Closeup of a Toyota Yaris car's rear brake light next to the hybrid emblem.
Robert Bodnar T/

The low and zero-emission vehicle market has grown exponentially in recent years. If you’re shopping for one, you’re probably wondering what the difference is between a hybrid vehicle and an all-electric vehicle (EV), and which you should choose. We’ll examine both here.

How Does a Hybrid Vehicle Work?

With inconsistent marketing around low and zero-emissions vehicles, it can be hard to pin down exactly what each model does or how they work. Some use a mix of gasoline and electric power, while others are entirely battery-powered.

Hybrid vehicles get their name from the fact that they use both electric and internal combustion engines. The models most of us are familiar with, like the Prius, use an electric motor powered by a battery to move the vehicle during low-demand conditions like surface street driving. But they also have a smaller than normal gasoline engine to use for high-demand and long-distance situations. Another name for this kind of hybrid vehicle is the “series hybrid.”

Splitting power demand between electric and gas lets hybrids operate very efficiently, often getting a very high mile-per-gallon (MPG) range. Because it doesn’t use gas all the time, hybrids produce reduced carbon emissions but do still put out some exhaust.

In addition to the battery that all gas engines have, hybrids have another battery pack to power the electric motor. It’s not as big as the one in an EV, because the car doesn’t run solely on the battery’s power. A hybrid’s battery pack can store anywhere from 1 to 9 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity to use. A hybrid’s two batteries split the car’s electric needs — the battery pack powers the electric motor, while the more typical 12V car battery powers ancillary features like the radio and lights. Series hybrids typically recharge their battery through regenerative braking instead of plugging the battery pack in.

While series hybrids are probably the most common, there are other types of hybrid vehicles that work differently. Depending on the model and manufacturer, some hybrids use both electric and gas power at the same time instead of switching between the two. These are referred to as “parallel hybrids.”

Still other hybrids allow you to plug them in to recharge their battery packs, giving them greater range than series hybrids. These hybrids still use some gas, but have larger battery packs that allow them to travel greater distances solely using electric power.

How Are All-Electric Vehicles (EVs) Different From Hybrids?

Closeup of a hybrid car's dashboard display with the "Hybrid Mode" light activated.
Gleb Predko/

As the name implies, EVs do not use gasoline to power them at all. Instead, they store electricity in massive battery packs, which are used to rotate the vehicle’s electric motor.

This design means far fewer moving parts than a conventional gas-powered engine. It also means a higher degree of rotational force, or torque can be sent to the wheels when accelerating than with an internal combustion engine.

Electric cars produce no exhaust and can refuel by being plugged in at home or using public charging stations. While just about every EV on the market uses regenerative braking, they still have to be plugged into a power source to fully charge their batteries.

While early EVs were sedan-sized, there are now EV versions of everything from cars to trucks to SUVs available to purchase. Advances in technology mean they have greater range and power than before, though it still might be easier to find a gas station than a place to charge your EV, depending on what the charging network in your area is like.

Hybrids currently have the advantage over EVs when it comes to range, with the exception of higher-end models like Tesla’s Model 3 long range. That said, an EV will more than suffice for the average person’s daily drive, and can often be topped off at home overnight.

Should You Buy an Electric Car or a Hybrid?

Which low or zero-emission vehicle is right for you? If range is important to you but you still want to cut your carbon footprint, a plug-in hybrid would be a good choice. If you’re not worried about range, have a place to plug it in at night, and are confident in relying on the charging network near you, an EV might be the way to go. At the end of the day, it depends on your needs.

RELATED: Electric Vehicles: How Easy Is It to Find a Charging Station?

Profile Photo for John Bogna John Bogna
John is a freelance writer and photographer based in Houston, Texas. His ten-year background spans topics from tech to culture and includes work for the Seattle Times, the Houston Press, Medium's OneZero, WebMD, and MailChimp. Before moving to The Bayou City, John earned a B.A. in Journalism from CSU Long Beach.
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