How Hybrid Cars Work: Explained (2023)

Hybrid cars are propelled by a combination of gasoline and electricity – they’re hybrids between traditional gas combustion cars and electric vehicles, hence the name. This is done to save fuel, increase performance, or do both. We’ll get into some specifics and answer your hybrid car questions in this post.

Hybrids have exploded in popularity over the past 20 years, but the idea of using a gasoline engine and an electric motor in tandem to power a car has been around since 1889. But thanks to cheap gasoline and high costs of battery manufacturing hybrid cars didn’t really catch on until Honda introduced the Insight in 1999. They initially gained mass-market popularity for their efficiency and lower cost of operation, as the electric motor allows the engine to work less frequently.

Hybrids used to be marketed solely as economical choices intended to save gas and the planet. Usually, this came in the form of entirely new platforms dedicated to the low cost of ownership and high efficiency. In recent years, however, they’ve found their way into the top end of the market in hypercars such as the Porsche 918. On top of this, several brands have introduced hybrid versions of formerly gasoline-only vehicles, and they have exploded in popularity as manufacturers seek to increase their fleet efficiency and consumers seek to reduce their emissions footprint and overall cost of ownership.

But how exactly do these cars work? Your friends at Car Bibles have dug into the details and are here to recharge your collective knowledge.

How Hybrid Cars Work: Explained (1)

What Is a Hybrid?

Hybrids have a simple principle –use an electric motor combined with a gasoline engine to gain the benefits of both systems. Many modern hybrid cars do not always need to be charged via plugging into a wall outlet, as they’ve been designed to recharge from normal driving and braking, quelling range anxiety by simply making it a matter of finding a gas station.

This makes them vastly more convenient choices for people whose lifestyles prevent them from having a fully electric vehicle. There are various different methods of building a hybrid drivetrain. The most common is the parallel hybrid system.

How Do Parallel Hybrid Cars Work?

There are several ways to build a hybrid car, but the first popular mass-market design was used in the original Honda Insight, and it’s known as a parallel hybrid. In a parallel hybrid system, an internal combustion motor and an electric motor share a common differential, linking them together. At the differential, power is transmitted between the two propulsion units of the system and sent to the drive wheels in whatever configuration the car needs at the given moment.

(Video) How a Hybrid Car Works, Hybrid Engines Explained |

How Hybrid Cars Work: Explained (2)

What configurations realistically are needed? There are four main modes. First, in pure electric mode, the engine can be fully disengaged from the shared differential using a clutch, allowing for just the electric motor to propel the car. In this configuration, the engine can be completely shut down, and the car will drive like it is solely a fully electric vehicle.

The engine can be turned back on and the clutch compressed with the electric motor still engaged, allowing for both the power of the electric system and the engine to drive the wheels. This is useful in situations where torque is necessary, such as merging onto a highway, driving up a hill, or absolutely schooling the minivan next to you at a redlight.

The engine can continue running and the electric motor can be spun by it (rather than actively outputting power). This essentially makes the engine a generator while still also using the engine to drive the car. This way, the batteries can be charged without plugging in the car or needing to stop it. In this configuration, the car behaves like a traditional gas-powered vehicle.

The final configuration is when the car is decelerating with no power being output from either propulsion system, and the wheels themselves are locked to the motor. This slows the car down more quickly, as the motor is using the rotational force of the wheels as a generator to recharge the battery. This is known as regenerative braking.

How Hybrid Cars Work: Explained (3)


Let’s dive in.

Series Hybrids

Parallel hybrid drivetrains are no longer the only game in town for hybrid cars, however. Another common system is known as the series hybrid. This system is a bit more straightforward – the car is driven entirely by the electric motor at all times, which is run off of a battery system. However, an internal combustion engine is still included in the car, but instead of connecting it to the drive wheels, it directly runs a generator. The generator can either power the electric motor directly or recharge the batteries, depending on what’s needed most. The engine stays off until the batteries can no longer solely power the car.

The benefit of the series hybrid is that the car basically acts as a traditional electric vehicle until the batteries fully deplete, meaning the engine is used even less frequently than in a parallel hybrid. These models are also capable of being easily sold with the ability to plug-in, minimizing even further the need for the engine. The first mass market commercially successful series hybrid was the Chevrolet Volt that debuted in 2010 with a 1.4-liter gas engine used as a generator and a 149 HP electric motor. The Volt operates entirely without the engine connected to the wheels at speeds below 70 mph; at 70 mph or above it becomes a parallel hybrid to maintain speed.

(Video) Hybrid Vehicles How They Work

Power Split Hybrids

The final method most hybrid vehicles use is a combination of parallel and series hybrid drivetrains, known as a power-split hybrid system. In this setup, the engine is connected to the wheels, but it can also be used to power the motors via a generator directly, allowing for maximum flexibility. The third generation Toyota Prius uses a power-split hybrid system.

Mild Hybrids vs. Full Hybrids

There is one more distinction to make for hybrid vehicles, separate of the specific system they use, and that is whether they are a full hybrid, or a mild hybrid. To put it simply, a mild hybrid is a car that cannot run purely on electric power, and a full hybrid can. In a mild hybrid system, the electric motor is there to remove stress from the engine and allow for stop/start ignition systems, regenerative braking, and greater efficiency, but the electric motor alone will never run the car by itself.

In a full hybrid system, either the gasoline engine or the electric motor can completely run the car solo, depending on the situation. Both mild and full hybrids can yield extremely efficient vehicles, but they each have their pros and cons. In a mild hybrid, there is less of a need for large battery packs, as the power demands are less; this leads to much smaller and lighter vehicles which when combined with streamlining and intelligent design choices can lead to extremely high efficiency. Of course, this will prevent the car from ever being a full electric, so zero-gasoline driving is not an option. Full hybrids have the inverse benefits and downsides – they tend to require larger banks of batteries and more powerful motors, adding weight and bulk to the system, but for short trips it’s entirely possible to drive without consuming a single drop of gasoline.

How Hybrid Cars Work: Explained (4)

I Know Why Econoboxes Use Hybrids, but Why Do Sports Cars Use Hybrid Systems?

Hybrids clearly have their benefits for efficiency, since they allow the car to completely shut off the engine and still drive. But with the most recent wave of hypercars to be released, they have gained popularity in high-end sports cars (as well as some affordable models, such as the Honda CR-Z).

Quite simply, electric motors make massive amounts of torque, and they make it from the instant they start rotating. Unlike an internal combustion engine that creates torque later in the rev range due to the constraints of airflow and rotational mass, electric motors use magnetic fields to rotate, which have no lag and relatively low static friction.

Combining an electric motor for low-end torque with an internal combustion engine for high-end horsepower results in the best of both for performance. As a result, cars like the Porsche 918 and Ferrari LaFerrari can have top speeds well north of 200 mph and 0-60s below two and a half seconds. Hybrid technology promises to take hold of high-end performance cars even more in the future, with dozens of new models either announced or teased for the near future, such as a hybrid Huracan successor, brand new hybrid Mclaren models, and even a hybrid Corvette.

Car Bibles’ Glossary for Hybrid Cars

Welcome to Bible school!

(Video) What is Toyota Hybrid System

Electric Motor

A motor powered by electricity to generate a magnetic field that spins a magnetized assembly, outputting rotational power.


A device that can convert AC to DC or a lower to a higher voltage, or vice-versa, that can be put between the battery supply and the motor if the power demands of the electric motor are different than the power supplied by the batteries.

Regenerative Braking

Using the wheels to spin the electric motor with the goal of generating power to charge the battery. This is done when the car is decelerating and power loss from the wheels is desired.

How Hybrid Cars Work: Explained (5)

The Questionnaire

Car Bibles answers all your burning questions!

Q. Do Hybrids Get Good Fuel Mileage?

A. Obviously, this depends on the car, but generally, they are more efficient than pure gasoline cars. Series hybrid cars – such as the BMW i3 – can potentially be driven in short trips for months or even years on end without gasoline ever being used, additionally, because the engine serves as a backup generator that doesn’t kick in until the battery is depleted.

Q. Are There Hybrid Racecars?

A. Yes! Hybrid race cars go back decades but one of the most recent high-profile successful hybrid race cars is the Toyota TS050, which has outright won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the past three years.

Q. What Is MPGe?

A. MPGe is the EPA’s way to rate the overall efficiency of cars that do not exclusively use gasoline, such as hybrids and EVs. It stands for miles per gallon of gasoline-equivalent. It is calculated by converting the energy provided by electric power to the energy provided by a gallon of gasoline, and summing the overall efficiency of both the gas and the hybrid systems. Then the average fuel costs both for gasoline and electricity are factored in, and an overall cost of operation can be estimated.

(Video) How Toyota Hybrid System Work Part 1 High Voltage Battery

Q. What Kinds Of Batteries Do Hybrids Use?

A. Hybrid cars use an assortment of batteries depending on the make and model. The original Honda Insight used nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) batteries, a common choice for the era. More recently, such as in modern Priuses, lithium-ion batteries have been used to store power.

How Hybrid Cars Work: Explained (6)

Video on Hybrid Cars

If you’re a more kinesthetic learner and want to hear about how hybrids work, rather than just reading about it, check out this video from my friend Jason at Engineering Explained!

It’s easy to make an account and we really do want to chat! Writers (and other readers) will answer questions and comments whenever they can!

Keep your hybrid looking spiffy with our recommendations for car wax and detailing kits!

Disclosure: is also a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associate Programs, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Pages on this site may include affiliate links to Amazon and its affiliate sites on which the owner of this website will make a referral commission.


How does a hybrid car work in simple terms? ›

Hybrid electric vehicles are powered by an internal combustion engine and one or more electric motors, which uses energy stored in batteries. A hybrid electric vehicle cannot be plugged in to charge the battery. Instead, the battery is charged through regenerative braking and by the internal combustion engine.

Can hybrid cars run on battery only? ›

All hybrids manage the energy flow automatically and many will let you choose to drive purely in electric (from the battery) if you wish. This means the car runs with no tailpipe emissions and quietly without the noise of the engine running.

Can you run a hybrid car just on petrol? ›

The car can be driven purely by petrol, purely by electric or any combination of the two. The petrol engine also charges the battery like a series hybrid. In normal driving the petrol engine is the primary power source, with the electric motor helping to provide a boost, for example during overtaking.

How far can a hybrid car go on battery? ›

How far can I drive with a hybrid car? A plug-in hybrid can usually travel 20 to 40 miles on electric power only. Every hybrid has a combustion engine as well as an electric motor, so you can drive as far as the fuel in the tank will take you.

At what speed do hybrid cars switch from battery power to petrol power? ›

The car starts up in electric mode automatically and stays in this mode up until a speed between 43 mph and 80 mph. If additional power is needed, or if the battery's charge is too low, then the car will activate the combustion engine.

What is the biggest problem with hybrid cars? ›

Disadvantages of hybrid cars

Less power: Hybrids combine both an electric motor and a gasoline engine, with their gasoline engine primarily operated as the power source. Therefore, neither the gasoline engine nor the electric motor works as strongly as they do in conventional gasoline or electric cars.

What happens if a hybrid runs out of gas? ›

Here's What Happens When a Hybrid Vehicle Runs Out of Gas

You can forget about the possibility of simply driving very slowly in an attempt to reach a gas station; the engine will completely shut off. These models are built this way because without gas, the large propulsion battery could sustain damage.

What happens when a hybrid car runs out of electricity? ›

“Running out of power in an EV is not the same thing as running out of gas in a car with an internal combustion engine,” says Alex Knizek, an auto engineer at Consumer Reports. “Your only option is to get towed to the nearest charger.”

What happens when a hybrid car runs out of charge? ›

Should you happen to run out of battery power, the vehicle will automatically switch over to the ICE drive and use petrol/diesel to continue running. It will then also start charging the battery back up again, on its own.

Are hybrids good for long distance? ›

Your hybrid can certainly handle long distance trips efficiently. However, there are some things to keep in mind. A hybrid operates more efficiently when kept under 50 miles per hour. So, city driving is a more efficient way to travel.

At what speed does hybrid switch to gas? ›

A Prius' electric engine is powerful enough to handle those light driving tasks, so the gasoline engine only kicks on when the car reaches 15 mph. Depending how a car is used and driven, this can make a big difference in fuel economy.

At what speed does a hybrid car use petrol? ›

Self-Charging Hybrid cars switch to petrol power once they reach a certain speed. In optimum conditions, a Self-Charging Hybrid vehicle can reach up to 28mph – or up to 40mph for the NX – on electric power alone before the petrol engine kicks in.

How much do hybrid batteries cost? ›

How much does a hybrid battery cost? Generally, a hybrid battery replacement cost can range from $2,000 to $8,000. The price can ultimately vary depending on the %%di_make%% model or even the service center.

Do hybrids charge when parked? ›

Hybrid models – The high-voltage battery gradually discharges even if the vehicle is not in use. As a result, if your vehicle is parked for an extended period of time, the battery charge level will become low. Extended periods of time at a low state of charge will shorten battery life.

How long can a hybrid sit without being driven? ›

The consensus is that leaving a hybrid with nickel-metal-hydride batteries such as yours stored for three months should be okay, but four-five months might be pressing it a bit. With the car shut off, there is no parasitic drain on the main battery so it will retain a charge for a long time.

At what speed are hybrids most efficient? ›

Midsize conventional gasoline cars achieve their best fuel economy at 55 mph. The fuel economy of midsize conventional diesel cars declines gradually from 45 to 55 mph and then drops quickly thereafter. The midsize hybrid electric vehicle loses efficiency more evenly between 45 and 75 mph.

Can hybrids run without electricity? ›

If your hybrid runs out of gas, you might assume that giant battery will help you out. However, most hybrid engines simply weren't designed to operate on electricity alone. They aren't electric cars after all: the gas engine and propulsion battery are engineered to work in tandem, not on their own.

Why do people avoid hybrid cars? ›

Poorer fuel efficiency and handling

Hybrids and PHEVs are packing two drivetrains into the one car, which means more weight, which can negatively affect fuel efficiency and handling, as well as the aforementioned need to compromise by downsizing both the battery and ICE.

How often do you change the oil in a hybrid? ›

For your hybrid vehicle, your manufacturer warranty likely recommends you change the oil every ten thousand miles. However, one key to keep in mind is that if you drive short distances and don't put a lot of miles on your car, you should still schedule an oil change and regular maintenance once every 12 months.

Do you need to warm up a hybrid car? ›

No, you don't need to warm up your hybrid car. It's not necessary. Hybrid vehicles don't need to be warmed up because it doesn't do anything for the engine. Your hybrid car is ready to drive as soon as you start it up even if the temperature is absolutely cold.

How far can a hybrid go without petrol? ›

The majority will run on electricity for 50 or so miles before the car switches to gasoline. Hybrids can run for a good 300 or so miles on gasoline alone, which is music to the ears of long-distance drivers.

How much does it cost to refuel a hybrid car? ›

According to the blog, electric cars and plug-in hybrids (those that have been converted by owners) currently average about two cents per mile to recharge (electric rates vary greatly by region), while gasoline-only cars average about 10 cents per mile to refuel.

Do hybrids use gas and electricity at the same time? ›

Full hybrids can run on one or both of their motors (gas and electric) simultaneously, with the electric motor or battery recharging via the gas engine. Mild hybrids have an electric motor/battery that assists the gas engine but can't power the vehicle on its own.

What happens if your electric car runs out of battery in the middle of nowhere? ›

If you're driving an electric car and it runs out of power, the short and simple answer is this: the car will stop—and you'll need to call roadside assistance to get towed to the nearest charging station.

Can you drive a hybrid without charging? ›

You can definitely drive your plug-in hybrid without a charged battery. Although it is designed as a combustion-assisted electric vehicle, the battery always has some energy stored away thanks to its self-charging technology.

Does a hybrid charge while idling? ›

A hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) will start the engine which drives its motor to charge the battery even at idle whenever the battery power is detected to be insufficient.

Can hybrids run without gas? ›

Only Answer

No. Though Lexus hybrid technology allows the vehicle to operate on electric power at slow speeds when gasoline is in the tank, it is not designed to run without gasoline.

How far can hybrids drive in only electric? ›

You plug it in, charge it up, and drive it. BEVs available for the 2022 model year have an official range (calculated by Natural Resources Canada, or NRCan, which oversees all vehicle fuel economy numbers) spanning from 146 km to 837 km on a charge. Most are around 300 to 400 km.

Can you drive a hybrid car without the hybrid battery? ›

A hybrid vehicle cannot run without the hybrid battery, so vehicle owners must invest in new hybrid batteries periodically, which can make vehicle maintenance expensive. Fortunately, hybrid technology is always evolving.

Do hybrids use gas for AC? ›

Unlike most automotive A/C systems, which are powered by an internal combustion engine, air conditioning systems in electric and hybrid vehicles use high voltage electricity to power the compressor.

Are hybrid cars good for short distances? ›

The engine also shuts down automatically when this occurs, saving fuel and cutting emissions. Many hybrid cars, including the popular Toyota Prius, can run on electric-only power for very short distances, which could be handy if you want to drive off early in the morning without waking up the rest of your family.

Do hybrid engines wear out faster? ›

Since hybrid vehicles use a combination of the high voltage battery pack, electric motor, and an ICE to propel the vehicle, you may experience less wear and tear on your car's engine.

Do hybrid cars automatically switch to gas? ›

When you travel at lower speeds, the hybrid uses battery power to run. As speeds increase, the vehicle will switch over to the gasoline or diesel engine. This results in better gas mileage overall and a cleaner environment.

Which hybrid car is best for long distance driving? ›

  1. 2021 Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid: 702 miles. ...
  2. 2021 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid: 686 miles. ...
  3. 2022 Toyota Camry Hybrid: 686 miles. ...
  4. 2021 Kia Sorento Hybrid: 657 miles. ...
  5. 2021 Toyota Sienna: 648 miles. ...
  6. 2022 Toyota Prius Prime: 640 miles. ...
  7. 2022 Toyota Prius: 633 miles. ...
  8. 2021 Hyundai Ioniq PHEV: 620 miles.

Do hybrids switch automatically? ›

The vehicle typically runs on electric power until the battery is nearly depleted, and then the car automatically switches over to use the ICE. Learn more about plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

Does insurance cover hybrid battery? ›

While a car insurance policy won't pay for a hybrid battery that runs out of juice, it will keep you safe when you're driving around.

Can you buy a hybrid battery? ›

In general, you can find high-quality hybrid batteries for about $2,000. In many cases, that's actually less than you would pay at a dealership for a lower-quality battery, and brand new power cells can improve the performance of your car for years to come.

What does a Tesla battery cost? ›

However, battery costs could change depending on your car's model. Remanufactured packs cost between $9,000-$10,000, but brand-new batteries might cost up to $22,500. Depending on the process's complexity, the average cost to replace a damaged battery pack with a remanufactured one would be between $13,000-$17,000.

What kills hybrid battery? ›

According to Dave Callari with DC Battery Hub, a leading supplier of aftermarket hybrid electric vehicle battery packs, inactivity is a killer for hybrid batteries. “As we have been stating since day one, inactivity kills a hybrid battery,” Callari said.

Do hybrids start in cold weather? ›

Despite appearances, hybrid batteries perform well in even extreme cold weather. batteries in hybrid cars are resistant to very low temperatures. Manufacturers of this type of cars guarantee their trouble-free start-up and operation even at temperatures as low as -30°C.

Can hybrid cars park in electricity only? ›

If you drive a hybrid, you're entitled to use these spaces as well. If the available parking spots include electric charging stations, you may or may not want to park there depending on whether you have a plug-in hybrid or hybrid that only charges through regenerative braking.

How long will a hybrid battery last? ›

Most hybrid batteries should take drivers about 100,000 miles. With excellent maintenance, some owners are able to push this number to 200,000. Warranties typically extend to about the 100,000-mile mark, so manufacturers do expect this to be the upper limit on battery life.

Can you jump start hybrid car? ›

If you're dealing with a dead battery in your hybrid vehicle, you may be wondering: “Can you jump-start a hybrid car?” The simple answer is yes.

Do hybrid cars use a lot of fuel? ›

Hybrid cars are typically more fuel-efficient than their gas counterparts since they can switch between their gas and electric motors while being driven. The key reasons to consider buying a hybrid car are to save on gas and help reduce emissions while still getting the range capabilities of a gas car.

Can hybrid cars run without gas? ›

Only Answer

No. Though Lexus hybrid technology allows the vehicle to operate on electric power at slow speeds when gasoline is in the tank, it is not designed to run without gasoline.

How far can a hybrid go without gas? ›

The majority will run on electricity for 50 or so miles before the car switches to gasoline. Hybrids can run for a good 300 or so miles on gasoline alone, which is music to the ears of long-distance drivers.

What is the point of having a hybrid car? ›

A hybrid car is one that uses more than one means of propulsion: a petrol or diesel engine and an electric motor. The main advantage of a hybrid is that it should consume less fuel and subsequently emit less CO2 than a comparable conventional petrol or diesel-engined vehicle.

Are hybrid cars good for long distance driving? ›

Your hybrid can certainly handle long distance trips efficiently. However, there are some things to keep in mind. A hybrid operates more efficiently when kept under 50 miles per hour. So, city driving is a more efficient way to travel.

How much does a hybrid battery cost? ›

How much does a hybrid battery cost? Generally, a hybrid battery replacement cost can range from $2,000 to $8,000. The price can ultimately vary depending on the %%di_make%% model or even the service center.

What happens when hybrid runs out of electricity? ›

The vehicle typically runs on electric power until the battery is nearly depleted, and then the car automatically switches over to use the ICE. Learn more about plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

What happens when a hybrid car runs out of battery? ›

If A Hybrid Battery Dies, Can You Still Drive The Car? Unfortunately, no. If your hybrid battery dies, you cannot drive the car anymore. You would have to replace the battery in order to keep driving the vehicle, even if it's a hybrid and it still has gasoline.

How do hybrid cars switch from electric to gas? ›

The car will run on the electric battery until it runs out of juice and then switch over to the gas engine. Full hybrids use the combustion engine to recharge the battery. They run on electricity at stop lights and lower speeds before switching over to full gas. A Toyota Prius is an example of a full hybrid.

Are hybrid cars good in cold weather? ›

Despite appearances, hybrid batteries perform well in even extreme cold weather. batteries in hybrid cars are resistant to very low temperatures. Manufacturers of this type of cars guarantee their trouble-free start-up and operation even at temperatures as low as -30°C.

How often do you need to refuel a hybrid? ›

But with fuel efficiency ratings ranging from 30 to 60 miles per gallon, hybrid owners need to fill up their tanks far less frequently — typically, every 400 to 600 miles or so.

How fast can hybrid cars go on electricity? ›

While many all-electric vehicles have significantly lower top speeds and some are even a little bit unstable on the highway, hybrid cars get enough power from the gasoline engine to go as fast as 100 miles per hour (161 kilometers per hour).

What are the disadvantages of owning a hybrid? ›

Disadvantages Of A Hybrid Car - Find the best car deals!
  • Higher Purchasing Cost And Complex Hybrid Tech. ...
  • Performance. ...
  • Fuel Economy On The Open Roads Or Highway. ...
  • Higher Insurance Rates. ...
  • Diminished Hybrid Fuel Efficiency In Cold Weather.
13 Jan 2021

What are 3 advantages of a hybrid car? ›

Right here is a list of the best benefits of a hybrid-electric car. Superior combined mpg than gas automobiles. No harmful gas release and environment-friendly. Selection of power settings, varying from eco to power for maximum performance.


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