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Green Car Technologies: Hybrid vs. Plug-In vs. Hydrogen

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author photo by Doug DeMuro November 2015

In today's world, more and more shoppers are buying green cars that offer greater fuel efficiency than traditional gas-powered cars and trucks. But which green technology best fits your lifestyle? We're taking a look at today's prevailing green automotive technology -- hybrid cars, plug-in cars and hydrogen-powered cars -- to explain exactly what they are and how they differ.

Hybrid Cars

Hybrid cars make use of the most common green car technology: a hybrid powertrain that combines gasoline and electric propulsion for improved fuel efficiency. While the gasoline engine powers the car much of the time, the electric motor or motors can offer assistance with moving the car or powering the accessories -- and they can be recharged when the car brakes through a technological advancement called regenerative braking.

Although traditional hybrid cars don't require a plug, they also still use gasoline -- and that means that, while they're more efficient than gas-powered cars, they'll never be the overall solution to the green propulsion question. Still, they're a start -- especially since hybrids don't require much compromise from drivers. Examples of hybrid cars include the Toyota Prius, Ford C-MAX, Honda Civic Hybrid, Kia Optima Hybrid and Lexus CT 200h.

Plug-In Cars

There are two types of plug-in vehicles: plug-in hybrids and plug-in electric vehicles.

Plug-in hybrids differ from normal hybrids in the sense that their electric powertrain is charged through a plug, just like your microwave or your refrigerator. Once the car is fully charged, an electric powertrain can propel it for a set number of miles before a gasoline engine kicks in to extend the vehicle's range.

While some drivers don't like the idea of plugging in their car to let it charge, others prefer plug-in hybrid vehicles because the fully electric range of a plug-in hybrid is often much longer than that of a traditional hybrid car. While standard hybrid cars can normally only travel a mile or two on fully electric power (if that), plug-in hybrids can usually travel 15 miles to 40 miles, which is enough for most drivers to commute to work or run some errands. Examples of plug-in hybrids include the Chevrolet Volt, Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, Honda Accord Plug-In Hybrid and Ford Fusion Energi.

The other type of plug-in green car is the fully electric vehicle, or the EV. Unlike hybrids and plug-in hybrids, electric vehicles don't use any gasoline engine at all. While this means EV drivers don't have to pump any gas, it also means an EV must rely on batteries for power -- and batteries usually don't have the same range as a gasoline-powered engine with a full tank of fuel. Examples of electric vehicles include the Nissan LEAF, Ford Focus Electric, Kia Soul EV and Tesla Model S.

Hydrogen Cars

The final -- and rarest -- version of green propulsion comes in the form of hydrogen-powered cars. Hydrogen-powered cars are filled at special hydrogen filling stations and then use a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen in a fuel cell in order to power a car's electric motors. At the moment, the use of hydrogen cars is limited to a handful of vehicles in Southern California -- and given the complexities of creating infrastructure to support hydrogen vehicles, it may stay that way. Still, proponents of a hydrogen economy suggest hydrogen cars may someday surpass electric vehicles as the propulsion system of the future.

Although you probably haven't seen many hydrogen cars on the road, examples include the Honda FCX Clarity, Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell and the upcoming Toyota Mirai.

Which Is Right for You?

So which green car technology is right for you? It all depends on your lifestyle. For most drivers, a traditional hybrid will do the trick, as it offers excellent mileage without much compromise. Other drivers prefer an electric vehicle so they never have to visit a gas pump -- or a plug-in hybrid for a longer range. And if you're in Southern California, you might want to consider one of the cars we've named if you're interested in discovering what the hydrogen fuss is all about.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Green Car Technologies: Hybrid vs. Plug-In vs. Hydrogen - Autotrader