EVs vs. PHEVs: Which One is Better for You?

Written by Lydia Noyes

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Lydia Noyes

Climate Journalist

Lydia Noyes is an organic farmer and climate journalist. She is a member of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.

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When you factor in convenience, emissions, range, safety, and reliability, which is best, an EV or a PHEV? Let’s break down the key differences between these types of cars so you can make an informed decision.

Tesla model S AWD
A Tesla model S parked in snowy Jackson Hole, WY.

How to choose between an EV and a PHEV for your family

Choose an EV if:

  • You have access to a garage or other place to reliably charge a vehicle each night.
  • You rarely travel over 300 miles in a day or don’t mind recharging mid-journey.
  • Staying away from gasoline is important to you.
  • You have access to electricity generated from renewable energy.

Choose a PHEV if:

  • You want the convenience of both electricity and gasoline for fuel sources.
  • Most of your driving trips fall within the 30-60 mile range covered by the electric motor.
  • You want a vehicle with maintenance needs more similar to traditional automotive.
  • You plan to use the vehicle for road trips longer than 250 miles.

It’s 2024, and EV sales have hit a lull. Consumers seem to prefer hybrids at the moment.

Should you consider an all-electric vehicle (EV), go for a hybrid, or dabble in the benefits of both gas and electricity with a plug-in electric vehicle (PHEV)? The terminology and distinctions between these classes of vehicles can be confusing—to put it mildly.

Here’s a closer look at the real-world differences between EVs and PHEVs and the logic behind buying both types.

Are EVs and PHEVs Better for the Environment?

According to findings from the EPA, battery-electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids both produce lower overall emissions over their lifespan than conventional cars, even when accounting for the manufacturing process and emissions from power plants.

Even accounting for these electricity emissions, research shows that an EV is typically responsible for lower levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs) than an average new gasoline car. To the extent that more renewable energy sources like wind and solar are used to generate electricity, the total GHGs associated with EVs could be even lower.

Electric Vehicle Myths – EPA

For example, one report from the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy found that a 2020 model battery-electric vehicle with 300 miles of real-world range generates the equivalent of 206 grams of carbon dioxide per mile. In contrast, an average SUV generates approximately 402 grams per mile—approximately twice the polluting potential of an EV.

Now that you know an electric vehicle is an ecologically conscious choice, let’s compare two popular categories available today. 

EVs are 100% battery powered

Put in simple terms, electric vehicles (EVs) are distinctive because they run off a battery instead of gasoline. This means they have an electric motor rather than an internal combustion engine. Stopping at a gas station will do you no good—these vehicles don’t have an option for a fill-up.

EVs typically have more powerful motors than hybrids, as they aren’t paired with gas engines. They tend to run relatively quietly and accelerate smoothly and quickly.

Most EVs require nightly charging, and you will need to plan extended road trips around access to charging stations. Once you run out of power, you won’t move anywhere until the battery recharges.

Some popular EV models currently available in the United States include the Audi e-tron, BMW i3/i3s, Chevrolet Volt EV, Hyundai Kona Electric, Hyundai Ioniq Electric, Jaguar I-Pace, Kia Niro EV, Mini Cooper Electric, Nisson Leaf, Porsche Taycan Turbo, Porsche Taycan 4S Tesla Model S, Tesla Model 3, Tesla Model Y, VW E-Gold, and the Polestar 2.

See Also: Is Your Tesla Coal-Powered?

These range from an estimated 373 miles per charge (Tesla Model S) to 110 (Mini Cooper Electric).

PHEVs use both batteries and gasoline

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) are slightly different than EVs. These utilize a combination of gas and electric power through both an electric motor powered by a battery and an internal combustion engine that uses a gas tank. This makes them similar to standard hybrids, but they contain larger batteries and can be charged externally through L2 chargers.

PHEV Range

Most offer an all-electric drive range between 10-50 miles before the vehicle switches over to gas. In this way, drivers that use PHEVs for short trips and charge them nightly will experience dramatic increases in fuel efficiency and may be able to go 1,000 miles or further between fill-ups. Without regular charging sessions, you won’t see these benefits.

So, while these vehicles offer a limited electric driving range compared to standard EVs, the flexibility of fuel source means you won’t find yourself stuck when the charge runs out.

Current models of PHEVs available in the United States include the Audi A3 E-Tron, BMW 330e, BMWi8, BMWx5 xdrive40e, Chevy Volt, Chrysler Pacifica, Fiat 500e, Ford C-Max Energi, Ford Fusion Energi, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Mercedes C530e, Mercedes S550e, Mercedes GLE550e, Mini Cooper SE Countryman, Porsche Cayenne S E-Hybrid, Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid, Toyota Prius, and the Volvo XC90 TB.

Comparing EVs to PHEVs: Main Selling Points

There’s no easy answer when it comes to deciding whether to commit to an electric vehicle or a plug-in electric hybrid. The decision depends on where you live, your driving habits, and where you plan to keep the car. Consider the following differences between the two classes of vehicles.

Emissions

EVs produce zero tailpipe emissions as they operate due to the lack of a gas motor. The primary potential for pollution comes from the power plants that generate their electricity. These are classified as upstream emissions because they occur further up the distribution chain rather than with the car owner. It’s also possible to power them through renewable energy sources like wind or solar for a more sustainable solution.

In contrast, PHEVs produce tailpipe emissions whenever the gas engine is activated, though these tend to be lower than the levels produced by conventional vehicles. Again, it’s possible to charge their batteries off a renewable energy supply.

Note: Calculate your vehicle’s emissions here.

Driving Experience

Electric vehicles are renowned for achieving high torque at low speeds and for their stellar acceleration rates. Most can reach 70 mph on highways without issue. PHEVs are similar, with the primary exception being that they offer multiple drive modes, depending on whether you want to run entirely off electricity (‘zero-emissions’ mode) or the most efficient combination available of conventional and electric power (‘eco’ mode).

Driving Range

Thanks to their commitment to operating exclusively with an electric motor, EVs can travel much further on a single charge than any hybrid or PHEV. This range varies by the car’s model and your driving habits but averages over 250 miles between charges.

The fuel economy for electric vehicles is reported as miles per gallon of gasoline equivalent (MPGe). This represents the number of miles it can travel utilizing a quantity of electricity that has the same energy equivalency as a gallon of gas. In this way, it’s possible to compare vehicles powered by different fuel sources.

PHEVs will offer a much more limited electric driving range, usually maxing out around 30-60 miles, but they come in more comparable to conventional cars when you combine their gas and electric mileage. Most PHEVs have two fuel economy values listed: one for electric-only driving (MPGe), the other for operating on gas (MPG).

Note that your driving style will have a big impact on an electric car’s potential range. Whether you’re primarily doing city or highway driving, regularly running the heater or air conditioner, or driving in extreme weather will all impact the vehicle’s fuel efficiency.

Charging

The only way to power an EV is by charging it through a charger. These are either a slow-charging standard 120-volt Level 1 portable charger (compatible with household outlets) or a faster-charging 240-volt Level 2 charger that requires a specialized outlet. Expect charging from empty to full to take up to 12 hours, depending on the battery and charger size.

Most EV owners charge their vehicles nightly and seek out charging stations when away from home. Many vehicles also recharge through regenerative braking, meaning that pumping the brakes while driving sends juice back to the battery. These vehicles aren’t well suited for long road trips unless you plan the route in advance to maximize access to chargers.

You can charge PHEVs the same way, with the additional option of filling up the gas tank. Expect most models to charge within three hours with 120-volts and 1.5 hours with 240-volts.

Maintenance/Recycling

As with all vehicles, EVs and PHEVs need regular maintenance and parts replacement. Batteries lose their charge over time and need to be replaced after 10-15 years. These rates are relatively comparable between the two vehicle classes.

While vehicle batteries should last a decade or longer, you can expect to pay an average of $5,500 to replace them. The spent batteries will most likely be recycled, but the process is far from perfect and may release hazardous toxins into the environment.

You may run into a wider variety of repair needs for PHEVs over time due to the internal components containing twice the complexity of either EVs or standard gas-powered vehicles. However, more mechanics are familiar with internal combustion engines, so these vehicles may be easier to get serviced.

In Conclusion

Deciding to purchase an electric vehicle is an excellent decision for the planet. Gas-powered vehicles are the second largest cause of greenhouse gases in the world today, surpassed only by power plants. By choosing to travel with a cleaner fuel source, you’ll be dropping your carbon footprint dramatically.

For many people, it’s hard to go wrong with either an EV or a PHEV. However, your driving habits and lifestyle will impact which one is better for your situation.

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