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What's the Difference Between a Hybrid and a Plug-In Hybrid?

Hybrid-V-Plug-In.jpg Cars.com illustration by Paul Dolan

The difference between a plug-in hybrid vehicle and a conventional hybrid is quite simple: The first hybrid can be connected to an outside electrical source for charging its battery, and the second hybrid cannot.

Related: So You Want to Buy a Hybrid Car: 6 Things to Know 

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Plug-in hybrids — also known as plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, or PHEVs — generally have a larger and more powerful battery than their plug-free hybrid counterparts, enabling them to operate entirely on electrical power like a purely electric vehicle that has no gas engine. Like an electric car, plug-in hybrid vehicles can be charged using any household 120-volt outlet for power, but charging time is much faster using a 240-volt charger either at home or the type found at some rest areas, parking garages or places of employment.

Having considerably smaller battery packs than purely electric vehicles is what allows many PHEVs to get by without 240-volt charging; they simply require less power and can charge overnight. But if you want to preheat or precool the cabin before unplugging — a recommended step to preserve your electric range — a 240-volt connection is more effective. Their added complexity and larger batteries make PHEV models more expensive than their regular hybrid counterparts, although federal tax credits can make up at least part of the difference (and state incentives might also be available, depending where you live). What’s more, the fact that plug-in hybrids can be used as purely electric vehicles at least part of the time can add to the appeal for some drivers while minimizing range anxiety with the backup of gasoline engines.

Just don’t see a plug-in-hybrid badge and assume you’ll be able to go all that far on electric power alone, because the ranges vary greatly. The 2021 Porsche Cayenne Turbo S E-Hybrid has one of the shortest electric-only ranges at an EPA-estimated 14 miles before the gasoline engine must kick in. The 2021 BMW X3 xDrive30e, 2021 Land Rover Range Rover Sport PHEV, 2021 Mini SE Countryman All4 and 2021 Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid are all rated at less than 20 miles of range, and several more models go just past 20 miles.

The current electric range champions include the 2021 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid, rated 47 miles; the 2021 Toyota RAV4 Prime, rated 42 miles; the 2021 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan, rated 32 miles; and the 2021 Hyundai Ioniq Plug-In Hybrid, rated 29 miles. But we should also tip our hats to the 2021 BMW i3, which stands out as a longer-range electric car (126 miles) that offers an optional range extending gas-powered generator, essentially turning it into a PHEV.

Other than their electric-only range, which typically allows for highway speeds, plug-ins are pretty similar to conventional hybrids to live with and drive. Some models, such as the Hyundai Ioniq and Toyota Prius and Prius Prime, offer the choice of either traditional hybrid or plug-in hybrid powertrains. The Honda Clarity Plug-in Hybrid also comes as a battery electric and a fuel-cell model. But it seems like most plug-in hybrids are versions of models sold otherwise only as regular gas-powered cars and SUVs, and there are many more to come.

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