Hybrid, EV, Plug-In-Hybrid, or Fuel-Cell Vehicle: How to Choose?

2023 toyota mirai
How to Choose: Hybrid, EV, PHEV, or Fuel-Cell Car?Toyota

You may have encountered ads about "electrified" cars. Most people hear that name as synonymous with "electric" cars, but it's actually a broader category. An "electrified" vehicle is one that has an electric motor anywhere in the powertrain. Under that tent, you'll find hybrids, battery-electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.

Each of these has its pros and cons, and each may be a good (or bad) choice for a different set of buyers with different circumstances. So the question is, which will meet your needs the best? Here's our guide to help you sort it out.


On sale for more than 20 years now—the Toyota Prius is the best-known model—a hybrid-electric vehicle has one or two electric motors to supplement the output of its gasoline engine. On engine overrun or light braking, an electric motor turns into a generator to recharge the battery with energy that would otherwise be wasted. At low speeds or under light loads, hybrids can run on electricity alone for short periods.

There's a lot going on under the hood of a hybrid. That's due to control algorithms that modulate power delivery from the battery to the electric motors and demand power from a mixture of the motors and the engine. Today's hybrids are much quieter than those of previous eras, and owners may not know when their engine is switching on or off. As national emission standards tighten, hybrid models from most makers will increase—though you may not know they're hybrids except for a small badge.

Pro: Hybrids are the easiest type of electrified vehicle to use, because the driver doesn't have to change their behavior: They fuel it up just like any other gasoline car, except less often. (They also replace brake pads less often, since much of the braking is regenerative via the electric motor.) Hybrids are best for those who regularly cover long distances and unpredictable routes, for street parkers and apartment dwellers, and for people who simply don’t want to learn about plugging in cars.

Con: Hybrids still cost more to buy than nonhybrids, though the difference is less than it used to be. It can be disconcerting for drivers to hear engine noise rising and falling without a commensurate change in road speed, though owners get used to it. Some people may view hybrids as nerdy, or as a way to signal political beliefs. And, of course, you are still burning gasoline and spewing carbon dioxide (CO2) into our shared air.

Battery-Electric Vehicles

Conceptually, battery-electric vehicles are simple: They're powered by a battery under the floor, which has to be recharged. Ideally, that charging can take place at home and overnight, when electric rates may be cheapest. Roughly half the EVs in the U.S. today were sold by Tesla, which also built the ultra-reliable, seamless, and pervasive Supercharger fast-charging network. Because of that network, you can drive a Tesla just about anywhere in the lower 48 states.

Pretty much every other carmaker has launched or will soon unveil a variety of EV models, most of them the SUVs of various sizes and configurations that make up the heart of today's U.S. vehicle market.

Pro: EVs are smoother, calmer, and quieter to drive than vehicles with an internal-combustion engine (ICE). They have strong acceleration from a standstill, because electric motors develop maximum torque from zero rpm—and who doesn't like winning the occasional stoplight drag race? EVs have far fewer moving parts, so maintenance is largely a matter of replacing tires, wiper blades, and cabin air filters. And if you can charge them overnight at home, or at work during the day, they are much cheaper per mile than any gasoline car. Some EVs can export power through 120-volt electric sockets, to run a cooler or a stereo while parked. A few even serve as backup power for your house during blackouts, though there are several qualifications to that. And, remember, no tailpipe = no emissions.

Con: EVs are still pricier to buy than comparable ICE models, though that difference is narrowing and should vanish within a few years. If you can't charge where you live or work, public charging infrastructure can be unpredictable. Non-Tesla EVs rely on a variety of third-party charging networks, too many of which are not properly maintained or reliable. It shouldn't be that high a bar for EV charging to be at least as easy and pleasant as your local gas station, but that's still a work in progress. Not all EVs today have Tesla's seamless integration of navigation and charging, meaning owners have to do more planning for longer road trips. And EVs lose more range at high speeds or in very cold weather than gasoline vehicles do.

Plug-In Hybrids

A plug-in hybrid (PHEV) may be the least well understood electrified vehicle. It's an EV under some circumstances and a conventional gasoline-electric hybrid under others. It has a battery pack that provides 20 to 50 miles of electric-only range. Owners who can plug in overnight do the bulk of their driving on grid electricity; the engine may not switch on for days.

When the car has gone through its electric range, it seamlessly converts over to being a regular hybrid-electric vehicle. And for unexpected trips, long road journeys, or if you can't plug in for whatever reason, the gasoline engine is there to eliminate range anxiety.

Pro: Owners who understand plug-in hybrids swear by them, and unless you routinely cover more than 40 miles a day—and 80 percent of U.S. cars don't—they're as cheap per mile as EVs. Most can be recharged overnight on a standard 120-volt wall outlet, meaning you don't have to install a dedicated EV charging station. And when they convert over to being a gas-electric hybrid, they're often peppier than non-plug-in hybrids, because their electric motors are more powerful. Some PHEVs qualify for federal or state purchase incentives that regular hybrids don't.

Con: PHEVs can be very hard to explain: "It's a hybrid? Well, yes—but it's also an EV. Oh, how many miles does it go? Only 30 miles? But why would I want that?" They're pricier than comparable hybrid models without the plug, and they may not be offered in all states. It's not clear that dealers explain the nuances of plugging in to buyers—or even tell them about the plug at all. And if owners don't plug them in, they're just heavier, more expensive hybrids.

Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Vehicles

Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (HFCVs, also known as FCEVs), such as the Toyota Mirai shown at top, don't plug in to charge. Instead, they're fueled only by hydrogen, which is fed into a fuel cell that mixes it with air to produce electricity, which powers one or more electric motors. Their sole exhaust is water vapor. The hydrogen is stored at very high pressure (10,000 psi) in heavily reinforced tanks built into the car's structure.

Hydrogen models are a very limited subset of electrified vehicles and are sold only in California. Their U.S. future is uncertain due to the costs and reliability challenges of creating a consumer hydrogen fueling network from scratch.

toyota mirai at fueling station 2022
Toyota Mirai at fueling

Pro: Like any vehicle powered by an electric motor, HFCVs are smooth, quiet, and torquey. They don't need to be plugged in, and the fueling experience is analogous to filling up at a gas station: find a hydrogen fuel pump, lock the nozzle at the end of the hose into the car's receptacle, and wait for fueling to finish—often within three minutes, five minutes at most.

Con: It's unclear whether hydrogen-powered passenger vehicles have any future in North America. Much of the development effort has shifted to hydrogen for heavy Class 8 commercial tractor-trailer rigs. The sole state in which you can fuel a hydrogen vehicle today is California, meaning no LA-to-Dallas road trips. The aircraft-quality nozzles are heavy and can be finicky to lock into place, and the fuel is very expensive at open-market rates. Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota, the three makers that have offered hydrogen vehicles, all provide free fuel for either a period of time or up to a certain mileage. And when local fueling stations go down, the car is effectively a two-ton doorstop: no fuel, no power, no driving.

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