Choosing between a hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and an electric vehicle
Illustration: Sinelab

The pandemic has slowed auto production, but not carmakers’ plans for new electrified vehicles. In fact, a few dozen all-new, pure electric models are set to debut by the end of 2024. The rollout of new EVs, plug-in hybrids, and traditional hybrids is good news if you’re looking for an alternative-fuel vehicle. These models provide energy-efficient transportation while lowering or eliminating tailpipe emissions, diminishing noise, and reducing operating costs.

But living with an electrified vehicle—especially a pure EV—is different from owning a typical gasoline model. So it’s important to understand how they work, and to match their strengths with your driving needs and preferences.

For instance, should you stick with a traditional gasoline-electric hybrid that never needs to be plugged in? They’re fuel-efficient, and most are reliable, but they aren’t emissions-free. Or is a plug-in hybrid more for you? They split the difference between a hybrid and an EV, with a rechargeable battery that provides 20 to 40 miles of electric range before transitioning to regular hybrid operation. Or are you ready to take the leap to an EV? That eliminates the gas engine, but you need a convenient way to recharge.

Below, we explain how the technologies work, plus offer CR’s real-world insights into the pros and cons for each type. We also highlight a few models recommended by CR from each category that are smart choices. (See our EV and hybrid buying guide and ratings.)

Bear in mind that several of the models are relatively new—and CR usually advises waiting a year or longer for automakers to work out the bugs. Holding off will also mean more models and EV charging stations, and possibly lower sticker prices. On the other hand, current tax credits, up to $7,500, may phase out while you wait.

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Hybrids

Hybrids team an electric motor with a gasoline engine to provide efficient transportation. Owners don’t need to worry about plugging their hybrid vehicle in, and these models drive similarly to regular cars. There are many affordable hybrids, with prices starting under $24,000. Plus, hybrid owners really like their vehicles: In CR’s Annual Auto Surveys, they tend to report higher overall satisfaction than do owners of nonhybrid versions.

The Technology
Hybrids typically combine a relatively small gasoline engine, at least one electric motor, and a small battery pack. The electric motor supplements the gas engine, and allows the engine to shut off at low speeds and when coasting. Regenerative braking lets hybrids recapture energy that would otherwise be lost and use it to recharge the battery pack. This technology has been on the market for over 20 years.

Pros
• They have excellent gas mileage.
• They produce lower emissions compared with gas-only vehicles.
• They never need to be plugged in.
• You can fill up at a regular gas station.
• They are often more powerful than their gasoline-only equivalents.

Cons
• They cost about $1,000 to $3,000 more than comparable gas-only models.
• Some have had longer stopping distances than their gas-only counterparts in CR’s testing.
• Many use a form of a continuously variable transmission that can cause high engine revving compared with the vehicle’s acceleration.
• Some of CR’s testers find that sensation, called “rubberbanding,” unpleasant.

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2022 Hyundai Tucson

Price Range: $24,950 - $43,200

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2022 Toyota Camry

Price Range: $25,845 - $36,270

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Plug-In Hybrids

Plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEVs) are a bridge between traditional hybrids and full electric vehicles, allowing for local driving on electric power alone with the convenience and range of a gas engine for longer road trips.

The Technology
PHEVs have a larger battery than regular hybrids have, so they can be driven farther and more often on electric power. As with regular hybrids, regenerative braking can extend the battery’s range, and the gasoline-powered engine and electric motor switch back and forth as needed. Owners can get by with Level 1 charging (120 volts) because the battery packs are small compared with those in pure EVs.

Pros
• Most can travel between 20 and 40 miles on electric power.
• They get good fuel economy even after the electric range is depleted.
• They provide the benefits of a pure EV for short drives or commutes while still having a gas engine for longer trips without charging worries or range limitations.
• Some are eligible for a federal tax incentive of up to $7,500.

Cons
• They’re more expensive than regular hybrids or gasoline cars.
• To reap full efficiency benefits, owners must recharge frequently.
• Some are less fuel-efficient than regular hybrids once the electric portion is depleted.
• Plug-in components often take up cargo space.
• Charging can be challenging if you live in a multi-unit dwelling or don’t have access to off-street parking.


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2022 Toyota RAV4 Prime

Price Range: $40,300 - $43,625

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Jeep Wrangler 4xe
Photo: John Powers/Consumer Reports

Other Plug-In Options
Because plug-in hybrids often account for a very small portion of a model line, we sent only a few through our test program this past year. But we rented several PHEVs from automakers to gain valuable intel.

Among those we particularly liked was the BMW 330e ($42,950-$44,950). It provides almost all the driving excitement of the regular 330i we tested, with about 20 miles of electric-only range.

We also rented a Lexus NX 450h+ SUV ($56,725-$57,975). It has an electric-only range up to 37 miles, and mighty quick acceleration—but the gas engine sounds coarse when you push it hard.

The Jeep Wrangler 4xe ($52,530-$58,105), shown above, can traverse off-road trails using whisper-quiet electric motors and has an electric range of 22 miles. But it gets Environmental Protection Agency-estimated fuel economy of only 20 mpg combined when running as a regular hybrid, and it costs about $7,000 to $12,000 more than a standard model.

Fully Electric

Battery electric vehicles (BEVs­—or EVs, as they are commonly called) are very efficient, and most new models have a driving range of well over 200 miles. But driving them long distances requires extra planning regarding where and when you’ll charge.

The Technology
Full EVs rely on large battery packs to power their electric motors. They forgo complicated parts such as an internal combustion engine or a conventional transmission. Under normal circumstances, it takes between 8 and 10 hours to recharge an EV using a Level 2 (240-volt) connector when the battery is near-empty.

Pros
• It’s usually less expensive to charge than to buy gas.
• It’s convenient to recharge at home.
• They often cost less to maintain because they have fewer and simpler components.
• There are no tailpipe emissions.
• They are very quiet.
• Most provide a fun acceleration experience, thanks to the instant power on tap from the electric motor, or motors.

Cons
• They cost more to buy.
• Planning when and where to charge is a part of any long-distance travel.
• Charging can be challenging if you live in a multi-unit dwelling or don’t have access to off-street parking.
• Charging can take hours; even DC fast charging in public places can take 30 to 60 minutes.
• Very cold or hot temperatures and cabin climate conditioning reduce driving range.


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2022 Kia Niro Electric

Price Range: $39,090 - $44,650

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2022 Tesla Model 3

Price Range: $46,990 - $62,990

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$7,500: The Federal Tax Incentive You Might Qualify for When You Buy an EV

Electric vehicles tend to cost more than other models, but many are eligible for tax incentives. Even some plug-in hybrids qualify. Plus, there may be local and state tax credits, rebates, or vouchers, depending on where you live. So do your homework to see what credits might be available. But be aware that under current rules, once an automaker sells 200,000 electric vehicles, the value of the tax credit decreases and eventually fades away—a provision that has affected two automakers, General Motors and Tesla. Ford and Toyota may reach that threshold in 2022, as well.


How to Charge an EV at Home
If you live in a house
1
120-Volt Outlet
Plug into a regular 120-volt wall outlet using the cable that comes with the car. This is the cheapest option but also the slowest, sometimes requiring more than 24 hours to fully charge a battery at a rate of 3 miles of range per hour of charging.
2
240-Volt Outlet
Plug into a 240-volt outlet, the same kind that powers a dryer or another heavy-duty appliance. You still use the cable that comes with the vehicle, but with an inter-change-able plug. This method charges at a rate of about 20 miles of range per hour of charging.
3
Charging Station
Buy a dedicated EV home charging unit (also 240-volt) and hire an electrician to install it. It will charge at 20 to 35 miles of range per hour of charging, depending on the amperage. Units cost $300 to $700. See our guide to home chargers.
If you live in an apartment or a condo complex
It can be challenging to charge an EV if you live in an apartment or a condo. If there isn’t a way to plug in safely, one option is to rely on public charging stations. More and more are being installed—but not enough to make this a viable option for many people.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the April 2022 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.