What Are the Different Types of Electric Vehicles, and Which One Should You Drive?
October 12, 2022
What Are the Different Types of Electric Vehicles, and Which One Should You Drive?
So you want to drive a car that will help save the planet, but you’re confused by the many “green” options available? What’s the difference between a hybrid electric vehicle (HEV), a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), and a battery-electric vehicle (BEV)? Why are some called “electric,” while others are identified as “electrified”?
Many different types of electric cars are available, and choosing between them can become confusing, so here’s a guide to help you understand the different types of electrified and electric cars available for sale in the new- and used-car marketplaces.
Electrified Vehicles — How Hybrids Work
Hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) combine a gasoline-powered internal combustion engine (ICE) with an electrical system made up of a motor, generator, and battery; they include regenerative braking systems that capture kinetic energy when stopping, then store it in the car’s electric battery. These systems work together to efficiently power the vehicle using less gasoline and slightly reduce tailpipe emissions.
Not All Hybrids Are Created Equal
Hybrid vehicles can be divided into three types depending on how the electric motor assists the internal combustion engine and how they get their charge: mild/two-mode hybrid, full/parallel hybrid, and plug-in hybrid.
Mild Hybrids Provide the Least Amount of Electric Assistance
A mild hybrid, or two-mode hybrid, is basically a gasoline-powered car with an electric motor on standby to provide extra power to the engine when higher speeds or extra horsepower are needed. Instead of feeding your engine extra gas when passing on the highway or accelerating quickly, a mild hybrid uses electricity stored in special electric batteries to give the engine the extra power it needs.
Mild hybrids save gas by shutting off the engine at stoplights and in stop-and-go traffic and use regenerative braking to help recharge the onboard batteries. The electric battery can only provide the vehicle with very short boosts of energy and does not typically offer exclusive electric-only propulsion. Mild hybrids offer overall fuel savings of about 10% to 20% and do not reduce emissions by much.
Mild-hybrid technology was pioneered in such vehicles as Hondas with Integrated Motor Assist and General Motors models with eAssist. Many current vehicles offer this technology without even bragging about it — including a number of those made by GM, Volvo, Audi, Ford, Jeep, and Ram — as a way to improve fuel economy.
“Full” or “Parallel” Hybrid Systems Provide Additional Electric Assistance and Can Drive in Electric-Only Mode
In so-called full, or parallel, hybrid systems, the gasoline engine is able to drive the vehicle by itself, and it also powers the electric motor. When the batteries are properly charged by the gasoline engine, the electric motor is able to take over and propel the vehicle by itself, or both systems can work together to move the vehicle for added boost on demand.
Usually, the gasoline engine will turn off when stopped at a traffic light (or when coasting), and when it’s time to move forward, the electrical motor will take over, providing the power for the car to move at speeds of up to 40 mph (depending on the vehicle). Once the vehicle surpasses about 40 mph, the gas engine will automatically take over. This makes full hybrids great for both bumper-to-bumper commuter traffic and stop-and-go city driving, and explains why many hybrids get great fuel economy over a similar internal combustion, or gasoline-powered, vehicle.
The Toyota Prius was the first type of parallel hybrid vehicle and, until just a few years ago, was the world’s best-selling hybrid.
These types of hybrid vehicles cannot plug into the grid to recharge their electric car batteries and aren’t really considered to be electric cars.
Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV) Are Exactly What They Sound Like
If you’re trying to learn the difference between a plug-in hybrid and another type of hybrid, understand that PHEVs offer all the benefits of a traditional hybrid, but with one important, and obvious, upgrade: You can plug them in.
How do they work? Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles have an internal combustion engine and an electric motor as well as a battery and charging port. Typically charged via standard 110-volt outlets, PHEVs run using the power from the battery first, usually anywhere from 10 to 40 miles, and then continue in regular hybrid mode after the battery is depleted. Their electric batteries can be charged by the ICE or by regenerative braking.
Depending on the length of your commute, you may be able to significantly reduce your need for gasoline, but you can still rely on the ICE for longer trips, eliminating range anxiety. PHEVs are silent and do not emit greenhouse gasses while operating in electric mode, but do produce some operating noise and tailpipe emissions when running on their internal combustion engines. Because they utilize both an ICE and an electric motor that can be charged by plugging into the grid, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are technically considered “electrified” vehicles.
Even though it was originally labeled a “range-extended electric vehicle,” the 2010 Chevrolet Volt — which offered an all-electric range of about 35 miles before its gasoline engine would kick into power the electric motor — was one of the first production plug-in hybrids sold in the United States.
Today, more than 30 plug-in hybrid vehicles are available, offering a typical all-electric range between 20 and 30 miles. A few models are able to travel as far as 40 or 50 miles before using the ICE.
Battery-Electric Vehicles (BEV) — No Gas Required
Unlike an HEV or a PHEV, which combines an internal combustion engine with an electric motor and a battery pack, BEVs are propelled solely by electricity and do not use a drop of fuel.
Instead of relying on an internal combustion engine, the battery-electric vehicle features one or more high-voltage electric motors powered by a battery pack that can be easily charged at home or work by plugging it into a 110-volt Level 1 charger for about 3 to 5 miles of range per hour or a professionally installed 240-volt Level 2 charger for 12 to 80 miles of range per hour. For a fee, the fastest charges are available at Level 3 Direct Current Fast Chargers (DCFCs), operated by such companies as ChargePoint, EVgo, and Electrify America, as well as at Tesla’s proprietary Supercharger network for 3 to 20 miles of range per minute.
Because these electric cars do not use gas, pure BEV cars are favored for their lack of harmful tailpipe emissions, as well as for their uncannily silent operation and consistent acceleration throughout their speed range. And, because they have fewer moving engine parts, BEV vehicles typically require less maintenance than ICE vehicles.
The 2011 Nissan Leaf was the first production BEV sold and offered an all-electric range of about 115 miles. It wasn’t long before Tesla took charge of the segment, with its Model 3 becoming the all-time best-selling plug-in electric car worldwide and the first electric car to sell 1 million units globally. Today, more than 30 BEV vehicle models are available, offering operating ranges from 200 to 300 — and more — miles per charge.
Depending on where you live, driving some of these vehicles can also grant you access to the coveted carpool lanes on your local highways. Regardless of your reasons for wanting one and no matter which type of alternative-powertrain vehicle you choose, these electric and electrified vehicles help reduce dependence on petroleum and save money at the gas pump, and make an environmental impact through a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Brandy Schaffels brings the benefit of 30 years of experience reporting on the automotive industry. Brandy's career includes working as both freelance journalist and staff member of such household name brands as Car Craft, Motor Trend, AskPatty.com, and TrueCar.com. Brandy first burned rubber in a red 1976 Chevy Monza and will never forget her first true muscle car: a Root Beer Brown 1968 Mustang Coupe with a 289 cid small-block V-8. Today, you'll find Brandy behind the wheel of either her sunshine-yellow Fiesta or her sky-blue BMW Z4 convertible, depending on the weather.