Electric cars, hybrids, fuel cells and more: what’s right for you?

You are spoiled for choice when it comes to buying a fuel-efficient or zero-emission vehicle. But not all powertrain alternatives to the internal combustion engine are right for everyone. Like so many other things, electric cars, hybrids, fuel cell vehicles and more have advantages and disadvantages.

Of course, all of this can be confusing. Don’t feel overwhelmed. We’re here to help you understand the difference between a mild hybrid, hybrid, and other variants. And it has nothing to do with spices, by the way. Whether it’s an electric vehicle or maybe something else caught your eye, read below as we break down each type of electrified vehicle, along with their pros and cons so you can make the best buying decision for your electrified vehicle.

Read more: The best electric cars of 2021

Yeah, even trucks are in the mild-hybrid game.

Jon Wong/Roadshow

mild hybrid

A mild-hybrid system is the easiest and most cost-effective way to add electric drivetrain components to a vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine. In a mild hybrid system, the ICE will often shut off entirely under no-load conditions, such as going down a hill or coming to a stop. The hybrid system allows the ICE to be restarted almost instantly and can power auxiliary systems on the vehicle such as the stereo or air conditioning. Some mild-hybrid systems will feature regenerative braking or offer electric assist or torque-filling to the ICE, but not all have the capability to run on electric alone.

Advantages

  • Can power many electrical systems of a car.
  • The Stop-Start system saves fuel when idling.
  • Can reduce turbo lag by filling torque until engine starts.
  • Lighter weight compared to other electrified vehicles.
  • Less complexity.
  • Lower cost.

Disadvantages

  • Increased cost and complexity compared to internal combustion engines alone.
  • No full-EV mode.

The OG hybrid.

Craig Cole / Roadshow

Standard hybrid

Series hybrid – also known as power-split hybrid or parallel hybrid – is what most people think of when they think of a hybrid vehicle. These use a reduced ICE to provide power at higher speeds and under higher load conditions, and a battery-powered electrical system to move the vehicle at low speeds and under light load conditions. This allows the ICE to operate within its ideal efficiency range, providing excellent fuel economy, especially in city driving conditions.

Advantages

  • Excellent efficiency at speeds around town.
  • Gas-powered ICE for longer range (and longer trips).
  • Offers a good compromise between efficiency, user-friendliness and overall cost.

Disadvantages

  • Typically higher cost than a pure ICE vehicle of the same size.
  • Maximizing efficiency means reducing power output.

The RAV4 Prime has a long electric range.

Emme Room/Roadshow

Plug-in hybrid

The plug-in hybrid is the logical continuation of the series hybrid system. These cars are moving closer to the all-electric vehicle side of the continuum, with the ability to travel longer distances solely on electricity. The plug-in part of their name comes from their ability to be plugged into an electric car charging station, rather than just relying on ICE and regenerative braking for battery power, effectively eliminating the range anxiety. Another area where plug-in hybrids differ from mild hybrids or production hybrids is in their battery size. This is what gives them their extensive range of electric-only vehicles.

Advantages

  • Increased range compared to battery electric vehicles thanks to a gasoline engine that extends range.
  • Lower purchase cost than BEVs.
  • Lower running cost compared to production hybrids.

Disadvantages

  • More expensive to purchase than production hybrids or mild hybrids.
  • Bigger batteries mean more weight.
  • More complex than mild hybrids.

Everyone knows Model 3.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

electric battery

Battery electric vehicles are mostly what they sound like: a big battery with at least one wired electric motor. Oh, and tons of complex software to manage the thousands of individual cells that make up that big battery. Mechanically speaking, BEVs are the least complex of all the vehicles we cover when you consider that even the simplest multi-cylinder internal combustion engine has several hundred moving parts, whereas an electric motor has only its rotor. Pure electric vehicles are becoming more mainstream, thanks to innovation from relatively new companies like Tesla and industry stalwarts like General Motors and Nissan.

Advantages

  • Mechanical simplicity means less maintenance than ICE.
  • Tons of instant torque.
  • Almost silent operation.
  • Electricity is cheap, for now.
  • No tailpipe, so no emissions and no emissions test.
  • The low center of gravity is ideal for driving the vehicle.

Disadvantages

  • More expensive than similarly sized production hybrids or ICE vehicles.
  • Limited range.
  • Long charging times.
  • The charging station infrastructure is still in place.
  • Not practical for most people unless you have a 240 volt level 2 charge at your home or parking spot.
  • Heavier weight than vehicles of similar size.
  • Uncertain environmental impact for disposal of end-of-life batteries.

The Hyundai Nexo is only available in certain regions.

Daniel Golson/Roadshow

Hydrogen fuel cell

A fuel cell takes hydrogen and oxidizes it to create an electrical charge, which is then funneled into a battery and used by electric motors. This technology has been around in automobiles for a few decades, but due to cost, component size, and a relative lack of infrastructure, few companies are still working with it. The miniaturization of technology over the past few years has made hydrogen FCVs more commercially viable, and we’re starting to see more interest from manufacturers like Honda and Hyundai.

Advantages

  • No need to recharge; just fill your car with hydrogen and go.
  • Quiet operation, much like a BEV.
  • The only emission is water.

Disadvantages

  • Hydrogen prices fluctuate wildly, often more expensive than fossil fuels.
  • Limited supply network outside certain cities such as Los Angeles or San Francisco.
  • Hydrogen tanks can eat away at the cabin or cargo area if the vehicle wasn’t designed for fuel cells from the start.

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