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What is a Plug-in Hybrid Car or SUV?

Most of us have heard the term “hybrid” but may not be familiar with a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, or “PHEV.” Even an awareness of both terms doesn’t necessarily mean a clear understanding of either or what differentiates them.

Generally, both rely on a gas engine and a battery-powered motor (or motors) to generate their go. In this sense, they both serve as a bridge between gas-fueled internal combustion engines (ICE), like the V8 engine in a Dodge Charger, and a fully electric vehicle (EV), like the Tesla Model S. Beyond this, they are both different yet similar.

In a nutshell, all PHEVs are hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs). But not all hybrids are PHEVs.

RELATED: Electric Car vs. Hybrid vs. Plug-in Hybrid Car: Which is Best for You?

What is a Plug-in Hybrid Car or SUV?

A plug-in hybrid electric car or SUV is a vehicle with a hybrid battery pack. The battery that supplies the electric motor(s) gets its charge from an external power source – literally plugging in the car to a wall socket or charger.

The car’s battery and electric motor can work on their own. But they also work in unison with the gas engine for power. PHEVs offer the capability of traveling on electric-only power for distances of up to 20 miles or more.

How Does a Hybrid System Work?

A gasoline/electric hybrid car is engineered to conserve gasoline. As a result, it provides better mileage. All HEV systems typically get powered by one or two electric motor/generators. Those motors feed a battery pack separate from the 12-volt battery found in conventional gasoline-fueled vehicles.

Working separately or in tandem, the gas-fueled engine and electric motors operate transparently to maximize fuel efficiency no matter the traffic flow, speed, or acceleration rate. The hybrid car’s computer divvies up the labor between the electric motors and gas engine to achieve this.

Conventional or self-charging HEVs, like the Toyota Prius and Hyundai Elantra, use nominal battery packs to store the electricity to run their electric motors. Providing the energy to store in the batteries is the gas engine and also regenerative braking. Regenerative braking captures the energy that’s normally lost during the process of hitting the brakes. From there, the HEV sends the energy to the battery.

Because of their batteries’ modest storage capacity, self-charging HEV systems generally contribute the most during measured acceleration from a standstill.

Some systems allow for very limited electric-only propulsion at lower speeds for short distances (usually no more than a mile or two). However, the electric-only operation isn’t the goal of a self-charging HEV.

What’s the Difference Between a PHEV and an HEV?

While a self-charging hybrid maximizes fuel efficiency, it rarely behaves as an electric-only vehicle. That is, it rarely runs solely on electricity for any significant amount of time.

Let’s learn about the other differences:

  • Battery capacity. The battery capacity in an HEV is insufficient to hold enough electricity for extended electric-only operation. And, the electricity-producing power of the engine and regenerative brakes isn’t enough either. PHEVs operate more like electric vehicles, at least for a few miles at a time.
  • Price. One difference between a PHEV and a conventional HEV is the price. PHEVs cost more. A good portion of that added cost is for larger-capacity batteries. However, one caveat is that some PHEVs may be eligible for federal tax credits that can save you from $2,500 to $7,500, depending on the vehicle.
  • Range. HEV range (or electric car range for that matter) is a function of battery capacity. For instance, the more batteries, the more storage capacity. The more storage capacity, the longer the range. Having solved the storage-capacity issue with more batteries, generating the electricity to fill those batteries becomes the issue for PHEVs. The gas engine and regenerative braking system alone can’t do it.
  • Total Driving Range. One advantage of a plug-in hybrid is that these vehicles have a longer than average total driving range. That just means that the combination of a full EV battery and a full tank of gasoline can allow the driver to go farther than if the vehicle were gasoline only or electric only. Hybrid and plug-in vehicles can go for 500, 600, or even 700 miles on one tank of gas.
  • Charge. To solve the dilemma of filling all that extra battery storage space, PHEVs charge the batteries ahead of time. Plug-in hybrids can do this with electricity from an external source. In other words, you plug your PHEV into a household 120-volt outlet (Level 1 EV charger) or a 240-volt charger (Level 2). However, recharging a PHEV takes time. For example, the Toyota Prius Prime takes 5.5 hours to recharge when plugged into a typical household outlet. With a Level 2, 240-volt rapid charging station, it takes just over 2 hours. For that investment of time and electricity, the Prius Prime delivers up to 25 miles in electric-only driving.

A Comprehensive List of Current PHEVs

Cargo Space Compromise

A common trade-off with a plug-in hybrid vehicle includes reduced passenger and cargo space.

While the Chevy Volt supplies more than 50 miles of electric driving range, it only seats four people in a rather cramped cabin (technically, you can put five people into this car, but I don’t recommend it). The Volt’s trunk measures just 10.6 cubic feet.

Several midsize sedans are available in both hybrid and plug-in hybrid format, including the Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, and Kia Optima. In each case, trunk space shrinks.

  • The Ford Fusion Energi plug-in can hold no more than 8.2 cu.-ft. of cargo, down from 12 cu.-ft. in the Fusion Hybrid.
  • The Hyundai Sonata Plug-in shrinks the trunk from 13.4 cu.-ft. in the Sonata Hybrid to 9.9 cu.-ft.
  • The Kia Optima Plug-in, which shares its platform and drivetrain with the Hyundai, also offers just 9.9 cu.-ft. of cargo space compared to 13.4 cu.-ft. in the Optima Hybrid.

As electric motor and battery packaging improve, however, such disparities will diminish.

Or, you could just get yourself a new Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid, which has a plug-in hybrid drivetrain good for 32 miles of electric driving, and 520 miles of total driving range, according to the manufacturer.

Plus, because it’s a minivan, the Pacifica Hybrid provides seating for up to seven people and can hold 32.3 cu.-ft. of cargo at the same time. Fold the third-row seat down and this clean, green, people-moving machine can carry 87.5 cu.-ft. of cargo.

Read more car-buying stories:

Christian Wardlaw contributed to this report


Which is better, a hybrid or a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV)?

Self-charging hybrids and PHEVs achieve different things. While a PHEV provides around 20 miles or more electric-only driving, it must plug in and charge.

A more affordable, self-charging hybrid electric vehicle, or HEV, improves mileage during city driving. HEVs do not need to be plugged in to charge — in fact, there’s no provision for drivers to plug in.

What does "plug-in hybrid electric vehicle" mean?

Plug-in hybrid or PHEV offers some degree of electric-only driving. However, it varies from about 20 to 80 miles, depending on the model. It achieves these ranges with larger batteries that must recharge from an external power source.

In other words, a PHEV must plug in to an outlet or charger to fully recharge its battery for maximum electric-only range.

Why isn't there a plug-in hybrid with a 100-mile electric-only range?

The range is a function of battery storage capacity. Batteries cost money, and they add weight. Hybrids are a tradeoff between range and affordability. The longer the vehicle range, the higher the cost. Most hybrid owners are happy to settle for better mileage for shorter distances than paying the price for a more extended range.

What is a plug-in hybrid?

A plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, or PHEV, uses electric motors, batteries, and a gasoline-fueled engine. PHEVs charge the battery pack ahead of driving by being plugged into an outside power source. Usually, the electric motors provide the power until the batteries get depleted. Then the engine takes over.

How does a plug-in hybrid work?

Electric motors fueled by a battery pack team with a gasoline-fueled engine to provide a vehicle’s thrust. Typically the electric motors provide the power until the batteries need replenishing. Then the gasoline engine takes over. Recharging the batteries requires plugging into an external power source.

Russ Heaps
Russ Heaps
Russ Heaps is an author specializing in automotive, financial and travel news. For nearly 35 years he has covered the automotive industry for newspapers, magazines and internet websites. His resume includes The Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald, The Washington Times and numerous other daily newspapers through syndication. He edited Auto World magazine, and helped create and edit NOPI Street... Read More about Russ Heaps

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