Until the turn of the century, a car was driven by an internal combustion engine, fueled by either gas or diesel. Those were the only two options available, but now we have ICE cars, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, battery-powered electric vehicles, and fuel cell electric vehicles.
Join us as we take a closer look at each of these powertrains.
The Different Power Sources
The best way to start is with the oldest powertrain of them all: the internal combustion engine. Not only is it still in use, but it also forms the basis of hybrids and plug-in hybrid models.
- Internal combustion engine (ICE): The oldest form of propulsion. It uses a combustible fluid (gasoline or diesel) to create a controlled explosion that moves the pistons up and down, rotating the crankshaft. The crankshaft is connected to a driveshaft, which drives the wheels. This is a straightforward explanation for a complex system, but you get the idea.
- The hybrid engine: A standard hybrid has an ICE engine, an electric motor, and a battery pack. The hybrid motor is usually housed within the gearbox assembly, and the battery pack isn’t large enough for the car to drive on electric power for more than a mile or two. Instead, how hybrid engines work is that the electric motor serves as an assistant to the ICE, which means it doesn’t have to work as hard. Instead of just one standard power output, you get a combined power output. That’s the total power produced by the ICE and electric motor working together. The Toyota Prius is the most famous example of a standard hybrid car, though the list of the best hybrid cars has since expanded. For even more information on hybrid cars, sometimes called HEVs, read our dedicated article here.
- The plug-in hybrid (PHEV): The PHEV uses the same principle as the hybrid but with a bigger battery. This battery must be charged from an external source (literally, it needs to be plugged in), unlike hybrids that make use of regenerative braking to charge the battery. A PHEV’s electric motor also helps the engine along, but the main difference is that it can travel for longer on electricity alone. The average range these days is between 20 to 25 miles. It doesn’t sound like much, but it is pretty helpful if your daily commute falls within those limits. These cars can take some time to charge, though, and require a special setup if you want faster charging times.
- The battery-electric car (EV or BEV): These vehicles run on nothing but electricity. There’s no engine in an electric car, unless you count the range extender powertrain in the BMW i3. Instead, they rely on a set of motors, powered by the battery. There are various layout examples, but the most favored is the skateboard design. The battery pack is housed between the wheels, leaving more room for interior space and cargo capacity. An EV needs to be charged to work, like a PHEV. The batteries supply power to the electric motor, or motors, in the case of Tesla’s Long Range and Plaid models. These are among the best electric cars, too.
- Hydrogen or Fuel Cell (FCEV): Hydrogen-powered cars attempt to combine the best attributes of the internal combustion engine with the positive elements of an electric vehicle. Unlike regular EVs that rely on a battery for power, a hydrogen car relies on a chemical reaction to generate electricity to power the wheels. If you are interested in this fledgling technology, read our in-depth article about hydrogen cars here.
Gas vs Hybrid vs Electric vs Hydrogen Engines
Here is a breakdown of the pros and cons of each type of power plant:
Purists will punt this as the be-all-and-end-all, but there are a few things to consider that aren’t necessarily so great:10 Coolest Concept Cars Of The Last Decade Greatest GM Cars Not From The US
- From a logical point of view, internal combustion engines have a massive advantage. It only takes a few minutes to fill a car with gas, and gas stations are everywhere. Performance-wise, a gas engine can’t compete with an EV. ICE engines have more character, however, including sound/noise, lag, boost, induction, the list goes on.
- On the downside, internal combustion engines have low thermal efficiency – that’s how much of the energy it creates is lost and not used to power the car. Even the most efficient engines struggle to reach a thermal efficiency of 50%. They also emit harmful gasses.
- An ICE engine also requires a lot of upkeep. An electric motor has two moving parts, while an ICE engine has pistons, a crankshaft, spark plugs, an inlet camshaft, a cooling system, and more.
Dodge is likely the best example of gas-powered cars as it currently only offers large-capacity gas-powered vehicles. Its gas models are already quite affordable, but a used Dodge Challenger makes for a great starter car if you or your kids like old-school American muscle.
Hybrids and plug-in hybrids
The move towards electrification has numerous advantages, but what else is there to consider about going green?
- As hybrids also have an ICE and electric motor, they share the same upsides and downsides. The addition of an electric motor makes a car more efficient crawling through traffic. If it has a regenerative braking system, it can harvest some of the energy lost via braking.
- You don’t have to worry about range in hybrids because the ICE is always there as a backup. A plug-in hybrid engine has a larger battery that you can charge at home. These cars can go longer on electricity alone, but even the most advanced hybrids can’t do more than 25 miles.
- The downsides are the same as ICE cars. Hybrids were never meant to be a permanent solution but rather a step toward EVs.
The Toyota Prius is one of the best hybrid or electric hybrid cars, since it is available in both guises. It’s worth noting that plug-ins are often a lot more expensive than a basic hybrid. That doesn’t stop people from buying them though, and PHEV SUVs such as the Toyota RAV4 Prime are among the most popular.
Battery electric vehicle
Why specifically call it a battery-electric vehicle? Because there are two ways to get power to an electric motor. One of them is using energy storage systems like battery packs.
- On the plus side, EVs are massively powerful and fun to drive. Even the cheapest EV feels fast thanks to that instant torque delivery.
- These batteries are the main downside to an EV. The problem is not the electric motor itself, but rather the power source. Batteries take a long time to charge, and once their energy is drained, that’s it. You can’t use a jerry tank to fill up an EV.
- Charging times are faster these days, and you can easily plan a route that includes charging stops, but they simply can’t match the practicality of ICE cars. Most manufacturers boast that you can add 150 miles with a 15 to 20-minute charge. You can have an ICE car’s full range in half that time.
The most affordable EV on sale is the Mini Cooper SE, while Tesla will sell you the fastest EV for around $120,000. Picking up a used Tesla Model 3 is a cheap way to get a great EV.
This seems to be an ideal solution, as hydrogen systems for cars use a chemical reaction to power an electric motor.
- That chemical reaction requires hydrogen, and you put it in the tank the same way you’d refill an ICE car. It’s a win-win situation.
- Unfortunately, the infrastructure is minimal, and hydrogen is tough to transport and store. This could be the ultimate answer, however. While most manufacturers have given up on hydrogen, Toyota and Hyundai are still building and developing cars with a hydrogen engine, with the Hyundai Nexo fuel cell being the first hydrogen-powered SUV in the US.
Which One Should I Buy?
Unfortunately, that decision has already been made for you. It will have to be electric, as almost every manufacturer has announced that it will go fully electric in the future: no more ICE or hybrid models. So questions like electric car vs hybrid car, hybrid cars vs gas cars, and plug-in hybrid vs electric car are a moot point.
Electricity won the battle, which is probably a good thing. Charge times are steadily dropping, and Tesla recently announced that it would open up its Supercharger network to other manufacturers. To find out more about electric cars, the charging network, and other interesting EV information, read here.
We do want manufacturers to develop hydrogen technology more, though. Toyota is still very much dedicated to the idea, which seems to be the ultimate solution. You get the benefits of ICE and EV, all in one car.
One thing that isn’t discussed enough is the longevity of EVs. The longest battery warranty is ten years. And the sad fact is, once the battery goes, the car is a write-off. This is a significant drawback, considering ICE cars dating back to the 1960s still run like a dream.
Making lithium-ion batteries is a filthy business, and recycling them is even more complicated. While the result is a zero-emissions car, no EV driver can honestly state that their car did not do some kind of damage to the planet.
We can debate this all we want, but the truth is that the EV already won. The only debate left to have is EV vs fuel cell. EVs will likely win because their infrastructure is already in place. And there are halo models like the Tesla Model S Plaid that make ownership incredibly alluring. Still, we’re hoping for the development of more hydrogen motors. The fuel cell engine uses the most abundant element on our planet to power an electric motor with few moving parts. Unfortunately, the best we have in terms of the hydrogen engine setup currently is the Nexo SUV, and a pair of sedans: the Toyota Mirai and Honda Clarity. None of these are particularly thrilling.