Hybrid/EV Buying Guide

Hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electric vehicles (EVs) provide energy-efficient transportation while lowering emissions, diminishing noise, and reducing operating costs. According to a Consumer Reports study, EVs cost less to fuel and are cheaper to repair and maintain than comparable gasoline-powered models. But electrified vehicles—hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and EVs—are different from gasoline models, so it’s important to understand the advantages and disadvantages of each before choosing your next vehicle.

In this buying guide, we’ll explain how these technologies work and provide the insights necessary to choose the model that will meet your needs and goals, based on our real-world, collective experience with all types of electrified vehicles.

Why Buy a Hybrid?

Hybrids provide the best of both worlds, teaming an electric motor with a gasoline engine. By combining a relatively small gasoline engine, an electric motor, and a battery pack, hybrids use electric power at low speeds on light throttle. For higher power demands, the gas engine kicks in. And thanks to regenerative braking, hybrids are able to recapture energy that would otherwise be lost. This way, hybrids get excellent gas mileage and are very low on emissions. They never need to be plugged in and are always ready to go. You fill them up with gas at a regular gas station like a conventional car.

Hybrid technology usually comes at a price: These cars typically cost $2,000 to $3,000 more than comparable conventional cars, although the difference in purchase price is often offset by fuel savings. (The Toyota RAV4 LE, for example, starts at around $26,000. The hybrid version starts at around $29,000 in LE trim.)

There are many affordable hybrids, with choices starting around $22,000 and topping out around $30,000, such as the efficient Honda Insight, Hyundai Ioniq, and Toyota Prius. There are also hybrid versions of popular SUVs, such as the Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Ford Escape, and RAV4. Mainstream family sedans like the Honda Accord, Hyundai Elantra and Sonata, and Toyota Camry and Corolla also come in hybrid versions. And even minivans are available as hybrids, with the Chrysler Pacifica and the Toyota Sienna, which is offered only as a hybrid.

Mild Hybrids

There is some buzz about mild hybrid technology. These cars have a stronger battery (typically 48-volt, as opposed to the traditional 12-volt) that allows accessories, such as air conditioning, to operate seamlessly during engine shutoff events, such as while sitting at a red light, and smooths out the fuel-saving stop-start system. 

Plug-In Hybrids

Plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles, or PHEVs, have a larger battery than a regular hybrid, and they can drive on electric power for longer distances and more often, but to benefit from that ability, they need to be charged. Once the electric power is depleted, they operate as a regular hybrid. PHEVs can get by with Level 1 charging (120 volts) because of their small batteries (relative to pure battery electric vehicles, or BEVs) and because they don’t rely solely on their battery. Most models can travel between 20 and 40 miles on the battery and electric propulsion system before the gasoline engine kicks in. Our tested Toyota RAV4 Prime, for example, was able to travel 40 miles on electric-only propulsion before the gas engine started. Note that high power demand, such as quick acceleration and climbing hills, will trigger the gas engine even during the electric-drive portion. 

For those with short trips or commutes that are within the electric-only range, plug-ins can provide the benefits of an electric car while still having a gas engine available for longer trips without worries about charging or range limitations. To reap the real-world benefits, owners have to charge frequently. Plug-ins tend to be less efficient on long trips (and less efficient than their regular hybrid counterparts because of their extra weight) where the vast majority of miles are driven on gas power. 

Toyota RAV4 Prime driving
Toyota RAV4 Prime
Photo: John Powers/Consumer Reports

Should I Buy an EV?

For now, electric vehicles—whether BEV or PHEV—carry a price premium over comparable gasoline-powered vehicles. (That may change late in the decade.) However, EVs have dramatically lower running costs because they require less maintenance and because electricity is cheaper than petroleum. And federal and local incentives can effectively reduce the purchase price. 

Plus, lower carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution, and reduced dependence on fossil fuels, are icing on the cake. And a federal incentive of up to $7,500 can increase the savings. (Learn more about available incentives on the Department of Energy website.) 

Electric cars are very efficient, and most new models have a range of over 200 miles to satisfy the needs of many drivers without daily charging. EVs are very clean because they have no tailpipe emissions. They are also quiet and provide punchy acceleration. But charging them takes hours, and driving them for long distances requires extra planning regarding where and when you’ll charge. 

EVs usually cost thousands more than conventional cars, although much of that difference is offset by federal and state subsidies, and lower maintenance and fueling costs.

Certain regions of the country are also better suited to using electric cars. Some have better public charging infrastructure, more favorable electric rates, and milder weather, which doesn’t tax the battery as much. And some areas have cleaner electric power generation than others.

If you live in a house, as opposed to an apartment building, it’s feasible to charge your EV at home. You’d have to install a home charger (known as electric vehicle supply equipment, or EVSE) inside or outside your garage that works on 240-volt (Level 2) charging. That way, you’ll be able to charge your EV overnight. The cost is typically $500 to $700 for a home charger. Parts and labor can add $1,200 to $2,000. (For the best home chargers, check out our test here.)

Whether or not an EV is for you depends on your use—the distances you drive, your willingness to plug in as frequently as necessary, and your ability pay more for the car and reap the benefits in the long run. If you’re keeping a conventional vehicle in your household, the decision is easier. 

Toyota bZ4X charging.
Toyota bZ4X
Photo: Toyota

Fuel-Cell Cars

A fuel-cell car is an electric car that produces its electricity onboard. Fuel cells generate electricity from hydrogen (the most abundant chemical element on Earth) through an electrochemical reaction whose only major byproduct is water. Hydrogen fueling stations are few and far between. Most are located in the Bay Area or in the Los Angeles metro area. 

Currently, only Hyundai and Toyota offer fuel-cell cars to the public. These are essentially electric cars with a range of about 300 miles per refill and relatively short refill times of 5 to 10 minutes. We have driven these cars and found them to be seamless and pleasant to drive. But widespread use of fuel cells remains a long way off. There is no nationwide infrastructure to support it. 

Public Charging Networks

Even though research shows that most owners (more than 80 percent) charge at home, electric-car owners may need to use faster public charging on occasion or when taking a long trip. This way owners can stop at a rest area and replenish 100 miles or more worth of range during a 30-minute break. In fact, 100-kw stations can replenish 200 miles in under 45 minutes, and upcoming EVs will be able to charge even more rapidly. For that ability, owners may need to join one of the charging networks available across the U.S., such as ChargePoint, Electrify America, and EVgo. Some public chargers begin working as soon as the user plugs the charging cord into the vehicle (Tesla), but many newer public chargers require the user to swipe a network card or use its associated app. 

Subscribers sign up with a network online and link a credit card to their account. They receive a small key tag with a barcode on it, or they can use a smartphone app. The tag is waved in front of the charger when needed, and the subscriber’s account is billed. Some EV charging networks offer a roaming option, which allows subscribers from a different network to charge for an additional fee.

Warranty

Automakers are required to warranty the batteries as an emissions control part in most states for eight years or 80,000 miles. In 15 states, they’re required to warranty them for 10 years or 150,000 miles. Outside the warranty period, new battery replacements for hybrids can cost about $3,000, although used battery packs are readily available for a few hundred dollars.

EV batteries lose charge capacity over time. Studies have shown that EV batteries lose about 10 percent of their capacity over the first five years, and 20 percent over the first 10 years. Because the battery is the sole source of propulsion power, this is a more significant concern with EVs than with hybrids. However, if this occurs, it typically takes many years. And it is worth noting that technological improvements promise to reduce this factor. Toyota, for example, has said that its new EVs will retain 90 percent of their original battery life after 10 years. According to RepairPal, the average cost to replace an EV battery pack is $5,500, although failures are rare. (RepairPal is a CR partner.)

Chevrolet Bolt
2019 Chevrolet Bolt
Photo: GM

New vs. Used

If you’re considering whether to buy a new or used hybrid or electric car, there are several factors to consider. The most important may be obsolescence. Electrified powertrain technology is moving at almost personal-electronics speed. New hybrids have more advanced battery chemistry and software, and they provide bigger fuel-economy benefits than older models. Likewise, there are significant gains in electric-car range with each generation. New electrified cars typically have the latest cutting-edge active safety and infotainment systems and, for EVs, the ability to charge faster. 

With a new car, you know what you’re getting, and it is backed by a comprehensive factory warranty. You don’t have to worry about potential service problems or concealed collision damage. You can also have your choice of color, trim line, and option level, and financing rates are typically lower than for a used vehicle.

The key drawback to buying any new vehicle is rapid depreciation. Even when hybrids have lower average depreciation rates than those of most conventional cars (as they historically have had when gas prices have been high), depreciation can account for about half the car’s value in five years. In the case of plug-in hybrids and EVs, the depreciation effectively starts at the post-incentive price. If you’ve made only a low down payment, you can easily find yourself upside down on the loan, where you owe more than the car is worth.

Buying a new EV entitles you to significant tax benefits, including a federal tax credit of up to $7,500, that are not available to buyers of used EVs. 

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