The Difference Between Electric Cars vs Hybrid Cars 

When the first hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) entered the market, they were sometimes referred to as “electric cars” to differentiate them from internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. 

Now we have MHEVs, FHEVs, PHEVs and BEVs, and only some of those are hybrids. So what changed, and what is the difference between electric cars vs hybrid cars? 

Ironically, it’s not about whether the car has an electric motor or a battery pack; instead, it’s all about whether there is still an ICE in the vehicle. 


Types of Hybrid and Electric Cars 

To better understand the difference between hybrid and electric cars, it’s useful to know the different types of hybrid vehicles on the market

Mild Hybrid Electric Vehicles (MHEVs) 

Mild hybrids, or MHEVs, are fitted with a combustion engine and a fairly small electric motor. The motor assists the engine during acceleration and recharges during cruising. These vehicles are more fuel-efficient and less polluting, but they usually cannot operate under electric power alone. 

Full Hybrid Electric Vehicles (FHEVs) 

FHEVs have a larger battery pack, allowing them to store more charge. They still have an ICE, but can cover short distances in full-electric mode, allowing them to be used for short journeys without engaging the ICE. However, they are still recharged by the ICE and by energy recovered during braking, with no option to plug into a mains electricity supply. 

Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) 

PHEVs are on the boundary between ICE vehicles and genuinely electric cars. They have a combustion engine but also a much larger battery pack and motor. Crucially, they have a charging cable that can plug into the mains or an EV charging post. As such, theoretically, they may not  need to use any petrol or diesel to get around for very short journeys, if they are kept fully charged. 

Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) 

BEVs are what most people think of when they say “electric cars” nowadays. They have a large battery pack, which takes up most of the underside of the vehicle, and a large fully electric motor. Their main power source is from plugging into a mains supply or rapid charging post. They have no ICE at all, and do not require petrol or diesel — in fact, they have no way to run on fossil fuels. 


Manual vs Automatic Transmission 

One key difference between electric cars and hybrids is the way power is delivered to the wheels. Because hybrids have an internal combustion engine, they have more moving parts, including a gearbox. In contrast, solid-state electric car batteries power an electric motor that does not need a clutch or gearbox. 

This leads to three main types of transmission: 

Manual Transmission 

ICE vehicles with a manual gearbox allow the driver to select each gear. The driver presses the clutch pedal to disengage the gears, moves the gear stick to the desired position, then releases the clutch to reengage. Drivers can choose lower gears when extra torque is needed, or higher gears to coast at a lower RPM. 

Automatic Transmission — ICE 

On an ICE vehicle with automatic transmission, there are still gears, but the vehicle chooses when to change gear and takes care of the sequence of clutch, gear change and re-engaging the transmission. This allows for faster, smoother gear changes at the optimum time for acceleration or fuel economy. 

Automatic Transmission — Electric 

Unlike ICEs and hybrids, BEVs have no combustion engine. The electric motor can operate over its full range in a single gear, so the driving experience is similar to driving an automatic ICE, but without any behind-the-scenes gear changes. 

Some BEVs have an eco mode, which limits the output of the motor for more efficient driving on a single battery charge, while others have a sport mode which allows faster acceleration while reducing maximum range slightly. 


The Hybrid Car Spectrum 

All cars are different, and this is true of hybrid cars too, which offer a variety of ICE engine sizes, battery capacities and electric range. It can be useful to think of hybrid cars as a spectrum, with all-ICE vehicles at one end, and fully electric cars at the other:

  1.   Conventional ICE vehicles with no electric motor
  2.   MHEVs with minimal electric power
  3.   FHEVs capable of short all-electric journeys
  4.   PHEVs capable of running with no petrol
  5.   BEVs with solely electric motor power 

Of course, traditional ICEs do contain a 12-volt battery and various electrical systems, but these are not used to power the car’s movement, but are only for things like ventilation, lights, onboard entertainment and central locking, as well as for the initial ignition. 


Which is Best — Hybrid or Electric? 

Hybrid and electric vehicles each have their pros and cons. For example, hybrid cars can be refuelled quickly from a traditional petrol pump, making them a good option in areas with poor EV charging infrastructure, or if you need to be able to fully refuel in a matter of minutes. 

BEVs remove the reliance on fossil fuels and can offer net-zero driving — the vehicle itself does not produce exhaust emissions, so the only ‘carbon cost’ comes from its manufacture and the methods used to generate the electricity from which the battery is charged. 

Both types of vehicle are routinely fitted with kinetic energy recovery systems, which charge the onboard battery using the kinetic energy from the wheels during braking, and this effectively means that motorists benefit from some ‘free’ miles of additional range on long drives. 

With sales of new hybrid cars due to be banned from 2035 onwards in the UK, it seems that time is soon to be up for the technology; however, in the meantime, it remains a ‘best of both worlds’ solution for motorists who are not yet ready to relinquish internal combustion engines entirely, or perhaps do frequent longer journeys and the hybrid option offers fuel efficiency and peace of mind

If you have never driven a hybrid and would like to experience the difference first-hand, or you want to stay behind the wheel of the top hybrids and new models until they are phased out in the next decade, leasing arrangements are a great way to stay on top of the latest technology, take advantage of the latest hybrid vehicles as electric vehicles, their range  and infrastructure continue to develop over the next few years which will then allow for a smooth transition to fully electric vehicles when the time is right for your individual circumstances.