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Electric Avenue

It’s official — electric is in. The constantly evolving automotive landscape has reached a point where hybrid and electric cars are good or even great options for car buyers. But if you’re in the market for a gas-sipper or a car with a plug, the wide variety of technologies can make choosing the right battery-powered vehicle overwhelming.

As the industry embraces “electrification” — the newest automotive buzzword — hybrid technology has emerged as the stepping stone between the old and the new. Owning a hybrid or electric vehicle (EV) can bring lifestyle changes big and small, so choosing the right car with the right tech is an important decision for car shoppers looking to make the transition.

To demystify the current state of green machines, here’s a breakdown of the main types of hybrid and electric systems out there, with comparisons of the most popular and highest-rated models. Hybrids, plug-in hybrids, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, and electric vehicles are all bountifully available for enlightened consumers these days. Knowing how each system stacks up will make your transition to the electrified future a smooth one.

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Hybrids: The fuel sipper family

Hybrids, which are distinct from plug-in hybrids, combine the best of the combustion and electric worlds into practical, convenient, and fuel-efficient packages. The popularity of hybrid technology has skyrocketed this century because automakers have made them both affordable and easy to operate. From the driver’s perspective, most hybrids require no extra thought or change of driving habits. You fill up your hybrid at the pump like any other car, just far less frequently.

“Traditional hybrids” come in many forms, but there are three main categories: parallel, series, and series-parallel. All three are more efficient and emit fewer pollutants than traditional cars, but also bring different advantages and driving experiences to the table.

HYDROGEN 
FUEL-CELL MODELS

The bottom line

Tesla — what's all the fuss about?

Series: Last season's fashion?

EV ownership 101: Range anxiety

EV ownership 101:
Low-cost, low-key maintenance

Plug-in hybrids:
For plugging in

The nuts & bolts

Series-parallel: The popular kid

Hydrogen fuel-cell: The newest thing

EV phone home

Parallel: E-Z hybrid

Hybrids: The fuel sipper family

EV ownership 101: The charging buzz

*EPA estimates

* Miles Per Gallon-equivalent accounts for electric energy use efficiency and is comparable to MPG. If a car can run solely on battery power, MPGe is the relevant statistic.
** Not yet available in the US

As governments and mainstream culture become more concerned with finding eco-friendly solutions to gas-powered cars, automakers are providing an increasingly wide and appealing variety of hybrids and EVs. The bottom line is, opting for any battery-powered or assisted vehicle will keep dollars in your pocket at the pump and pollute less, no matter what system your clean vehicle uses.

The table above summarizes the vitals of the 13 EV models (including the Tesla Model 3), three FCEVs, 20 top-selling plug-ins, and 20 top-selling hybrids in the US market. Though their abilities vary greatly, hybrids of all stripes have never been more usable and the segment has gotten so large that there are hybrid models that will meet nearly any desire, plug-in or otherwise. Range and charging times are still potential issues for some buyers interested in electric, but EVs are rapidly improving in those areas.

Everywhere you look, there are fewer and fewer excuses for not going green. The time is now. The future — and present — are electric.

The bottom line

The Tesla's three models are head and shoulders above the electric competition in every measurable category. They have far superior range — the standard Model 3 and Model S go 220 and 249 miles, respectively, while the Model S 100D will make it to 350 miles on a single charge. They have better performance than the other EVs (the P100D accelerates to 60 in under three seconds) and with their giant center-mounted touch screen, they have the coolest new gadgetry inside the cabin.

And perhaps most notably in mainstream culture, Tesla has become such a star because it makes the previously nerdy, tree-hugging electric car sexy. They were the first to make an electric car that didn't look like a lumpy rolling calculator. With the Tesla app and data collection system, Tesla is also leading the charge on connectivity.

Until the Model 3 began deliveries in late 2017, Teslas were exclusively priced among high-end luxury vehicles, far more expensive than other EVs. But even stacked up against the best from the likes of Mercedes, Lexus, and BMW, Tesla's bigger models more than hold their own. The Model S and Model X are two of the highest-quality cars on the market, and as a bonus, they happen to run on electricity.

If you're looking for an EV and can afford the sticker price, springing for a Tesla is worth it. The current wait time for a Model 3 is frustrating, but as production capacity ramps up, the baby Tesla almost becomes a no-brainer. For most built-up areas in the US, the infrastructure for electric vehicles is now at a place where you won't have to worry too much about when and where you'll recharge. Tesla has over 1,000 active supercharger stations countrywide that are impressively evenly distributed and free to use for Tesla drivers.

With the competitively priced Model 3 now out on the streets, Tesla is again making EV technology more attainable for the everyman. There's a reason Tesla owners rave about their cars. If you need more convincing about the gospel of Tesla, test one out and join the wave.

The nuts & bolts

Even though Teslas run silently, the company is making the most noise in the automotive world, seemingly hijacking every other headline and conversation. The reason is simple: Tesla, which is the first new automaker in many decades to succeed in its fiercely competitive industry, is solely responsible for pioneering the electric vehicle as a usable and appealing option.

In an automotive industry where all the big players are the same as 50 years ago, everyone is playing catch up with Tesla.

Tesla — what’s all the fuss about?

EV phone home

Until very recently, owning an electric vehicle was seen as a risky inconvenience that limited freedom and dampened the spirit — electric vehicles (EVs) looked weird, drove slowly, took forever to charge, and most importantly, couldn’t go very far. However, EVs have improved dramatically in recent years and are more practical, affordable, and appealing than ever.

POPULAR EV MODELS

EV ownership 101: Range anxiety

Let’s start with the most common worry: range. Most of the hybrids previously referenced here can make it over 500 miles on a single tank or charge. The 2017 Chevy Bolt is the first electric car not called Tesla that has a range of more than 200 miles. No other current EV will make it much past 100 miles, so EVs are still best suited for short-distance urban and suburban driving. 

But do you really need as much range as you think? Something like 95% of all single-trip car journeys are under 30 miles. For folks who just need something efficient for their daily commute, a small EV can be practical, even ideal. If you have a place to plug in overnight, most EVs recharge fast enough to make their limited range a non-issue.

EV ownership 101: Low-cost, low-key maintenance

EVs are incredibly simple. The motor(s) uses electricity from the battery pack to turn the wheels. With so few moving parts, EVs avoid all the maintenance costs of gas-burning cars. No more oil changes, no more leaky gaskets, no more broken hoses or belts. When you combine the savings on maintenance with the lower cost of electricity over gas, EVs are more than one-third cheaper on a cost-per-mile basis.

Lithium-ion battery packs are still expensive to manufacture, so you won’t find any budget electric vehicles. You will, however, find a host of compact EVs that start at very affordable prices — low-range options like the Nissan Leaf, Fiat 500e, and Volkswagen e-Golf start in the low-30s. Even with the addition of the new mid-range Model 3, Tesla holds down the high end of the EV market. You can get a Model S or Model X for anywhere between $70,000 and $160,000 before tax credits, but you get a much bigger battery and a whole lot more car for the big price tag.

EV ownership 101: The charging buzz

There are currently three levels of charging available for EV owners:

LEVEL 1

  • Easy entry
  • Household outlet OK
  • Slowest charge speed

 

LEVEL 2

  • Requires upgraded household charger
  • Typical public charging station capacity

 

LEVEL 3

  • Commercial DC fast chargers' capacity
  • Not available for all EVs
  • Fastest speed

 

Level 1 is the slowest and uses a standard household 120v outlet. The charging speeds are far from impressive but can be enough for those who don’t drive very far between charges. Homeowners can upgrade their garage charger to Level 2, which provides power at 240v and is plenty quick for many EV owners. Most public chargers provide Level 2 charging.

DC Fast Chargers, sometimes called Level 3, will typically fill a battery from empty to 80 percent in half an hour. Most, but not all, EVs can be equipped with DC quick charge capability to take advantage of the fast chargers. However, there is still no universally accepted standard for DC fast charging plug configuration or current capacity. The Nissan Leaf and other models get their quickest zap from CHAdeMO, the largest fast-charger provider, while Tesla owners get exclusive access to the Tesla Supercharger network.

HYDROGEN FUEL-CELL MODELS

Hydrogen fuel-cell is just now coming online as a viable option for consumers, but there’s still a long way to go. There are only three fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) available in the US, and they’re only sold in California, where almost all the country’s hydrogen filling stations are located. As of 2017 there are only about 30 filling stations in the Golden State, which can make living with a hydrogen-powered car pretty inconvenient, especially for anyone not in the Bay Area or Los Angeles. 

The current FCEVs manage a range of about 200-300 miles on a single tank of hydrogen, which is better than most EVs. For shoppers with the right needs in the right areas, using one of these hydrogen cars can make sense. Hydrogen fuel, however, is prohibitively expensive. Without the government incentives and fuel credits currently provided, owning or even leasing a FCEV would be tough to justify.

Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai all provide $5,000 of fuel credit for each of the first three years with their respective FCEVs, which is easily enough to cover the cost of hydrogen. But after that period, drivers are on their own, so while the Toyota Mirai is for sale, most customers opt for a three-year lease. The Honda Clarity and Hyundai Tucson ix35 are only available for lease.

Hydrogen-fuel cell cars emit nothing but water vapor, so they’re a true clean alternative to internal combustion. The filling station network is growing, but hydrogen as a fuel source is still in its infancy. The increasingly robust charging infrastructure for electric vehicles has EVs beating out FCEVs for the foreseeable future, but hydrogen fuel-cell may have the highest ceiling and is worth keeping an eye on.

Hydrogen fuel-cell: The newest thing

POPULAR PLUG-IN HYBRID MODELS

Now that we understand how common hybrids work, let’s sample the plug-in flavor.

As you may have guessed, a plug-in hybrid can be plugged in to charge the battery. In addition to the small gas engine, plug-ins have much larger batteries than regular hybrids and can go much farther on electricity alone. Many of the more popular plug-in hybrids run in series, only burning gas to charge the battery with the generator.

First-time shoppers, take note: recharging a plug-in hybrid takes time. It’s not as simple as charging your iPhone — the large battery packs can take several hours to charge with a 120-volt household outlet, so most owners install a charger in their garage and leave their cars plugged in overnight. Plug-in hybrids can also use the increasingly common public charging spots in parking garages or office buildings — the same plugs available to pure electric vehicles (EVs).

Since most plug-ins run chiefly on electricity, they emit fewer greenhouse gases and burn fuel sparingly. They offer the cleanliness of EVs with a range-extending, gas-powered safety net. 

While electricity is cheap and savings on fuel can be significant, plug-ins typically cost thousands more than comparable regular hybrids, so the energy savings over time may or may not offset the higher upfront cost. As battery capacity improves and charging times decrease, plug-in hybrids are getting more popular so you’ll likely get that manufacturer’s latest tech.

Plug-in hybrids: For plugging in

Series-parallel: The popular kid

As the name suggests, the series-parallel system combines the best of parallel and series hybrids to maximize efficiency. Series-parallel hybrids, also called power-split hybrids, use both the electric motor and gasoline engine to get going but can adjust the power split between fully electric, fully gas-powered, or any ratio in between.

Most series-parallel hybrids go electric at low speeds and let the engine take over when more power is needed. As a result, series-parallel systems tend to use less fuel and run significantly cleaner than either parallel or series hybrids. This system was popularized by the Toyota Prius, which is still the most famous and best-selling hybrid. Because they integrate all the traditional hybrid components, series-parallel systems tend to cost more, but the efficiencies, improved performance, and excellent range make it worthwhile.

POPULAR SERIES-PARALLEL HYBRID MODELS

* Miles Per Gallon-equivalent accounts for electric energy use efficiency and is comparable to MPG. If a car can run solely on battery power, MPGe is the relevant statistic.
** Not yet available in the US

POPULAR SERIES HYBRID MODELS

The real advantage of the series hybrid system is its simplicity. A series hybrid is essentially an electric vehicle with a range-extending gas engine. The electric motor is in charge of powering the wheels, while the combustion engine’s only job is to act as a generator to create electricity. In this setup, the small engine can constantly run at the optimal RPM to maximize fuel efficiency, and can be shut off when not needed.

Series hybrids shine in heavy traffic, where gasoline and diesel engines are least efficient. The on-board computer powers the motor with the battery pack and the engine/generator only kicks in when it will boost efficiency. You’d fill up your series hybrid at the gas station, but it drives as an electric car — perfect for urban and suburban driving.

The more complicated powertrain of series hybrids has to synthesize a gas engine, generator, electric motor, and battery to make it all work. The result is that series hybrids are often more expensive than parallel hybrids and even electric vehicles. For example, the electric BMW i3 comes with a 38-hp range extender for an added $3,850. Nissan figures to introduce their new Note e-Power to the US soon, but lately automakers have largely been ditching the series hybrid setup in favor of more integrated and powerful systems.

Series: Last season’s fashion?

Parallel: E-Z hybrid

Vehicles with parallel hybrid drivetrains use both the engine and electric motor together to drive the wheels. Parallel hybrids often use a smaller battery pack and rely more on the engine than other hybrids. Through regenerative braking, they can take the kinetic energy produced from braking and put juice back into the battery. Some will call on the engine to help generate electricity as well, but the point is you never have to think about charging the battery yourself — it charges itself.

Because the engine is directly involved in turning the wheels, parallel hybrids convert mechanical power to electricity more efficiently. Consequently, they’re excellent for highway driving, and can go very long distances between fill-ups. On the flip side, parallel hybrids are less useful in stop-and-go traffic than vehicles with other hybrid systems because most avoid running solely on electricity.

POPULAR PARALLEL HYBRID MODELS

*EPA estimates

The Accord Hybrid is currently Honda's only traditional hybrid

2017 BMW i3 with range extender

The Toyota Prius has long been king of the hybrids

Chevrolet sold over 20,000 units of the Volt in 2017

The Toyota Mirai accounts for about three quarters of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle sales

2017 Volkswagen e-Golf

The brand-new Tesla Model 3

The Accord Hybrid is currently Honda's only traditional hybrid

2017 BMW i3 with range extender

The Toyota Prius has long been 
the king of hybrids

Chevrolet sold over 20,000 units 
of the Volt in 2017

The Toyota Mirai accounts for about three quarters of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle sales

2017 Volkswagen e-Golf

The brand-new Tesla Model 3

Everything about the Model 3 is controlled through the central touchscreen

Everything about the Model 3 is controlled by the central touchscreen

2017 Model

MSRP

Max Range (miles)*

Combined MPG*

Hyundai Ioniq Blue

690

$22,200

Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid

58

$27,875

598

56

Honda Accord Hybrid

$29,605

48

758

Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

$30,100

740

40

2017 Model

MSRP

Max Range (miles)

Combined MPGe*

BMW i3 REx

$48,445

180

111

56

Nissan Note e-Power**

$27,875

598

2017 Model

MSRP

Max Range (miles)

Combined MPG*

Toyota Prius

$23,475

588

53

42

Toyota Camry Hybrid

$27,625

Ford Fusion Hybrid

$26,060

588

680

40

Lexus CT 200h

$32,245

500

42

Lexus RX 450h

$53,035

516

30

2017 Model

MSRP

Max Range (miles)

Charge Time 240v (hours)

Toyota Prius Prime

$27,100

640

2.2

2.5

Chevrolet Volt

$33,220

Ford Fusion Energi

$33,120

610

420

4.5

Volvo XC90 T8

$67,800

350

2.5

Cadillac CT6 Plug-in

$79,095

440

4.5

MPGe/MPG

133/54

97/42

106/42

54/25

62/26

2017 Model

3-Year Lease

Max Range (miles)

Combined MPGe

Toyota Mirai

$15,063

312

67

67

Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell

$20,963

Honda Clarity

$16,152

366

265

50

2017 Model

MSRP

Max Range (miles)

80% Charge 480v

Nissan Leaf

$30,680

107

30 min

2.5 hours

Fiat 500e

$31,800

Volkswagen e-Golf

$31,345

125

84

N/A

Chevrolet Bolt

$36,620

238

1 hour

BMW i3

$44,450

114

30 min

MPGe

112

119

112

119

118

Full Charge 240v

7 hours

6 hours

4 hours

9.5 hours

4.5 hours

Tesla Model S (75kW-hr)

$69,500

249

98

8 hours

40 min

Type

Max Range (miles)

Full Charge (240v)

Avg. MPG(e)

Traditional hybrids

400-740

N/A

44

Hybrids sacrifice almost nothing for their increased efficiency and there's a hybrid car to fit most any driving style,
taste, and budget.

Plug-in hybrids

220-650

2-5 hours

82

Plug-ins come at a higher price but are great if you're able to install an at-home charger. There are plenty of incredibly efficient plug-ins that enjoy the advantages of EVs without the range anxiety.

Currently, hydrogen fuel-cell is a realistic option only for California commuters in metro areas.

Hydrogen fuel-cell

265-366

N/A

61

EVs are still best for short-distance urban and suburban driving, but are more practical and affordable than ever. It's hard to go wrong with a Tesla.

109

4-10 hours

63-315

Electric vehicles

Test drive a hybrid or EVTest drive a TeslaTest drive a hybrid or EV

PROS

  • Excellent range
  • No charging required
  • Wide variety of affordable models

 

CONS

  • Not as efficient as other hybrids in traffic
  • More expensive than gas-powered versions

 

PROS

  • Extremely fuel-efficient
  • Great in stop-and-go traffic
  • Low emissions

 

CONS

  • Few true series hybrid models available
  • Potentially more expensive than cars with other hybrid systems

PROS

  • Great range
  • No charging required
  • Wide variety of models from budget to luxury
  • Gas engine power at high speeds

 

CONS

  • Some models only see marginal efficiency increases over gas versions
  • More expansive than gas-powered versions

PROS

  • Extremely fuel-efficient, low emissions
  • Excellent range
  • Short charging times
  • Most models offer electric-only mode

 

CONS

  • More expensive than other hybrid systems
  • Limited electric-only range
  • Often require at-home plug installation
  • Limited but increasing public charging stations

PROS

  • Zero emissions
  • Affordable lease terms
  • Clean-vehicle tax incentives
  • Fuel costs covered for the first 3 years

 

CONS

  • Only 3 models available in California, Japan and parts of Europe
  • Very limited filling station network
  • Limited range compared to most hybrids

PROS

  • Zero emissions
  • Low maintenance costs
  • Savings from skipping the pump
  • Rapidly expanding selection available
  • Everyone loves Teslas

 

CONS

  • Charging still takes several hours
  • Very limited range, even with a Tesla
  • Often require at-home plug installation
  • Growing but incomprehensive charging station network
  • Accelerated depreciation

PROS

  • Appealing & high-quality cars
  • Longest-range EVs on the market
  • Best driving performance of all EVs
  • Multiple battery pack levels available
  • Access to Tesla's free supercharger network
  • New tech like Autonomous mode

 

CONS

  • Big price tag
  • Accelerated depreciation
  • Reliance on charging