What Are Hybrid Cars and How Do They Work?

Electric cars are undeniably on the road to becoming the dominant vehicle type in the market. However, before Tesla made EVs a common sight, some major car manufacturers created a stepping stone vehicle that led to fully electric cars: the hybrid.

Strictly speaking, a hybrid vehicle is any car powered by two different engine types. So a tank with a gas turbine and an internal combustion engine is still a hybrid vehicle. Nevertheless, today we will focus on hybrid cars—what they are and how they work.

What Is a Hybrid Car?

The first mass-produced hybrid car was the 1997 Toyota Prius. A 1.5-liter inline-4 gasoline engine and a 288V electric motor mated to a CVT power this car. This means that both the gasoline engine and electric motor work together to propel the car.

This technology saves fuel, as the electric motor drives the car at low speeds, where it’s most efficient. Then once you get up to highway speeds, the gasoline engine takes over. Furthermore, when braking, the car captures the heat generated by the brakes and uses it to recharge the battery. This system ensures that your car always runs efficiently.

The Different Types of Hybrid Vehicles

While the previously-mentioned description was Toyota’s original hybrid vehicle design, several car manufacturers eventually developed their own systems. You will find hybrid engines installed in various car types—from everyday economy cars like the Toyota Prius and Chevrolet Volt to supercars such as the Acura NSX and Porsche 918.


So, to help you differentiate, these are the different hybrid systems you can find.

Parallel Hybrid

This is the most common hybrid design on the market, where the internal combustion engine (ICE) and electric engine work concurrently to deliver power. The two engines are typically mated to the axle via a continuously-variable transmission.

With this system, the car itself will determine the most efficient drivetrain to use—whether electric, gasoline, or both—and choose accordingly.

Aside from the Toyota Prius, other parallel hybrid cars include the Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Insight, and more.

Plug-In Hybrid

The plug-in hybrid is similar to the parallel hybrid system but has a bigger battery that needs charging from an outlet. Cars with this system are typically called Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs), and they primarily run on their electric motors. Once the onboard battery runs out of juice, the system will revert to a typical parallel hybrid setup.

This system is best suited for urban driving, where drivers typically drive short distances. In this case, you might not even need to gas up your car in months, as it will only use the battery, especially if you recharge it every time you’re home. An example of this is the Ford Fusion Energi, which has an all-electric range of 21 miles.

Through-the-Road Hybrid

This hybrid powertrain uses different powertrains on different axles. For example, Volvo’s plug-in hybrid models use its typical ICE model front-wheel drive train and pairs it with an electrically-powered rear axle.

This system makes it simpler to install, thus lowering developmental costs. Furthermore, it adds all-wheel drive (AWD) functionality to an otherwise front-wheel or rear-wheel drive model. Through-the-road hybrids can either be plug-in or parallel models.

Aside from Volvo’s designs, other examples of through-the-road hybrids include the Acura NSX, BMW i8, and Porsche 918 Spyder. This design is popular with supercars as they’re simpler, weigh less, deliver AWD traction, and increase overall power output.

Series Hybrid

In contrast to the parallel hybrid powertrain, series hybrid vehicles are propelled solely by the electric engine. While there’s still an onboard internal combustion engine, this is not connected to any axle; thus, it’s unable to drive the car.

The gasoline engine’s primary purpose is to provide power to the electric motor—either directly or by recharging the car battery. This setup allows for an electric car experience without the range anxiety it delivers.

However, since the internal combustion engine isn’t connected to the accelerator pedal, some drivers might be confused hearing their gasoline engine running at high RPMs, even if they’re idling in traffic. This just means that it’s running at full power to recharge the battery. One example of this is the BMW i3 with the Range Extender option.

Mild Hybrid

The system is the exact opposite of the series hybrid system. Instead of having an electric engine powered by an ICE, mild hybrids are gasoline engine-powered cars with an electric motor that helps improve performance.

The primary purpose of the electric motor is to increase engine performance when the gasoline engine is working heavy loads, improve fuel economy at low to medium speeds, and serve as the starter for start-stop systems.

This system doesn’t provide better fuel economy than other hybrid systems, but they’re usually the cheapest and easiest hybrid technology to develop for an existing vehicle model. Some examples include the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Mercedes Benz S400 BlueHYBRID.

Why Go Hybrid?

Since EVs are now taking off, and vehicle charging stations are increasingly becoming more common, especially in urban areas, why would you buy a hybrid car?

The primary reason for choosing a hybrid car is that it still has a gasoline engine, thus negating any range anxiety issues you might have with an electric car. Furthermore, they’re the only eco-friendly vehicle option many users have in places without an extensive charging network—essentially any country outside North America, Europe, and Japan.

And if you’re the type of person who needs to maximize your car’s range and travel long distances frequently, it might not be prudent to get a fully electric vehicle just yet.

Hybrid Cars Are the Next Best Option

For most of the world, electric vehicles are simply out of reach. They’re either too expensive or impractical and not easy to recharge. If you typically drive within a city with many superchargers, then EVs are a practical choice if you can afford them.

But if you live in a place that doesn’t have any fast-charging stations for cars, then your only option might be to get a hybrid. While these vehicles don’t have zero emissions, they can double or triple your mileage in one full tank, thus significantly reducing your carbon footprint.

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