EVs, hybrids and PHEVs: what are they, what are the advantages of each, and which one might suit you?
First up: this is not a comparison test between the different types of electrification to decide which one is the best. It is a beginners’ guide, that hopefully will help anyone looking to take their first tentative steps towards an electrically driven future.
The second point to be clear about: we are not going to advocate for one form of electrification over another. We believe everyone should feel free to embrace electrification however they choose: a little bit or all-in.
So, if you’ve come here with little or no knowledge of what the different kinds of automotive electrical drive systems are, and are keen to learn, then this is the place for you.
If this article leaves you thirsting for more – and we hope it does – we have lots of articles that can help you (links down the bottom). Or leave a question in the comments and the Drive team and its very knowledgeable readers will do their best to answer.
Lastly, we hope this article helps. Electricity will make your motoring dollar go further and reduce transport’s negative impact on the environment. These are both worthy outcomes.
Electric cars are big news right now. All the major car companies have declared their intentions to phase out traditional petrol and diesel-burning engines for electric propulsion by 2030-2050. In other words, it’s possible that babies born today may never own a petrol- or diesel-powered car.
There are three main kinds of electric drive systems on sale in Australia today:
- Fully electric vehicles (EV) also called battery electric vehicles (BEV) like the Tesla Model 3, Audi E-Tron, Nissan Leaf and Mercedes-Benz EQC
- Hybrid cars that combine electric motors and batteries with traditional petrol engines to reduce fuel use like the Toyota Corolla and RAV4
- Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) which are hybrid cars that can be charged at a powerpoint like a fully electric car
The type of electrified powertrain in no way dictates the type of car or its usage. For example, the Kia Niro small SUV and Hyundai Ioniq hatchback are both on sale right now in all three forms of electrification mentioned above.
The fourth type of electric car that is making headlines right now is the hydrogen car, thanks primarily to Hyundai and Toyota’s endeavours in this area. We’re not going to delve into hydrogen cars in this article, because while both brands offer a hydrogen vehicle in Australia, they’re still limited-availability models right now.
EVs and hybrids drive normally
The first thing you need to know is that you don’t need to know anything special to drive a car with any of the electrification systems mentioned above. They all have accelerators and brakes and steering wheels and seats, just like traditional petrol or diesel-powered cars.
Sure, most electrified cars have systems that, when used expertly, can prolong driving range, improve performance and reduce energy use. But you don’t need to be an expert to just get in and drive.
Engines and motors
Like many others of his generation, my dad used to refer to his car’s engine as its ‘motor’. We all grew up hearing the term ‘motor car’ too. We don’t want to get into an argument here about the semantics of ‘motor’ and ‘engine’, but you’re better off referring to anything that turns petrol or diesel into motive force as an engine, and anything that turns electrical energy into motive force as a motor.
So, for the sake of this article, we are going to stick to those definitions. Any time you see the word ‘engine’ it refers to something that burns fuel, and the word motor refers only to an electric propulsion unit.
The word ‘hybrid’ describes something that is a combination of two or more species or varieties. A mule is a hybrid of a horse and a donkey. It’s smaller than a horse and stronger than a donkey, making them great pack carriers. A liger is a hybrid lion and tiger.
A hybrid car has a powertrain that combines traditional fuel-burning technology with an electric motor and batteries. The goal here is to increase the driving range provided by every litre of fuel.
How does it do that? By capturing energy the car creates that would otherwise be lost during deceleration or braking. A hybrid car has an electric motor that can use electricity to supplement the fuel-powered engine during acceleration, and it can recapture energy during deceleration and store it in a small battery unit.
Some hybrid cars can drive on electricity alone for short distances or at lower speeds, and others just use the electricity to assist the fuel-powered engine. Some other hybrid cars can use their engines to produce electricity like a generator.
Regardless of which kind, all hybrid vehicles can continue to be driven when the battery is flat, relying on the fuel-powered engine alone. This means your driving range is only limited by the service station network.
So, what’s a plug-in hybrid?
A plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) is a hybrid car that can be plugged into an external charging source (such as a powerpoint at home) to recharge its battery. In all other ways that matter to this article, it is identical to a regular hybrid.
The advantage here is you are not solely reliant on brake energy recuperation or running the petrol engine, meaning you can reduce your fuel use further than possible in a basic hybrid. The two main disadvantages are: 1) you need to remember to plug it in from time to time; and 2) your home electricity usage will increase.
Like hybrids, plug-in hybrids can continue to be driven after the battery runs out, relying solely on the fuel-powered engine.
What is a fully electric vehicle?
Remember that remote-controlled car you and your siblings got for Christmas? It had a battery that needed charging, and a little electric motor that whined as the car zipped all over the kitchen floor. When the battery was charged, the car ripped around the joint doing skids and donuts. When the battery died, the car stopped until the battery was recharged again.
That, in essence, is what an electric vehicle (also called a Battery Electric Vehicle, or BEV) like a Tesla Model 3 is. It does not have a traditional fuel-powered internal combustion engine. It only has a battery pack and an electric motor or two.
Battery capacities were a major limiting factor in the early days of EVs because they provided limited driving ranges. These days, there are a dozen or more EVs with prices ranging from $50K to $300K that can drive for 400-500km on pure electricity alone, which is enough to handle the average urban Australian’s weekly driving needs.
Owning a pure-electric vehicle means never needing to visit a petrol station. The only way to charge an EV is to plug it in. Domestic powerpoints are one option, but the huge battery capacity of modern EVs means it can take all night or more to recharge. The Audi E-Tron electric SUV, for example, will take more than 50 hours to recharge from flat via a domestic point.
More powerful charging options are available and can be installed at your home (or work) for a price. There are also public charging stations – all of which will recharge an EV in significantly less time than a wall socket. But even the fastest is not as fast as filling a fuel tank.
Which one should I choose?
If you want to end your reliance on petrol or diesel for good, then BEVs are your best bet.
If your priority is keeping day-to-day fuel costs down as you make the transition from fuel to electricity gradually, then a hybrid is for you.
If you want to take a bigger step into electrification but aren’t ready to go all-in, perhaps needing some long-range driving capabilities, then the PHEV is your Goldilocks.
Let’s break that down into real-world terms:
- If you do not have off-street parking, and drive a reasonable amount, then take a closer look at the standard hybrid. No need to plug it in, and it will still extend the time between petrol station visits.
- If you are mainly urban with regular commuting and can plug in at home or work, but still want the flexibility offered by the service station network, the PHEV would suit your needs.
- If you are mainly urban with few bigger trips outside the city, and you have secure parking and plug-in capability for recharging every few nights, then you’re ready for the EV.
- Or, if you have two cars and can afford for one to be your weekday commuter, then an EV suits that too.
Glenn Butler is one of Australia’s best-known motoring journalists having spent the last 25 years reporting on cars on radio, TV, web and print. He’s a former editor of Wheels, Australia’s most respected car magazine, and was deputy editor of Drive.com.au before that. Glenn’s also worked at an executive level for two of Australia’s most prominent car companies, so he understands how much care and consideration goes into designing and developing new cars. As a journalist, he’s driven everything from Ferraris to Fiats on all continents except Antarctica (which he one day hopes to achieve) and loves discovering each car’s unique personality and strengths. Glenn knows a car’s price isn’t indicative of its competence, and even the cheapest car can enhance your life and expand your horizons.