Despite their early promise, hybrid vehicles have yet to really take off, accounting for fewer than 3% of new vehicle sales. But with the potential for huge fuel savings, hybrids shouldn’t be immediately crossed off your shopping list. From the $23,500 Toyota Corolla Hybrid to the $96,000 BMW 745e xDrive, hybrids have something for almost everyone. There’s a lot to cover in the hybrid vs. gas debate. Here are the pros and cons of both.
What is a hybrid car?
Most car buyers are familiar with gas engines in most vehicles, known as internal combustion engines, which burn gasoline to drive a transmission that turns the wheels. Lately, electric vehicles charged onto the scene, with batteries powering electric motors that drive the wheels. Hybrids attempt to be a bit of both, and are nearly as old as gas and electric cars, dating to a 1900 prototype by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche (yes, that Porsche).
A hybrid is technically a vehicle that combines two or more power sources for propulsion. In modern hybrid cars, it has a gasoline engine and an electric motor, but both are usually downsized to fit compared to a just-gas or battery-only electric vehicle (EV). Today, hybrids are selling better than EVs, despite what the headlines may have you believe. There are a few reasons for their success, but first, here are the different types of hybrid cars on the market.
A parallel hybrid is probably what you are thinking of when you hear the words “hybrid car.” The vehicle has a battery, electric motor, generator, as well as an internal combustion engine (ICE) directly connected to the transmission, with both power systems sharing duties so they can operate in their peak efficiency range. The “parallel” designation means the electric and gas systems have the same output—the transmission—but otherwise aren’t connected. A parallel hybrid can run on just gas, just electricity, or both, and recharges the battery via regenerative braking. Models range from the thrifty Honda Insight to the fire-breathing McLaren P1 and second generation Acura NSX.
Series hybrid/extended-range EV
Series hybrids are built like an EV, in that only the electric drivetrain powers the vehicle forward. While there is a gas engine onboard a series hybrid, it is not connected to the transmission. Instead, the gas engine acts as a generator, recharging the battery to power the vehicle on just electricity. Think of it as an EV without the range anxiety, since you’re continually being recharged by gas. Common series hybrids include the BMW i3 REx and Cadillac ELR.
Power-split or series-parallel hybrid
In a series-parallel hybrid, two systems work together, powering the vehicle on only silent battery power, and seamlessly switching to just gas as needed, or using a combination of both. Sounds like a parallel hybrid, right? A series-parallel hybrid merges parallel and series hybrids through the addition of a power-split device, connecting the engine, generator, and electric motor together. It can perform like a parallel hybrid or a series hybrid as needed. Popular series-parallel hybrids are the Toyota Prius, Honda Accord Hybrid, and Hyundai Sonata Hybrid.
Mild parallel hybrid
A mild hybrid system was initially popular with manufacturers as a low cost option when they were still figuring out how to build hybrids. A good example is the 2004 Chevrolet Silverado hybrid, which used a small starter-generator and battery system to operate accessories while the engine turns off at stoplights or when coasting downhill. Motor Trend said the $2,500 expense over the regular Silverado wasn’t worth the 1.5 MPG increase. Today, “mild hybrid” systems are common, evolving into what we now know as start-stop tech.
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV)
The key difference here lies in the words “plug-in.” Most hybrids recharge the electric battery through the use of regenerative braking, or by charging it directly through using the engine as a generator. Plug-in hybrids can be recharged by plugging into your electric source at home, charging the battery on 120V or 240V power. This external source and extra battery capacity let the vehicle drive on solely electric for a short time, before switching to the more traditional hybrid operation.
Hybrid vs. gas cars comparison
All of the above is good tech info, but you might be wondering what it means in the real world, and how all this tech stacks up. Are hybrid cars any good in everyday situations? Here are the numbers, including the ones that matter: those after a dollar sign.
Hybrid vs. gas: Cost
Lincoln made headlines when they offered the 2013 MKZ Hybrid as a no-cost option. When hybrids first became popular 15 years ago, articles usually covered the “payback time,” or the number of years/miles it would take to pay back the added cost of buying a hybrid over a cheaper gas model. Financial blog Money Under 30 recently revisited this for newer models, finding that a Kia Optima hybrid needs 4.5 years to recoup costs, while a Hyundai Sonata hybrid needs nearly 12 years.
The reasons for the value disparities are complicated and sometimes unknowable, but the point is that it comes down to each make and model, not the overall hybrid vs. gas debate. Just be sure to pay attention when you shop and avoid making assumptions.
Hybrid vs. gas: Mileage
Here’s where hybrids matter. The whole point of all this complex drivetrain is to achieve better fuel mileage, and they do, scoring 20% to 35% better fuel mileage. Looking at a model’s gas and hybrid trims gives directly comparable numbers. For example, the Honda Civic Hybrid averages 44 miles per gallon (MPG), while the gas model gets 32 MPG. On the crossover side, the Toyota RAV4 base manages a respectable 30 MPG average of city/highway figures. Not bad, but the hybrid model hits 40 MPG combined, for a fuel savings of $1,500 over 5 years.
Hybrid vs. gas: Power
Horsepower sells, and typically, hybrids don’t have it. The Toyota Prius has 121 horsepower, from the gas engine and electric motor combined. That’s about as much as an average sedan from the mid-1980s. This is why Motor Trend described the hybrid as “strolling” to 60 miles per hour (MPH), needing 9.7 seconds. Fuel savings and maximum horsepower are at opposite ends of engine design, so with most hybrids designed for fuel efficiency, maximum acceleration suffers. The lighter Prius C is quick enough around town, but you’ll have to look for supercars like the high-end Ferrari SF90 Stradale for a hybrid built to perform.
Hybrid vs. gas: Maintenance
Electric vehicles have dramatically reduced maintenance costs versus gas vehicles, and this EV attribute also brings this benefit to complex hybrids. Edmunds said the “regular maintenance costs are a draw, as most hybrid cars do not require any additional regular maintenance on the hybrid-specific components.” JD Power also says hybrid reliability is excellent in the short term. Long term reliability looks good, too, and shouldn’t be concerning as hybrid batteries are considered emissions equipment, and required to have an eight-year warranty (10 years in California). The super-long term (over 10 years) reliability becomes questionable, but that’s true of any vehicle. Auto Trader considers hybrids a risky investment when they are 10 to 15 years old.
Hybrid vs Gas: Reliability
With more parts under the hood, you might think hybrids would have more problems. This one is difficult to directly compare, since most vehicles don’t offer both hybrid/gas options. Looking at the class or even manufacturer gives us a few hints that hybrids are more reliable long-term, with 25% fewer issues reported than gas cars. This is due to hybrids running the gas engine fewer miles at lower RPMs, the electric motors having fewer parts than gas engines, and a continuously variable transmission that never disengages/reengages the engine. The result is that hybrid cars are generally more reliable than even diesels.
Hybrid vs. gas: Resale value
Trucks (and Teslas) are great bets for fighting depreciation. How do hybrids stack up? Over a decade ago, the hybrid Honda Civic took a higher depreciation hit versus the gas-only Civic EX. The hybrid lost 20% of its value after just two years, compared to the ICE version’s impressive 13% loss. However, evidence shows that this situation has flipped. Toyota’s hybrids, and their proven reliability, are an example of holding their value to five years or more. Consider a hybrid if you sell your ride every few years, but maximum depreciation becomes a toss-up if you drive your vehicles until the wheels fall off.
Hybrid vs. gas: Range
With all that extra gas mileage, a hybrid should have a noticeably longer range than an ICE car. However, hybrids try to reduce weight to chase those MPGs, usually resulting in a smaller fuel tank. For example, the four-cylinder Toyota Camry has a 16-gallon fuel tank, versus the Camry Hybrid’s 13-gallon tank. The superior gas mileage provides an edge, and the hybrid’s range is 676 miles, versus the gas Camry’s 544 miles. The Honda Accord Hybrid and Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid also beat their base gas versions by 299 and 124 miles, respectively. If you value maximum seat time before refueling, a hybrid has what you need.
Hybrid vs. gas: Environment
Simply due to higher fuel economy, a hybrid produces fewer tailpipe emissions than a non-hybrid. Looking at the Prius again, it has a tailpipe CO2 emissions of 185 g/mi, while the non-hybrid, and much smaller, Toyota Yaris checks in at 278 g/mi. But that’s only part of the story.
It takes energy and materials to produce and recycle a vehicle, before and after it hits the road. A complete life cycle assessment provides a clear look at actual hybrid pollution. While it does produce more pollution to build a hybrid, the total life cycle assessment shows significantly reduced lifetime emissions, 25% to 50% lower than the average ICE car. One study stated, “Plug-in hybrid vehicles, when driven on electric power for most trips, have lifecycle emissions similar to battery electric vehicles.”
Should I buy a hybrid car?
Still on the fence? It’s understandable, as the hybrid versus gas cars debate could save you a lot of money, or be a waste of time. Have a look at some real-world situations to see which is right for you.
A hybrid might be right for you if:
You spend a lot of time in your car. If you have a long commute or drive a car for a living, the fuel savings might make it a no-brainer. There’s a reason hybrids are increasingly popular with taxi and rideshare drivers. If you are the accountant of your family or drive for business, track your MPG and watch the savings roll in.
You value a quiet drive. It is rather nice when you stop at what you know is a long stoplight and your engine automatically shuts off while the accessories stay running. Hybrids win for peace of mind around town.
You want to do your part for the environment. Hybrids offer lower emissions per mile than gas vehicles. You’ve got to get to work, but it’s nice to know you aren’t doing as much harm.
Long-term reliability is your jam. With proven long-term reliability, hybrids allow you to drive mostly worry-free.
You want an EV, but also have range anxiety. A plug-in hybrid is the perfect way to check out the benefits of EVs, with a gas engine backing the short battery-powered range. You can try out various charging methods to fit your lifestyle, see if the savings are there, and generally determine whether you’re ready for a full EV.
You might want to stick with gas if:
You value peak performance. Hybrids typically live up to their eco-warrior cred, with slower than average 0 to 60 times and highway passing ability. Those extra components add weight under the hood, and a hybrid’s mission is usually decreased fuel use and emissions, not increased performance. Outside of the few performance hybrids from exotic manufacturers, a hybrid might be too slow for you.
DIY maintenance is a hobby. Hybrids complicate things, from assembly and operation to maintenance. You may understand how to change coolant or transmission fluid, but can you change inverter fluid? Are you willing to learn? ICEs are simpler, and probably more familiar, so there’s less of a learning curve to the maintenance.
You’re buying a 10+-year-old ride. Sure hybrids are excellent for the first decade, but if you regularly buy fully depreciated vehicles with 150k+ on the odometer and drive them into the ground, you’re asking for trouble with hybrid batteries that still costs thousands to replace. An ICE vehicle is a better bet if you like vintage rides.
Snowy or icy conditions are your winter life. Some hybrid systems remove power to the wheels after detecting uncontrolled wheel spin. This often happens when accelerating away from a stop on slick roads, which could effectively disable your vehicle until the weather passes. A non-hybrid is the choice for areas with icy winters.
You’re really looking for an EV. All the pros of hybrids, from the fuel savings, reduced emissions, and quiet operation, are amplified in electric vehicles. If you are shopping hybrids, but really side-eying the Tesla Model 3, you might not be satisfied with a hybrid lugging around the ICE.