How to tell the difference between electric vehicles

Electric vehicle(Opens in a new tab), or EV, is a general term for many types of battery-powered vehicles. It can be a polarizing or politicized term, so some people feel they have to decide whether they are EV enthusiasts or anti-EV skeptics. Actually, the subject is more colorful than that. There are three types of EVs. Some run solely on battery power, while others combine battery and gas power.

The three main types of electric vehicles are:

  • Fully battery-powered electric vehicles (EVs, or BEVs)

  • Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEV)

  • Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV)

Each has advantages and disadvantages in terms of fuel efficiency, cost and driving experience. Here are the key differences between an EV, HEV and PHEV so you can choose the right one for your needs.

To learn the key differences between EVs, HEVs, and PHEVs, we’ve got tips from PCMag’s Emily Dreibelbis.(Opens in a new tab)


This is where your electric vehicle sounds come from

What is an electric vehicle?

EVs, also known as BEVs (battery electric vehicles), do not have an internal combustion engine that converts gasoline into propulsion power. Instead, they run solely on electricity from one or more large batteries.

EVs started as a little-known driving option for the environmentally conscious, but in the first half of 2022 they reached a tipping point in terms of mass adoption(Opens in a new tab), according to Bloomberg. Fully electric EVs now account for 5% of new car sales in the US. Although still a small fraction, this is the level of adoption where many new technologies—such as cell phones, televisions, and the Internet—begin to accelerate their transition from the fringes to the mainstream.

Charging an EV means you plug a charging nozzle into a port hidden by a flap on the outside of the vehicle, very similar to a traditional gas cap. Electricity can then flow to the battery. There are a variety of public and private charging options(Opens in a new tab), and most manufacturers include a home charger with purchase. It fits into a standard household outlet on one end and goes into the car on the other, so you can power up at night or whenever the car is in the garage.

Credit: Witthaya Prasongsin/Getty Images

Charging at home makes EVs a great option for city driving or commuting, especially with charging at work(Opens in a new tab) on the rise as an employee privilege. Most people do most of their driving in electric vehicles without ever going to a public charging station.

As for longer trips, a full charge yields 200 to 400 miles(Opens in a new tab), or long hours of driving. More than a few hours of driving means multiple charging stops, adding anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours each time, depending on the charge level of the stations you find.

A growing number of highway rest stops have fast chargers, which will allow you to top up in 30 minutes to an hour, but they’re still limited. Automakers and the government are working together to expand the nation’s fast-charging network, through efforts like gas station partnerships(Opens in a new tab) and the federal infrastructure bill(Opens in a new tab). However, until charging stations are as ubiquitous as gas stations, it’s important to plan where you’ll charge along your route.

What is a hybrid electric vehicle?

Hybrids were the first major entrant to the EV market, particularly with the global debut of the Prius (Opens in a new tab)in the early 2000s. These vehicles combine an internal combustion engine with an electric motor, alternating between the two to improve fuel economy.

For example, when a hybrid car is stopped, it is likely to run quietly on battery electricity instead of idling on gas. When it starts up, the internal combustion engine restarts.

Electric car fuel gauge

Credit: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Hybrids typically claim up to twice the miles per gallon of a gas-powered vehicle, ranging from 40 to 60 mpg. The average fuel economy of a natural gas vehicle was 25.4 mpg in 2021, according to a study by the Environmental Protection Agency(Opens in a new tab).

Instead of charging through an external port like EVs or PHEVs, HEVs recharge their batteries autonomously through power from the gas engine. They also use “regenerative braking”, just like EVs and PHEVs. Every time you brake, the vehicle captures the energy that would normally be wasted and stores it for later use.

Without the hassle of finding charging stations and spending the extra time to power up, hybrids have an unusual quality – as long as you can afford the extra cost, that is. They’re typically a few thousand dollars more than gas-powered cars, but less than plug-in EVs.

For example, the 2022 Toyota Rav 4 gasoline starts at $26,975. The hybrid version costs $29,575 and the plug-in electric hybrid version is $40,300. But whenever gas prices go up, it’s easy to see how the cost evens out over time.

What is a Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle?

Essentially a combination of an EV and an HEV, a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) is built to run on both gas and battery power. The main difference is that the power comes from plug-in chargers, making them more like an EV. When battery power runs out, PHEVs switch to gas like a hybrid, though some — like the 2023 Jeep Grand Cherokee 4xe PHEV (Opens in a new tab)— allow you to drive with the gas engine first while maintaining battery power, which you can switch to later.

Because of their larger battery, PHEVs can last much longer than pure electric hybrids, giving you excellent fuel economy. In the Rav 4 example, the gas version gets 27 mpg (city driving), the hybrid version comes in at 41 mpg, and the PHEV really impresses with 94 MPGe(Opens in a new tab).

New energy hand vehicle charging socket

Credit: Xu Wu/Getty Images

Like a hybrid, many PHEVs perform little recharging while driving, mostly through regenerative braking. However, they are designed to charge primarily through the plug-in port. Only then will you achieve the ability to drive purely on electricity for a certain number of miles, which is a distinct advantage over hybrids, whose small battery exists mainly to supplement the gas engine or perform auxiliary functions such as of air conditioning.

You can charge your PHEV at home and at public charging stations, giving you a taste of the EV life with the security of a tank of gas for peace of mind on longer journeys.

For more, see EVs 101: How do electric cars work?(Opens in a new tab) as well as the top EVs we’ve tested(Opens in a new tab).

This article originally appeared on in a new tab), Mashable’s sister site. in a new tab) is a leading authority in technology, providing independent, lab-based assessments of the latest products and services.

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