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The Difference Between Hybrids, Fuel Cell, and Electric Cars 

To EV or not to EV; which alternative energy vehicle is right for you?
Dan Heyman

Used to be you had two choices when it came to what your car needed for propulsion: a diesel or gas engine. That was it. There were all manner of drive choices, different transmission types and how many doors your chosen steed would have. But your engine? Diesel or gas.

That, of course, is no longer the case. Since the release of the first-gen Toyota Prius in 1997, a myriad of propulsion options have arrived, and it can be a little daunting to make a selection, especially when there are vehicles out there that can be had as both traditional hybrids and plug-in hybrids.

In that light, we’ve prepared a quick rundown of the various powertrains available today (hybrid, plug-in hybrid, range-extended EV, electric cars, hydrogen) in hopes that we can help streamline the decision-making process.

Traditional Hybrid:

  • Toyota Camry Hybrid/Prius/Highlander
  • Lexus RX450h/LS460h
  • Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
  • Kia Optima Hybrid
  • Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid

Indeed, we’ve come a long way if we can start calling any form of hybrid “traditional”, but here we are.

These vehicles have gas engines, but will have an electric motor to help reduce strain on the gas engine (saving fuel), and even to provide a power boost depending on the situation. You fill up with fuel as you would a normal car, but the fuel is then used to both power the wheels (in most cases), and accessories like your climate control system. The battery, or batteries, meanwhile, can get charged either when coasting or during braking (this is what’s referred to as “regenerative braking”). It’s a closed-loop system, however; the EV motor needs the gas motor to function.

These vehicles will usually have a readout either between the main gauges or on the infotainment screen that tells you what the powertrain is doing; like when the wheels are charging the battery during coasting, when the gas engine’s being used, and so on.

toyota camry hybrid

2015 Toyota Camry Hybrid
Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV):

  • Toyota Prius PHEV
  • Hyundai Sonata plug-in Hybrid
  • Ford Fusion Energi/C-Max Energi

Like traditional hybrid vehicles, PHEVs have both a gas and EV motor. Unlike traditional hybrids, however, these don’t operate in a fully closed-loop system and can be plugged in to a standard 120V/240V household socket. The benefits are manifold; in the case of the new Hyundai Sonata, the PHEV version can travel for longer in full-EV mode, and at higher speeds than can the Sonata Hybrid, due to its having a larger EV motor.

They don’t have to be plugged in—they can be charged through regenerative braking and coasting—but it’s a nice alternative to have.

ford fusion energy

2015 Ford Fusion Energi
Range-extended Electric Vehicle:

  • Chevrolet Volt
  • Cadillac ELR, BMW i3

Like a PHEV, a range-extended hybrid uses both EV and gas power, but in different ways. The Volt, for example, will never have its fuel motor actually driving the wheels as long as there’s a charge; it will only ever be used to charge the EV motor, which then drives the wheels.

Chevrolet volt

2015 Chevrolet Volt
In the case of the Cadillac ELR, you can actually ask the system to “lock-out” the EV motor (called “Hold” mode in Caddy-speak)—meaning you’re running fully on gas—so you can save the EV power for when gas is less efficient, such as in city traffic.

In the case of the i3, it can be had either with a small BMW scooter engine to help the EV motor along, or not, meaning it can be both a range-extending EV and a full-EV.

The good thing about these is they cut down on range anxiety (the fear that you’ll run out of juice with no charger in sight) as you’re not stuck if you drain the battery.

RELATED: BMW i3 electric 2014 -BMW i3 drives for sustainability

Full-Electric Vehicle:

  • Tesla Model S
  • Nissan Leaf
  • Kia Soul EV
  • BMW i3

Of all the car types here, these are probably the easiest to understand. You have a battery or battery packs, an EV motor diving two or four wheels and powering your accessories and that’s pretty much all there is to it.

Where it starts to get a little blurry is the charging; all EVs can be charged via trickle through a 120V outlet, but full charge times tend to take 12 hours or more. For faster charging, numerous 240V chargers are popping up every day (Kia and Nissan both feature them on their lots if the franchises sell the brands’ EV models) and these can cut charge times in half.

Of course, the ultimate is the stage III DC fast charger, which can get you a full charge in about 30 mins; these are very rare however and not all EVs can use them; Tesla can (and they’re building their own charge points) but you’ll need to select the higher of two Soul EV trim levels if you want the capability.

Kia Soul EV

2015 Kia Soul EV
Hydrogen vehicle, hydrogen electric vehicle:

  • Hyundai Tucson FCEV 
  • Toyota Mirai

This is the newest form of alternative propulsion, and for car buyers, it’s in its infancy to the degree that there really is only one car you can get in Canada that uses the technology, that’s the Hyundai Tucson FCEV or “Fuel cell electric vehicle.” Toyota is selling its hydrogen-powered Mirai in California, but that’s the only market where it’s available at this time.

Toyota Mirai

Toyota Mirai
It’s called that because while it needs hydrogen to function, the hydrogen only serves to power what are called “fuel cell stacks” which then power an EV motor that powers the front wheels. The waste? Just some nice, refreshing water vapour.

However, like it originally was with full EVs, the hydrogen filling network is small; like, one station small, in the case of Vancouver, BC. Yes, hydro-electric busses and larger vehicles have been in circulation for quite some time now, but they have much larger tanks and don’t require a fill station that’s easily operable by their owner, as the Tucson does.

However, we recently had a chance to test the FCEV, as well as talk to some experts in the hydrogen field that confirmed the hydrogen infrastructure is already growing in California and is set to grow in Canada in the coming years too.

 RELATED: Toyota Mirai Ushers in Future of Sustainable Mobility

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