Powertrains & fuel types explained
From standard gas to alternative power options—understand the ever-growing set of powertrain and engine choices for your next vehicle.
Understanding the different fuel types
What is it?
A battery and electric motor are used for propulsion instead of a conventional internal combustion engine (ICE)
A conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) powered by gasoline combined with a supplemental battery that can be plugged in to recharge
A conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) powered by gasoline combined with a supplemental battery that doesn't need to be plugged in
A conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) powered by gasoline
A conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) powered by diesel fuel
_No concern about gas price variation
_Can operate on electric for daily driving but fallback to ICE for longer drives
_Good fuel economy without the need to worry about recharging
_Widespread availability of gas stations for refueling
_Higher levels of torque than similarly sized gasoline engines
_More limited range can be stressful
_Widespread public charging infrastructure remains unestablished
_Susceptible to lower range in cold weather
_Heavier weight of having two powertrains in place
_Required regular maintenance of an ICE
_Primarily geared toward efficiency so few performance options
_Required regular maintenance of an ICE
_Typical regular maintenance
_Susceptible to lower performance in cold weather
Cost to drive 25 miles
2022 Ford F-150 4WD Lightning
no comparable PHEV in this case
2022 Ford F-150 4WD Hybrid
2022 Ford F-150 4WD 3.5L gas
2021 Ford F-150 4WD 3.0L diesel
Tesla Model 3
Mazda MX-30 EV
Kia Niro Plug-in
Toyota Camry Hybrid
Dodge Grand Caravan
Research & shop
Technically known as battery electric vehicles, fully electric BEVs are gaining popularity as more charging infrastructure is built and people move away from conventional gas-only vehicles.
What is a BEV?
BEVs use a battery and electric motors for propulsion instead of a conventional internal combustion engine (ICE). While BEVs do have regenerative braking for minimal recharging, they need to be plugged-in to fully recharge their batteries. For long-distance driving, there are a variety of manufacturer and third-party-owned charging networks nationwide—with more coming online every day.
An electric vehicle could be right for you if…
You tend to drive short distances more often, and infrequently drive more than 200 miles
You have access to charging infrastructure and/or the ability to charge in-home or at-work
Learn more about BEVs
Check out some great resources:
Besides the environmental benefits, perks like cutting out oil changes and trips to the gas station are why BEVs are growing in popularity.
Formally known as plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, PHEVs are well liked because they mostly operate in EV-only mode, but can engage the internal combustion engine (ICE) when driving longer distances or needing more power.
What is a PHEV?
Plug-in hybrids feature a conventional ICE motor and supplemental battery that is paired to an electric motor. As you drive, the vehicle determines which power source is best suited for your current driving to balance efficiency and performance. PHEVs are similar to regular hybrids (HEVs) with a conventional engine and electric motor but have two primary differences:
PHEVs can be driven in pure electric vehicle (EV) mode for an extended period
PHEVs can be plugged in to recharge their battery (but most don't have to be—the battery can recharge as a typical hybrid does)
Learn more about PHEVs
Check out these great resources:
For running errands or trips near home, PHEVs are great because you can operate only on battery, but when it's time to drive farther you can use the traditional gas engine.
Formally known as hybrid electric vehicles, HEVs are popular because of their impressive fuel economy with no need to plug in the battery.
What is an HEV?
HEVs feature a conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) and supplemental battery that is paired to an electric motor. The car's software determines when to use the engine-only, battery-only, or both combined for increase performance, though the driver typically can’t select which mode. HEVs don't need to be plugged in when the battery gets low, as they can charge by drawing power from the engine or through regenerative braking.
A hybrid could be right for you if…
You frequently drive in stop-and-go traffic but don't want a BEV or PHEV because a hybrid provides you EV power in traffic without any charging limitations
You want better gas mileage but don’t want to worry about stopping to charge your car
Learn more about HEVs
Check out these great resources:
HEVs are great because of their impressive fuel economy with no need to plug in the battery. They are available in many makes, models, sizes, and prices.
Technically known as gasoline-powered internal combustion engines; commonly just as gas engines, or just standard cars, ICE vehicles are available in most body styles and price points.
What is a gasoline-powered ICE?
Most vehicles on the road have a gasoline-powered internal combustion engine (ICE), the standard for passenger vehicles over the last few decades. Recent innovations with direct injection and turbocharging have made gasoline-powered engines more economical than ever with some impressive fuel economy figures.
With a gasoline-powered engine, air enters the engine and combines with fuel, which the engine's cylinders then compress. The engine's spark plugs then ignite, creating pressure to turn the crankshaft and ultimately move the drive wheels of the vehicle.
Learn more about gasoline-powered ICE vehicles
Check out our gas-powered ICE vehicle inventory
Because of their widespread adoption, access to fueling, parts, and service is more commonplace than HEVs, PHEVs, and BEVs. Plus, you can find one in practically every price, style, and size range.
Technically known as diesel-powered internal combustion engines, these engines offer higher torque well suited for trucks and SUVs.
What is a diesel-powered ICE?
A diesel-powered internal combustion engine (ICE) has one major difference from a gasoline-powered ICE—the fuel type. A diesel-powered engine uses highly compressed fuel instead of spark plugs. The compressed fuel creates enough pressure to turn the crankshaft, ultimately moving the drive wheels of the vehicle.
Diesel fuel contains more energy per gallon than gasoline giving diesel-powered engines higher levels of torque, making them well-suited for towing.
Learn more about diesel-powered ICE vehicles
Here are some helpful resources:
If towing or hauling are common for you, a diesel-powered vehicle could be a good fit for you.
FAQs about powertrains and fuel types
Full electric vehicles powered by an electric motor and battery typically have the lowest operating cost (though a variety of factors influence personal operating cost).
For example, the EPA estimates the cost to drive an all-electric 2022 Ford F-150 Lightning 4WD for 25 miles would be $1.83, while the cost to drive an all-gas 2022 Ford F-150 4WD with 3.5l V6 for 25 miles would be $4.33.
Your personal results will vary based upon local electricity rates, gasoline costs, and vehicle usage. Figures are based on EPA estimates for when a vehicle is sold as new. The cost to drive 25 miles may vary for reasons like driving conditions and vehicle history. Unless specified, the figures are for vehicles equipped with an automatic transmission. Full details are available at fueleconomy.gov.
With the proper cable (typically included with the car), you can plug into a common 120V power outlet and gain 3-5 miles of range per hour charged. If you drive 20-30 miles per day, you can plug your BEV in each night and regain the range used during the day.
If you want a faster charge you can explore upgrading to a 240V system, which typically provides 10-20 miles of range per hour charged. For any modifications to your home’s power system, consult an electrician to add 240V outlets, installed charging boxes, and ensure your home can support the proper amperage.
You do not necessarily have to plug-in a PHEV*, though it provides the most efficient charging source. The battery can recharge by drawing power from the engine or through regenerative braking.
You can learn more about PHEVs, including popular models, in our Plug-in Hybrid research guide.
* Some PHEVs, like the Audi Q5 Plug-in Hybrid, do require plugging in to fully recharge their battery.
Flex fuel is a fuel mixture of ethanol and gasoline. The most common type is E85, a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline, though other varieties exist.
Ethanol is made from renewable sources such as corn, sugar cane, and other grains, so it rose to popularity as a means to reduce oil dependence; however, studies debate its energy efficiency (meaning it may require more ethanol to go the same distance as gasoline).
A hydrogen fuel cell combines hydrogen with oxygen to produce electric, water, and heat—they operate like an electric car but don’t need to be plugged in. Vehicles like the Hyundai Nexo, Toyota Mirai, and Honda Clarity are powered by hydrogen fuel cells; however, their availability is limited (as is access to hydrogen refueling stations).
A mild hybrid is a vehicle with a conventional engine plus a larger 48-volt battery system that powers an electric motor for accessory systems like air conditioning, infotainment, etc. This results in greater efficiency because the gas engine is utilized only for accelerating the vehicle, while the battery and motor handle other responsibilities.
The battery in a mild hybrid captures energy through regenerative braking and does not need to be plugged in; however, unlike conventional hybrids and plug-in hybrids, the electric motor does not propel the vehicle.
EV battery life depends on many things, including the make, model, use, condition, and maintenance of the vehicle. The battery will experience some degradation over time (just as internal combustion engines experience some degradation as they age); however, a majority of electrified vehicles on US roadways are younger than 8 years so we don’t yet fully know.
The US government mandates manufacturers provide warranties for the batteries in BEVs, PHEVs, and HEVs for 8 years or 100,000 miles, whichever happens first. You can read more on the EPA’s website.
There are several types of charging available for your electric vehicle:
- Level 1 charging at home (standard home wall outlet): a common 120V power outlet provides about 3-5 miles of range per hour charged. A good practice of many BEV and PHEV owners is to charge overnight, where you can achieve a 30-mile range in 6-8 hours, so you don’t start your day with an empty battery.
- Level 2 charging at home (upgraded home wall outlet + charging box): a conventional 240V power outlet—like one your washing machine uses—provides power at a faster 10-20 miles of range per hour charged. You will need a charging regulator box to protect the vehicle against things like power surges, which can cost $500-$1000+ before installation. For any modifications to your home’s power system, consult an electrician to add 240V outlets and ensure your home can support the proper amperage.
- Level 2 charging in public (public charging networks): public chargers can also be used on BEVs and PHEVs, though for a PHEV you should evaluate if the cost is justified—because the price of charging at public chargers varies, and it may be cheaper to simply use the gasoline already in your car.
- Direct current (DC) fast charging: DC fast charging uses direct current (DC) electricity to charge the battery of an electric vehicle. DC fast charging is much faster than Level 1 and Level 2 charging, charging an EV battery up to 80% in about 30 minutes. It’s an ideal option for longer trips and for charging an EV quickly when time is limited. PHEVs do not support direct current fast charging (also known as Level 3 charging); that would be like trying to fill a small bucket with a fire hose.
The federal government is not mandating a switch to full EVs. The federal government is offering incentives for EV ownership and making investments in nationwide charging infrastructure, but no federal mandate or requirements to stop selling gas-powered vehicles currently exist.
The cost to fix a mechanical issue depends on what the actual issue is, though electric motors are generally less mechanically complex than internal combustion engines.
No, you do not have to pay for any subscriptions to drive an electric vehicle; however, some manufacturers offer subscription-based services such as access to technology features (regardless of whether it is a BEV, HEV, PHEV, or an ICE vehicle).
Energy must be used to get any vehicle up to speed, and typically that energy comes from either a fuel source or battery pack in your car.
With a traditional braking system, pushing your foot on the pedal triggers the brake components to compress together, creating resistance to slow your vehicle's wheels. Any energy you had used to get up to speed is then lost as heat.
With a regenerative braking system, your wheels are connected to a motor that recaptures some of the energy used to get your vehicle up to speed, which is then converted back to stored power in the battery—hence the name 'regenerative'.
Most electric vehicles, including full EVs, HEVs, and PHEVs, feature both braking systems and allow you to select whether to use both or only regenerative braking. Because most regenerative braking systems kick in immediately after releasing your accelerator pedal (no need to apply the brake pedal) you can drive while using your traditional brakes significantly less often; this is commonly called one-pedal driving.
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