Electric and hybrid cars explained

You might have heard the terms ‘electric’ and ‘hybrid’ car a lot but have no idea what the difference is between them. On top of that, there are several types of hybrid cars to get your head around too. And unhelpfully, quite a few people call hybrid cars electric cars… just to confuse matters further.

What’s the difference between an electric car and a hybrid car?

The main difference between an electric and a hybrid car, is that a hybrid car gets some of its power from a ‘normal’ combustion engine, fuelled most of the time by petrol, and very occasionally diesel.

An electric car (EV) is a zero emissions (ZE) vehicle, as it gets all its power from electric sources.

Electric cars

EVs run on electric power alone and are charged with electricity. You do this via a charging cable (most of the time – things like wireless charging are on the way), which draws power from a wall socket or dedicated charging point. The electricity in the car is stored in batteries before electric motors use it to drive the car’s wheels.

What are hybrid cars and what are the different types of hybrid car?


This generally means a car with a petrol engine and electric motor. So, the car uses both electricity stored in batteries, and the fuel from a tank to make the car move.

In some cases, the petrol engine’s sole use is to recharge the batteries which power the electric motors. In other hybrids, the petrol engine drives the wheels directly, but you can also get some zero-emissions driving from the battery/motor combination.

Mild hybrid

A mild hybrid system isn’t powerful enough to drive the wheels by itself, but instead, it assists the engine in one of several ways. For example, it helps the engine during harder acceleration, and makes the stop-start system smoother. Some models have a mild hybrid system which lets the car’s engine be turned off for short periods of time while coasting and starts it again when you accelerate. Other mild hybrid systems shut off the engine when the vehicle is stopped, braking or coasting. However, because you can’t run a car on electric power alone, CO2 emissions aren’t as low as they would be on a plug-in hybrid or electric car.

Plug-in hybrid

A plug-in hybrid can be plugged in to recharge its batteries. It can also be charged on the move through regenerative braking. This is halfway between a hybrid and a full-electric car. Plug-in hybrids have a ‘normal’ engine and batteries, but they can drive longer distances on electric power alone. This is usually between 15-30 miles.