gamer, and guitar lover. He earns his sandwiches fixing automatic transmissions.

In recent decades, technology has had a tendency to move at break-neck speeds. It's easy to forget that only three generations ago, most people didn't have electricity, let alone a car. These days electric cars are making major in-roads (pun intended) into the mainstream market. But the shift from combustion engines to electric vehicles is far from smooth. It's no surprise, then, that in all the bluff and bluster of old versus new, an intermediary has emerged to ease the transition. That intermediary is the hybrid engine. But what is the difference between hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles?

What Is a Hybrid Engine?

Hybrid engines have become increasingly popular, but what do they actually do?

Hybrid vehicles make the best of both worlds. They use traditional combustion engine technology to make use of existing infrastructure. The traditional engine is then supplemented with a more efficient electric motor. The result is a vehicle that is cheaper to run, easier on the environment, and doesn't require charging stations to be built all over the world.

In its most simple form, a hybrid vehicle will use the electric motor to power the vehicle at lower speeds. It will then switch to the combustion engine when faster speeds are required. The hybrid system may make use of both the electric and combustion side of things if a little extra "juice" is needed: for example, when climbing a steep hill.

The Toyota Prius is one of the most successful examples of hybrid vehicles.
The Toyota Prius is one of the most successful examples of hybrid vehicles. | Source

Essentially a hybrid engine is a regular engine with an electric motor attached to take some of the workload. The engine itself still runs on fossil fuel like regular cars, but it uses much less fuel and puts out much less emissions.

But that's not all. There is another kind of hybrid. Plug-in hybrids are the latest in this kind of automotive technology, and there is a significant difference between hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

What is a Plug-In Hybrid?

Now you understand what a hybrid does, let's look at the plug-in flavour.

Where a regular hybrid is pretty much a typical internal combustion engine with added electrical goodness, a plug-in hybrid approaches things from the other direction. In fact, it is more akin to a full electric vehicle than to the average road-going combustion variety. It uses its electric motor as often as possible, and will only make use of the internal combustion engine component when the battery level of the vehicle has dropped to the point that it can no longer adequately power the vehicle.

Plug-In Hybrid vehicles make use of both traditional fossil fuels and electrical charging.
Plug-In Hybrid vehicles make use of both traditional fossil fuels and electrical charging. | Source

The combustion engine component of a plug-in hybrid can act in one of two ways. Either as a regular engine—converting combustion energy into movement—or as a generator, running purely to charge the vehicle's batteries. Other than in low battery situations, however, a plug-in hybrid exclusively uses stored electricity which came from—you guessed it—being plugged in.

So What Is the Difference Between Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid?

We know what they do, but let's spell out the differences.

Think of a hybrid vehicle as a regular internal-combustion-engine vehicle with an extra electrical motor. This motor can be used in certain situations, with the result that overall you use less fuel and have fewer emissions. A plug-in, on the other hand, is like an all-electric vehicle that has an extra internal combustion engine as back up. This means that the range of a plug-in hybrid is greater than that of an all-electric car.

What's the Difference Between Hybrid and Plug-In?

Consider a spectrum, with internal combustion engines on one side and all-electric on the other. The difference between hybrid and plug-in cars is that they are at slightly different points on that spectrum. They serve the same purpose using similar technology. A hybrid is not quite an internal combustion engine, and a plug-in hybrid is not quite an all-electric car.

Of course, knowing the difference between hybrid and plug-in hybrid cars is only half the battle. It also helps to know what those differences mean.

Which One?

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Pros and Cons

Let's look at the pros and cons of each of the four main engine types.

Perhaps you're looking to buy a car and aren't sure what kind of engine to get. Maybe you're just curious. Knowing the difference between hybrid and plug -n hybrid is all well and good, but what are the positives (and negatives) of having one?

They don't exist alone in the market, however. So in this section you will find the pros and cons of both hybrid and plug-in hybrid, as well as internal combustion engine and all-electric.

Internal combustion engines are the engine of choice for the overwhelming majority of vehicles.
Internal combustion engines are the engine of choice for the overwhelming majority of vehicles. | Source

Internal Combustion Engine

Pros

Internal combustion engine vehicles have been in production—in some form or another—for hundreds of years. We as a species have gotten good at making them, and can mass-produce to a very high quality. Another positive that comes from a long time in production is lower costs. Regular internal combustion engines are far cheaper to make than their hybrid and electric replacements, just because the production process has been refined over such a long time.

And let's not forget the infrastructure. Gas stations litter the developed world. If you have a car that runs on petrol or diesel, you can be confident you will be able to find somewhere to fill it up when you need to. The same cannot be said for electric vehicles... yet.

Cons

The most obvious downside to the internal combustion engine is the environment. There is no longer a valid debate to be had on whether or not climate change is real, only on what we can do about it. How significant a role internal combustion engines play in this may be argued, but that they do play a significant role is obvious.

If the environmental impact isn't enough of a negative, however, consider the fossil fuels used to power the vehicle. They will eventually run out. And for those of you born after 2000, there's a good chance they'll run out in your lifetime.

Hybrid Engine

Pros

Essentially, the pros and cons of the hybrid are the same as those of an internal combustion engine. You can make use of the existing infrastructure, and most of the technology under the hood is well established and relatively inexpensive to make.

Now, however, you have the added bonus of lower running costs and less of an environmental impact.

Cons

Of course, on the flip side, most of the cons are the same. Hybrid engines are still reliant on fossil fuels and all the baggage that comes with that. They are also more expensive than their fossil-fuel-only counterparts.

Plug in and electric vehicles can be charged at the home using a special cable.
Plug in and electric vehicles can be charged at the home using a special cable.

Plug-In Hybrid Engine

Pros

Plug in hybrid cars have the advantage of not being entirely reliant on fossil fuels. Though they are designed to make use of traditional automotive fuel, they can be run without ever needing to "fill up."

Cons

While they are more efficient and environmentally friendly than the previous two engines, they are not as efficient as fully electric vehicles for most cases. Research has shown that the fuel efficiency of a plug-in hybrid is always less than that of an electric car when the journey is under 100 miles.

Electric Engine

Pros

Absolutely zero direct impact on the environment. Of course, the electricity you're charging your car with could have come from a coal-fueled power plant, but that's a different issue.

Cons

The range of an electric vehicle is somewhat limited by its batteries. Battery technology has not advanced as quickly as other areas. The result is that the range of your all-electric will be considerably lower than that of one of the above alternatives.

Summing Up

Which would you buy? Which SHOULD you buy? Let's sum up.

The difference between hybrid and plug-in hybrid is really not a lot in practical terms. There are major differences that go largely unseen by the average driver, sure. But the car itself operates in much the same fashion, save that you can charge it.

If you came here trying to decide what kind of car to get, there are a number of personal factors not mentioned in this article that will affect your choice. The most significant two are cost and journey.

If you are limited in the amount you can spend on your vehicle, you will be looking at an internal combustion engine or hybrid vehicle. The technology of plug-in hybrid and all-electric is not mature or widely adopted enough to get around that unfortunate reality.

If your vehicle will be used for long journeys you can almost certainly rule out all electric vehicles. The technology in electric cars isn't up to road-trip length drives. And charging stations are not yet ubiquitous.

Ultimately, you want to aim for a car that's as free of fossil-fuel dependence as possible. If not for the warm and fuzzy feeling of being better to the environment, then for the longer term benefits to your bank account when it comes to running cost. Remember, fossil fuels are only going to get more expensive. Meanwhile plug-in hybrid and electric technology will decrease in cost as more adopt it.

Unfortunately, we're not there yet. And many will be forced by practicality to go for more traditional vehicles, and take steps later toward that cleaner future.

© 2017 John Bullock

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    • WheelScene profile image

      WheelScene 5 days ago from U.S.A.

      Really comprehensive article, thanks so much for sharing! The future is electric!