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A hybrid car is a vehicle powered by both a fuel engine and an electric motor. Unlike conventional vehicles, which only run on gasoline or diesel, and all-electric cars, which must be plugged in to charge their batteries, a hybrid car’s battery is charged while the vehicle is in operation.
Thanks to their electric power, these cars tend to provide better fuel economy than traditional vehicles without sacrificing power. Here’s what you should know about hybrid cars.
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How hybrid cars work
A hybrid car, or hybrid electric vehicle (HEV), uses power from both an internal combustion engine and an electric motor. The car’s engine runs off conventional fuel, like gasoline, and the electric motor is powered by a battery.
While fully electric cars must be plugged in to charge their battery, the batteries in hybrid vehicles are self-charging. However, in the case of plug-in hybrids, the vehicle can either self-charge like a regular hybrid car or be plugged in.
Good to Know
When you drive your HEV, energy transfers to the battery through the car’s internal combustion engine and regenerative braking. Plug-in hybrid vehicle (PHEV) batteries can also be charged by regenerative braking or through charging equipment. In addition to powering a hybrid car, a PHEV’s battery can also be used to boost performance and reduce how much the engine idles when you’re stopped.
Benefits of hybrid cars
Hybrid cars, including plug-ins hybrids, have several key advantages over conventional vehicles, including:
Better fuel economy: Running on a combination of conventional fuel and electric battery power, HEVs and PHEVs use less fuel than gas-powered vehicles.
Reduced emissions: HEVs and PHEVs have lower tailpipe emissions since they don’t exclusively run on gas.
Little compromise on power or range: Today’s HEVs and PHEVs have as much power as gas-powered vehicles and can drive the same distances — as long as they’re not in battery-only mode.
Challenges of hybrid cars
Hybrid cars also have several key disadvantages when compared to conventional vehicles, including:
Higher purchase price: HEVs and PHEVs tend to cost more than gas-powered vehicles, but they may be eligible for state incentives.
Still require fuel to operate: Different from fully electric vehicles, HEVs and PHEVs both require fuel, like gasoline, to function.
Higher insurance rates: HEVs and PHEVs often cost more to insure, thanks to their more expensive repair and replacement costs.
Types of hybrid cars
All hybrid vehicles run on a combination of conventional fuel, like gas, and an electric motor. Hybrid vehicles have two configuration options: parallel and series.
Hybrid fuel-efficient system configuration options
Parallel: This is the most common HEV design and features a parallel configuration where mechanical coupling connects the wheels to both the internal combustion engine and electric motor. Together, they can be used to power the car’s wheels.
Series: Mostly found in plug-in hybrid vehicles and known as “extended-range electric vehicles,” a series configuration system only uses the electric motor to power the wheels. If the battery gets depleted, the car’s series system can switch to working like a parallel hybrid.
Hybrid vehicle options
Full hybrid: Equipped with a larger battery than mild hybrid cars, full hybrids also have a powerful electric motor that’s able to fully power the car at low speeds over short distances. Full hybrid cars are often pricier than mild hybrid vehicle options but offer more fuel economy benefits. The Toyota Prius is a popular full hybrid option.
Mild hybrid: Also called micro hybrids, mild hybrid cars use a system that allows the engine to shut off when the vehicle comes to a stop. This type of system can’t exclusively use electricity to power the vehicle, like a full hybrid, resulting in lower fuel economy. But mild hybrids tend to be the more affordable HEV option. Ram trucks are available in mild hybrid options.
Plug-in hybrid: PHEVs are powered by a combination of an internal combustion engine and an electric motor. The battery is charged through regenerative braking while driving or by plugging the vehicle into charging equipment. PHEVs may be powered exclusively by electricity if you stick to short-distance driving (about 15 to 60 miles) and plug in frequently. The Chrysler Pacifica is a popular plug-in hybrid for families.
Brief history of hybrid cars
While early versions of all-electric cars have been around for more than 100 years, hybrid vehicles didn’t hit the market until 1997 when Toyota released the world’s first mass-produced hybrid vehicle — the Prius — in Japan. Although the Toyota Prius didn’t become available in the U.S. until 2000, the Honda Insight hybrid came to the U.S. market in 1999.
The popularity and availability of hybrid cars have continued to grow over the last two decades. In 2010, the Chevy released the Volt, the world’s first plug-in hybrid option.
Today, more than 20,000 charging outlets in more than 8,000 different locations are available across the U.S., a project funded by the U.S. Energy Department. And with more than 36 different hybrid vehicle models to choose from, it’s no wonder 3.3 million hybrids are on the road.
The cost of insuring popular hybrid cars
If you’re planning to drive a hybrid car, you can likely expect to pay a bit more for car insurance than you would for a conventional vehicle.
Hybrid vehicles generally cost more to purchase, so that can affect the overall value of your car. This means they often cost more to repair or replace if the vehicle is damaged, totaled, or stolen.
Your insurance premium on a hybrid car might also be higher for a number of other reasons, including a higher risk of accidents with pedestrians and cyclists, thanks to how quiet a hybrid can be.
If you’re considering a hybrid car, it’s a good idea to weigh many different factors before making a decision, including the vehicle price, energy costs of power sources, and insurance rates. While hybrid cars tend to cost more than conventional vehicles, you may save money on fuel over time.
If you opt for a plug-in hybrid car, you’ll likely save on fuel charges, but you could rack up higher electric bills if you charge your vehicle at home. You can compare the fuel economy of different hybrid models by using a range of free tools and calculators on fueleconomy.gov.
You can also look into federal and state incentive programs that offer ways to offset some of your fuel costs when you own a hybrid car. Be sure to do your research before choosing a vehicle to see if the model you’re interested in buying qualifies and what incentives or savings may be available.
When choosing a hybrid vehicle, you’ll also want to compare insurance costs. While hybrids tend to cost more to insure, rates could vary by insurance company, so it doesn’t hurt to shop around for the best prices.
Hybrid car FAQs
If you’re considering switching to a hybrid car over a gas-engine vehicle, here’s some additional information that may help as you research your options.
What is a hybrid car, and how does it work?
A hybrid car is a vehicle that’s powered by both an internal combustion engine and an electric motor with a battery. The battery is charged through regenerative braking and by the car’s internal combustion engine. Plug-in hybrids can also be charged at home or via charging stations.
What are the disadvantages of a hybrid car?
Hybrid cars tend to cost more to purchase, and insurance rates can be higher than for conventional vehicles. They also still require some type of fuel, like gas, which can be expensive, depending on fuel costs.
Does a hybrid car use gas?
Yes. Most hybrid cars require conventional fuel to operate, such as gasoline.
What are the main benefits of driving a hybrid car over a traditional gasoline vehicle?
Driving a hybrid car can help you save on fuel costs over time and can help reduce your carbon footprint without losing any of the power or convenience of a conventional gas-powered vehicle.
Do hybrid cars require special maintenance or different types of fuel?
Yes. Hybrid vehicles need to be repaired by qualified technicians, and the cost of repairs and parts is often higher than conventional car repairs. Hybrids run off a combination of an electric battery-powered motor and gas-powered combustion engine.
Are there any tax incentives or rebates for purchasing a hybrid car?
Yes. Depending on where you live and the model of hybrid car you buy, you may qualify for certain types of federal or state tax incentives or rebates, which can help offset the purchase cost.
Sarah Archambault enjoys helping people figure out smarter ways to use their money. She covers auto financing, banking, credit cards, credit health, insurance, and personal loans. She’s created and edited content for Credit Karma, Experian and Sound Dollar, along with banks, financial institutions, and insurance companies.