What is the Difference Between Electric Cars and Hybrid Cars?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Electric and hybrid cars both use technology that is designed to decrease the use of gasoline fuel for powering car engines. Electric cars are totally electric, meaning that they must be plugged in and charged, and that the range of the car is only as far as the charge. Hybrid cars use a mixture of gas and electric power to create a gas efficient partially electric car with a less limited range. Some hybrid car owners have modified their cars further, to run entirely on electricity except in emergency situations, in which case the drivers use gasoline power.

Hybrid cars can still use gasoline for some driving.
Hybrid cars can still use gasoline for some driving.

At the turn of the twentieth century, most cars actually were electric. The cars ran quietly and efficiently, and had reasonably good ranges. For a variety of reasons, the internal combustion engine powered by gasoline overtook electric cars in popularity: by the 1920s, most cars were gas powered. The electric car faded from public popularity until the late 1960s, when concerns about a growing oil crisis and emissions drove several companies to manufacture electric cars again, albeit on a small scale. The cars captured a small amount of the market share, and slowly grew in popularity and in the public eye.

Chevrolet Volt at a charging station.
Chevrolet Volt at a charging station.

Dependency on foreign oil and awareness about the environment in the late 1990s caused some car owners to convert their gasoline cars to electric power, and automobile manufacturers started making electric cars a bigger part of their lineup. Modern electric cars are comparable to gasoline powered ones in terms of speed, and many of them have long ranges which can be increased at charging stations along the way. Electric cars are also nonpolluting, and can be powered using clean energy such as wind or hydropower. For this reason, they appeal to many eco-conscious consumers.

As electric vehicles do not rely on gasoline, they are considered nonpolluting.
As electric vehicles do not rely on gasoline, they are considered nonpolluting.

Consumers who feel limited by electric cars have turned to hybrid cars such as the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius. Many car manufacturers are including hybrids in their lineup to cater to people who would like the clean energy of an electric car without the difficulties of managing charging and range. A hybrid car has a conventional gasoline engine and a bank of rechargeable batteries that charge while the car is running. When the driver makes limited demands on the car's power, such as driving around town or idling at a stoplight, the car runs on the stored electricity in the batteries. When the driver demands a burst of energy or is driving at sustained high speeds, the gasoline engine kicks in.

A hybrid car is a more ecologically sound choice than a conventional gasoline powered car, but it still carries environmental issues. Although most hybrids are low polluting, they do add to the overall emissions load created by gas-powered cars. For people who are not ready to make the leap to an electric car, or find it unfeasible in their areas, a hybrid is a great choice. Electric cars, on the other hand, are totally nonpolluting and do not rely on gasoline, making them a better choice. Individuals who feel really passionate about the environment can continue to walk, bicycle, and take public transit.

Most cars have been powered by gasoline since the 1920s.
Most cars have been powered by gasoline since the 1920s.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Post 6: The Volt's gasoline engine is more like an electric generator for a home, although I have seen it argued that if needed, it can supply drive power to wheels. There is a very good online video that describes how the electric and gas engines work together on the Volt.


The Prius and Lincoln MKZ are likely to produce overall savings within two years versus similar-size gas-powered cars from the same brand, but other hybrids, despite ratings 8 to 12 miles per gallon better than conventional models, will cost more to buy and drive for at least five years.


The primary difference between a hybrid car and an electric car is that the hybrid car derives some of its power from a conventional gasoline engine.


OK. So if an electric car is one fully powered by electricity, why is the Chevy Volt called an electric car and not a hybrid?


Thank you! I'm doing research and this is a good overview.


I like the summary as it told me some differences, although maybe a few more facts like the availability, prices etc. would be helpful. Anyway thanks for the information, I won't be failing physics now.


This is a very good summary on how hybrid vehicles are different from electric vehicles. This helped me with my Automotive and Technology notes at school. I'm in high school and my freshmen class has to take different engineering and tech classes this year. This info. helped me with my notes. I know more about cars now than before, believe me. Thank you for the awesome information.

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