Skip to main content

EV vs. PHEV vs. hybrid: What’s the difference?

When sizing up options for your next car, you may be figuring out whether to get an electric vehicle, only to discover there are a bunch of variations to consider — not just hybrids, but plug-in hybrids, extended-range electric vehicles, and fuel cell electric vehicles are just some of the other categories. The depths of EV jargon run so deep that we wrote an entire EV glossary, but for now let’s zero in on the difference between electric vehicles, hybrids, and plug-in hybrids. These options blend old tech and new tech in a way that’s often practical, cheaper than an EV, and still more efficient than an old-school gasoline car.

What is an electric vehicle?

An electric vehicle skips the internal combustion engine found in most traditional cars in favor of an electric motor. This allows EVs to operate without needing gasoline. Instead, they’re powered by an electric battery that will need to be charged regularly, either at your home or at a charging station like a Tesla Supercharger. The Ford Mach-E, Kia EV6, and Rivian R1S are all popular examples of modern EVs.

Front three-quarters view of a 2023 Kia EV6 GT in a desert setting.
Christian de Looper / Digital Trends

The electric motor works by way of a rotating magnetic field. Inside the motor, three electromagnets surround a free-floating rotor, which spins based on which magnet is attracting it most. That rotor in turn produces power to the wheels of the car and pushes it forward and backward. Regenerative braking reverses the relationship and turns motion into electricity. While you’re slowing to a stop, the force of the turning wheels spins the rotor and generates a charge via the electromagnets in the motor, which in turn goes up into the battery for storage. If you’re curious, you can dig into the nuts and bolts of how an electric vehicle works.

What’s the difference between a hybrid and a plug-in hybrid?

In short, a hybrid primarily relies on gas with an electric backup, while a plug-in hybrid relies on electric power with a gas backup.

All the energy a hybrid uses derives from gasoline — you never plug it in. It just converts some of that energy to electricity to use it more efficiently. A typical hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) charges its batteries through regenerative braking. So when you apply brakes, an HEV uses the forward momentum to charge the battery, collecting energy that would otherwise be lost in a traditional car. That electricity can be used to run the hybrid at low speeds, like in a parking lot, or to help it accelerate. The Toyota Prius remains the most iconic hybrid, but they now come in all shapes and sizes, like the Kia Sportage Hybrid.

By contrast, a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) can also be charged via an electrical outlet, and generally relies on that charge for day-to-day-use. PHEVs generally have a much more generous electric-only range than HEVs — the modern Rav4 Prime is good for 42 miles before the engine kicks in. There are a few ways the internal combustion engine (ICE) and the electric motor can be arranged in relationship to one another.

A diagram illustrating the difference between hybrid vehicles.
Electrification Coalition

When a hybrid has a series drivetrain, the engine charges the battery pack. The battery pack then delivers power to the electric motor, which in turn moves the wheels. This typically results in small, efficient gas engines and larger batteries. This is a good setup for urban driving where there’s a lot of stopping. More battery means more capacity for storing regenerative braking power, plus you can enjoy quick startup once the light turns green with more abundant electric power.

In parallel, both the electric motor and ICE can move the wheels. The onboard computer figures out which kind of power is used, and when. So if you need instant torque, the electric motor is likely to be tapped, but if you’re on a long stretch of highway, the gas engine will likely do the work.

Series-parallel hybrids take things one step further by using both gas and electric power simultaneously. Typically, this will look like electric power used at lower speeds to get things started quickly, with gas power then added in to reach higher speeds. This is a more complicated (and therefore more expensive) layout than the other two hybrid systems.

Though EVs are becoming more popular, both hybrids and plug-in hybrids are still great picks for many consumers, especially those with range anxiety. Some PHEV buyers even prefer them to full EVs. If you’re still confused about the difference, be sure to check out our rundown of the difference between electric and electrified vehicles.

Editors' Recommendations

Simon Sage
Simon has been publishing in tech since before the first iPhone was released. When he's not busy lighting a candle for the…
BMW i4 vs. Tesla Model 3: Which EV sedan is better?
2022 BMW i4 M50

The BMW i4 and Tesla Model 3 are two of the hottest electric cars on the market today. Both vehicles offer a range of features designed to make driving easy and efficient, as well as attractive styling. But each has its advantages and disadvantages, and there is much that sets them apart in terms of performance, technology, convenience, and cost.

Deciding between the two? That's why we've put together this guide. Here are the differences and similarities between the Tesla Model 3 and BMW i4, and why you might want one over the other.

Read more
Tesla Destination Chargers vs. Superchargers: What’s the difference?
tesla starts opening its supercharger network to other evs

One of the best things about owning a Tesla is being able to take advantage of the massive network of chargers to quickly and easily charge up your car. Charging a Tesla is extremely easy — all you have to do is plug in your car, and all of the costs and payments are handled automatically.

But did you know there are actually different kinds of Tesla chargers? Tesla Destination Charging and Tesla Superchargers are the two main options, but there are some key differences between the two. Understanding these differences will help you make sure you’re taking advantage of the best charger for your needs.

Read more
Ram EV concept previews truck brand’s electric future
The Ram 1500 Revolution BEV concept was designed around an electric powertrain.

Electric pickup trucks are a hot trend in the auto industry, and Ram is late to the game. So the truck brand of massive automaker Stellantis needed to work hard to stand out.
Unveiled at CES 2023, the Ram 1500 Revolution BEV concept shows what Ram has in mind for its first production electric truck, which is scheduled to arrive in 2024. This concept version combines some features we’ve already seen on other electric trucks with a few clever new ideas. So while it may be revolutionary for the Ram brand, which is new to EVs, it’s more evolutionary when compared to other electric pickups.

Unmistakably electric
The Ram 1500 Revolution has the bulky appearance of a traditional truck, but with proportions that clearly mark it as an EV. With no need to accommodate an engine, the hood is much shorter. This allowed designers to make the cabin four inches longer than today’s internal-combustion Ram 1500 without shortening the bed, Ram claims. The grille is also smaller, although Ram compensated for this with a giant light-up logo and headlights with the same “tuning fork” elements as its current gasoline and diesel truck grilles.
The roofline is a bit lower and sleeker, which probably helps with aerodynamics, but like a traditional truck, the Revolution rolls on massive wheels and tires. The 35-inch tires are wrapped around 24-inch wheels with smooth covers and light-up elements. The charge port, meanwhile, is located in the driver’s side front fender. It makes a noise when the truck has started charging and blinks to show that charging is ongoing.
Like rival truck makers, Ram incorporated a frunk where the engine would normally be, plus the RamBox storage bins from its current trucks. Nearly every opening, including the tailgate, frunk, and charge port, is also power-operated.
Underpinning all of this power-operated convenience is the STLA Frame dedicated EV platform, one of four such platforms Stellantis plans to use for future EVs across its many brands, such as Chrysler and Jeep.

Read more