Often grouped – rightly or wrongly – under the expression "clean cars", hybrid, electric, hydrogen and plug-in hybrid vehicles have many similarities. But it is their differences that interest us and that allow motorists to choose one or the other of the technologies.
Whether in terms of engine, autonomy, comfort of use, pollution or price, let us try to better understand these famous elements that distinguish them.
Grzegorz Czapski / Shutterstock.com
Motorization, an essential technical distinction
Although hybrid, electric, hydrogen and plug-in hybrid vehicles have technical similarities, it is their engine that most differentiates them. It is also under the hood that the war of autonomy and performance is mainly played out.
The hybrid car, an electrically assisted thermal
After more than 80 years of infancy, the very first mass-produced hybrid car appeared on the market in 1997, in the person of the Toyota Prius. Constituting the beginnings of cleaner engines, the technology is still based on the same principle: the combination of a heat engine – generally petrol -, a small electric motor and a low-capacity battery. During braking, deceleration and descent, the motor converts part of the kinetic energy into electricity, thus recharging the battery. The accumulated energy is then mainly used for starting the hybrid car and, depending on the model, for short distances in a 100% electric mode. For the rest, the internal combustion engine takes over.
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Rechargeable hybrid: the happy medium between thermal and electric
It was not until 2010 and the release of the Chevrolet Volt that the very first mass-produced plug-in hybrid car appeared. The technology shares many similarities with “classic” hybrids since it also combines a heat engine and an electric motor. The difference lies mainly in the use of a battery with a higher capacity. This is not only powered by kinetic energy, but also by recharges carried out on an electrical terminal. The rechargeable hybrid car can thus achieve longer distances in 100% electric: up to several tens of kilometers depending on the model. And, once again, it is the internal combustion engine that will replace the electric motor when the battery is discharged or from a certain speed.
Electric cars that rely heavily on their batteries
If the very first electric vehicle dates from the 1830s, it will take very long decades before the technology is really viable and produced on a large scale. Despite everything, the principle remains more or less the same: the association of an electric motor and a battery, all without fuel tank or internal combustion engine. If most electric cars are able to recover the kinetic energy produced, the batteries are mainly supplied by charging stations: at home (on a standard socket, a reinforced socket or a Wallbox) or on terminals public (on a standard socket, an accelerated socket or a fast socket).
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The meeting of hydrogen and electricity
As with the hybrid, Toyota first believed in the hydrogen car, notably by marketing the Mirai from 2014. The technology is based on the use of a fuel cell, capable of producing electricity from the hydrogen contained in a tank. To summarize, we can therefore say that it is an electric car capable of producing its own electricity.
Autonomy, the nerve of war
For "clean" vehicles, autonomy has always been the sinews of war. As proof, this is the main obstacle to the purchase of a used or new electric car: 63% of motorists indeed consider that autonomy is still too limited according to the 2019 Energy Barometer (1). However, the situation is changing faster than we think.
The hybrid: 100% electric yes, but only on the 1st kilometer
Due to the low capacity of its battery (between 1 and 2 kWh), the hybrid car has a relatively low electric range, generally summarized in the expression "electric for the first kilometer". The electric motor will therefore only be able to take over on rare occasions, especially during start-up or in traffic jams. This is why the autonomy of a hybrid car is mainly defined by the behavior of its internal combustion engine. It is therefore essentially the fuel consumption and the capacity of the tank that will determine the distance that can be achieved in a full tank.
50 km of electric range for the rechargeable hybrid
The 100% electric autonomy of a plug-in hybrid vehicle is mainly determined by the capacity of the battery on board (around 10 kWh on average). As a general rule, the electric range of a plug-in hybrid is around 50 kilometers. So it is sometimes possible to do without the heat engine completely, including for certain urban journeys. Models are nevertheless much more efficient, like the BMW X5 xDrive45e which claims up to 87 kilometers in WLTP cycle. As with the classic hybrid, the internal combustion engine will take over once the battery is depleted, increasing the total range by several hundred kilometers.
300 kilometers of autonomy: almost normal now for electric
The autonomy of electric cars, which is often the subject of rankings, depends mainly on the capacity of the battery, as we have already seen. Currently, the most efficient models in this area have a 100 kWh battery. This is the case of the Tesla Model S which claims a record WLTP range of 610 kilometers. On the models that make up the bulk of the range, the capacity turns rather between 40 and 50 kWh, ensuring a theoretical autonomy of between 300 and 400 kilometers. However, you should know that different criteria play a large role in the autonomy of an electric car, including the driving mode. For example, the range will melt “like snow in the sun” if the engine is used at full power, much more quickly than on a thermal model.
Fuel cell efficiency, the challenge of the hydrogen car
For hydrogen vehicles, the problem is different. If the capacity of the tank is important, it is the efficiency of the fuel cell that mainly determines the range. It often turns around 50%, although some more efficient models claim an efficiency of 80% allowing them to have a theoretical autonomy of about 500 kilometers in WLTP cycle. Note also that, for the moment, it is the Hyundai Nexo which holds the record for autonomy in use since the Korean SUV has managed to cover 778 kilometers with a single tank.
User comfort, the obligation to make concessions
Before even being an ecological choice, some motorists no longer hesitate to buy an electric, hybrid or even hydrogen car for driving pleasure. In this area, however, you must be able to make concessions.
DS7 Crossback eTense // Thomas Cortesi
Hybrid: slightly more pleasant driving than thermal
In use, the hybrid car combines the advantages of thermal and electric. On the first kilometer, it is indeed the electric motor which is in operation, limiting fuel consumption and jolts. On this very specific point, hybrid vehicles also offer greater user comfort than petrol or diesel. On the road, however, there will be no noticeable difference because, in both cases, the internal combustion engine will be in operation. This technology also has the advantage of not being dependent on its battery, which distinguishes it from electric vehicles for which charging can often be a cause for concern.
The plug-in hybrid, halfway between thermal and petrol
In most cases, the comfort of using a plug-in hybrid car is similar to that of a hybrid. It offers the same performance as a thermal (acceleration, speed, autonomy, etc.), is not limited by the capacity of its electric battery and does not have to be recharged. The rechargeable hybrid nevertheless offers the advantage of having 100% electric operation extended to short journeys, mainly urban. So many times when driving will be smoother and quieter.
Renault ZOE 2 // Camille Pinet
Electric car: fear of breakdown mitigated by user comfort?
Thanks to its silent and smooth operation, the electric car will offer the best user comfort for certain motorists, both in town and on longer journeys. For others, the use of an electric can quickly show its limits, in particular because the performances are generally not up to an equivalent thermal, in particular as regards driving sensations and acceleration. However, this feeling seems to be less and less shared since only 10% of motorists still blame the electric for its lack of performance according to the 2019 Energy Barometer (1). Fear of breaking down can also ruin the driving experience for the most anxious drivers, especially if EV charging solutions are lacking on longer trips.
The station network, the major shortcoming of hydrogen vehicles
If the hydrogen car has the same advantages as electric (silent behavior, flexible driving, etc.), it also has its disadvantages: performance not always up to par and, above all, a network of hydrogen stations still very limited – and who does not gain from developing. As proof, there are only twenty stations in France and a hundred on the whole of the Old Continent. What legitimize the fear of a breakdown and reduce driving pleasure to almost nothing.
Pollution ? Nobody is perfect after all …
The ecological commitment remains a strong reason to buy a "clean" car. But in this area, hybrid, electric and hydrogen cars do not have the same arguments to make. The choice turns out to be all the more difficult as it will often be necessary to be able to close one's eyes to certain points so as not to offend one's convictions too much.
Performance comparable to thermal for the hybrid car
Nowadays, it is still difficult to consider a hybrid as a clean car. It would be more honest to speak of a thermal vehicle with electric assistance, since the role played by the battery remains extremely limited. Although the emission rate of a hybrid vehicle is lower than that of an equivalent thermal, the fact remains that its environmental performance is very close to petrol or diesel. The ecological interest of a hybrid car therefore remains limited. The Toyota Prius IV, the most popular model on the market, is also the perfect example since its CO emissions2 are between 94 and 104 grams of CO2 per kilometer (in WLTP cycle).
Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV // Teddy Leung / Shutterstock.com
Rechargeable hybrid, a good compromise between thermal and electric
Although the plug-in hybrid car has 100% more electric range than a standard hybrid, it is nonetheless thermal above all. The ecological fiber of the motorist can nevertheless play a role in the decision to buy such a vehicle, insofar as the CO emissions2 are – depending on the model – up to 4 to 5 times lower than an equivalent thermal. We can take for example the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV whose emissions are around 40 grams of CO2 per kilometer in WLTP standard.
Electric: clean for use, polluting during manufacturing and recycling
Leaving aside the tire wear on the asphalt, the electric car can be considered a zero emission vehicle … for use only. Although it does not release CO2 in use, the environmental impact of its batteries is often debated. The extraction of raw materials, the manufacture of cells, the mode of production of electricity or the recycling of the battery: all positions that are far from virtuous and limit the ecological interest of the electric car. If its impact is generally lower than that of a (very) long term thermal, its detractors will always blame it for displacing pollution, not for reducing it.
Hyundai Nexo // Grzegorz Czapski / Shutterstock.com
A colossal source of pollution for the hydrogen car
For the hydrogen car, it is the same fight as the electric one: it rejects only the value of water in use and, therefore, does not pollute. On the other hand, the production of hydrogen is a huge black spot because it will require significant amounts of energy. If it is possible to produce “clean” hydrogen, in particular via a process of electrolysis of water, this technique consumes water and electricity, all for a very low yield. This is why hydrogen is produced 95% from fossil resources, so that the production of one kilo of hydrogen emits 10 kg of CO.2 (2). A vehicle announcing a consumption of 1 kg / 100 km, like the Hyundai Nexo, will actually emit the equivalent of 100 grams of CO2/ km from well to wheel. What question its ecological interest.
The depth of the range, a major obstacle to the development of clean vehicles
In the end, it is perhaps the depth of the range that constitutes one of the main obstacles to the development of “green” mobility. It must be said that the hybrid and electric offer is still relatively limited, while hydrogen vehicles are almost non-existent on the market. What considerably limit the possibilities.
A range that revolves around twenty hybrids
Although hybrid technology is already more than 20 years old, the supply is relatively limited. Why ? Quite simply because the manufacturers now prefer to bet on the rechargeable hybrid and on the electric. So the possibilities are mainly confined to Toyota models and those of its subsidiary Lexus. Proof of the narrowness of the range, the two Japanese brands alone account for almost 70% of the hybrid market in France (3). To say that the competition is discreet in the segment is also a mild understatement, since the market comes down to around twenty models.
The plug-in hybrid, an offer that needs to grow?
Although the plug-in hybrid has still not managed to cross the symbolic bar of 1% of car sales in France, compared to more than 4% for the “classic” hybrid (3), the offer continues to grow . Admittedly, the Toyota Prius remains a reference in this category and proves, once again, the advance of the Japanese manufacturer in the matter. However, there are more and more plug-in hybrid cars and are now available in most categories. We can for example mention the Hyundai Ioniq Plugin in the compact, the Volkswagen Passat GTE for the wagon, the Volvo V90 T8 in the station wagon and the Kia Niro Hybrid Rechargeable on the SUV side.
An electric range that is diversifying
For a long time, the electric car market has been Tesla's preserve. But, for several years now, the offer has grown, to the point of no longer being reserved for the biggest budgets. If the Renault ZOE played a big part in the acceptance of the electric in France, other models already deserve to be praised. We can notably mention the Volkswagen e-up! or the Smart EQ Fortwo for micro-city cars, the Peugeot e-208 and the BMW i3 for all-rounders, as well as the Hyundai Kona Electric and the Mercedes EQC on the SUV side.
Hydrogen car: a sparse range to say the least
Few manufacturers are convinced of the potential of hydrogen. So that the number of vehicles available can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Besides the pioneers that are the Toyota Mirai and the Hyundai Nexo, we can add to the list the Mercedes GLC F-Cell and the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell … and that's about all that seems to be worth the detour now. Under these conditions, we understand better why the network of hydrogen stations is struggling to develop.
The purchase price, a psychological obstacle difficult to overcome
While clean vehicles are unquestionably more economical to use, the fact remains that a psychological barrier remains: the purchase price. With an entry ticket 10,000 to 20,000 € higher than for an equivalent thermal, skipping the electric or hybrid can be a very complicated choice, ecological bonus or not.
Toyota Yaris // Vytautas Kielaitis / Shutterstock.com
Hybrids at all costs
If, at less than 20,000 €, the Suzuki Swift and the Suzuki Baleno have the merit of existing, they are not really worth the detour. This is not the case with the Toyota Yaris which is in the same price range. But with the exception of these three models, the hybrid offer revolves more around vehicles whose price is between 25,000 and 35,000 €, like the Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid, the Toyota Corolla, the Lexus CT200h, Toyota C-HR or Kia Niro Hybrid. Nothing prevents us from going upmarket either, with prices happily exceeding € 50,000, thanks in particular to the Lexus RX450hL or the Lexus LS 500h.
A high entry ticket for plug-in hybrids
As a general rule, there is between € 5,000 and € 10,000 difference between a “classic” hybrid and its rechargeable version. It is for this reason that the entry level is around 35,000 €, in the presence of the Hyundai Ioniq Plugin, the Toyota Prius Rechargeable or the Kia Niro Hybrid Rechargeable. For a mid-range model, the entry ticket is however more around 50,000 €, as proven by the BMW 330e, the Volkswagen Passat GTE, the Mercedes C300e or even the DS7 Crossback E-Tense. Count even more than 90,000 € to offer you the "cream of the crop" that are the Porsche Cayenne E-Hybrid, the Mercedes S-Class 560, the Range Rover Sport P400e or the Volvo XC90.
Electric discovers the entry level
This is news that deserves to be quoted: Finally, the market has relatively efficient electric cars around € 20,000., in the presence of the Skoda Citigo-e and the Seat Mii which both claim around 260 kilometers of WLTP autonomy. The two city dwellers nevertheless remain exceptions, insofar as prices are generally around 40,000 € to have a competitive model. If the latest generation Renault Zoé is slightly below this price (with the purchase of the battery), this is not the case for the Hyundai Kona electric, the Tesla Model 3 and the Kia e-Niro. Large high-end SUVs are also legion on the market, as evidenced by the Audi e-tron, the Jaguar I-Pace, the Mercedes EQC 400 and the Tesla Model X, whose prices happily exceed € 70,000.
Hydrogen vehicles still too expensive
Decidedly, hydrogen cars seem to have few arguments to make. In addition to a limited offer, an almost non-existent network of stations and a famellic range, the hydrogen models are not very competitive from a pricing point of view. The first models are displayed at a price between 50,000 and 60,000 €, in the person of the Mercedes GLC F-Cell and the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell. It will even take almost 80,000 € to afford the Toyota Mirai. Enough to cool even the most convinced of the potential of hydrogen.
Government aid that is less generous
To reduce their purchase price and boost their sales, plug-in and electric hybrid cars have always relied largely on government aid. But with the tightening of eligibility criteria – whether on the conversion premium or the ecological bonus – the financial advantage may no longer be a decisive criterion for many motorists.
For hybrids, (almost) no more help
For some time now, hybrid cars have no longer been eligible for the ecological bonus. Even more serious, some models can even be struck with an ecological penalty. With the new conditions governing the conversion premium, the bonus and the ecological penalty, the trigger threshold for the penalty is now 116 grams of CO2/ km. It is still possible to receive up to € 3,000 conversion premium, but provided that your tax income per unit is less than € 13,489. Suffice to say that this concerns only a few – not to say none – of motorists likely to buy a hybrid.
Plug-in hybrid: an ecological bonus subject to conditions
Since January 1, 2018, plug-in hybrid cars cannot benefit from the ecological bonus either. They nevertheless make it possible to take advantage of the conversion premium under slightly more “flexible” conditions than hybrids. Provided that the vehicle emits between 21 and 50 grams of CO2/ km, you can touch up to 2,500 €
Aid reduced for electric vehicles
If electric cars still allow you to touch the ecological bonus, its amount now mainly depends on the value of the vehicle purchased :
- the bonus of € 6,000 is maintained for electric cars less than € 45,000;
- it increases to € 3,000 for vehicles costing between € 45,000 and € 60,000 (and for companies purchasing a model of less than € 60,000);
- it is purely and simply deleted for models over € 60,000.
With regard to the conversion premium, the amount also depends on the tax income per share of the buyer: 2,500 or 5,000 € (if income greater than or less than 13,489 €). What to put a brake on a market of the electric and the plug-in hybrid which had experienced a slight improvement in 2019.
A bonus maintained above € 60,000 for hydrogens
As surprising as it may seem, it is hydrogen cars that seem to have the best financial benefits. If the conversion bonus and the ecological bonus work on the same principle as for electric vehicles, a small nuance should be noted: hydrogen models over € 60,000 allow you to receive an ecological bonus of € 3,000 (4). What give interest to technology? Nothing is less sure.
(1) Energy Barometer 2019 – Argus Conseil
(2) Does hydrogen have a future as an automotive fuel? – The Argus
(3) Guide 2019 – All hybrids and plug-in hybrids on the market, which one to buy? – Caradisiac
(4) Ecological bonus: new methods – Ministry of Ecological and Inclusive Transition