Electric Cars and Hybrid Cars

The ultimate beginner’s guide to electric and hybrid cars

Electric cars have been growing more popular and this trend looks set to continue over the next few years. In October 2020, 49% of our Members said they’d consider an electric vehicle (EV) when next changing car.1

So, we put together this guide to electric and hybrid cars, to help answer all your questions about electric vehicles, from how they work to how to charge them.

In this article

Parked electric cars being charged

What are electric vehicles?

Electric vehicles (EVs) power their wheels either partially or entirely through electricity. They’re also known as alternative fuel vehicles.

They use either an electric motor by itself, or an electric motor together with a petrol or diesel engine.

EVs help to reduce the amount of carbon emissions linked to climate change that road traffic produces. In fact, cars powered entirely by electric batteries don't produce any exhaust emissions while they drive.

That's why the government and car manufacturers are pushing EVs in order to meet their environmental targets.

How do electric vehicles work?

EVs work by having a traction battery pack (or stack) which powers an electric motor. The electric motor(s) usually drive one axle – either front- or rear- wheel drive. But some models add a motor to the other axle or even have a motor on each wheel, for 4-wheel drive.

There is also a controller which controls how much power is sent to the motor when you put your foot down, which helps you manage your speed.

The battery pack(s) can be recharged by plugging into an electric power source or through energy generated when driving, depending on the type of electric car or vehicle you have.

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Drive an electric car? Our breakdown cover includes EVs so we can help get you back on the road.

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

Hybrid cars and battery electric cars are both types of EV. What we should ask is, "What's the difference between an all-electric car and a hybrid car?"..

An all-electric car, or zero-emission car, is powered entirely by electricity and has 1 or more electric motor. A hybrid car has both an electric motor and a conventional petrol or diesel engine.

Here’s a more in-depth look at both types of vehicles:

1. Zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs)

ZEVs don't have a combustion engine at all and their wheels are powered by electric motor(s) all the time. There are 2 types. The main difference between them is where the electricity to power the motor(s) comes from.

  • Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) – these are the most common type of ZEV. They have a large 'traction battery' that you have to charge by plugging into an external source. They're also capable of generating some electricity through braking.
  • Fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) – these are less common and use hydrogen. The hydrogen combines with oxygen from the air in a fuel cell which produces electricity to power the car.

Some popular models of BEVs are:

  • Tesla Model 3
  • Jaguar I-Pace
  • Audi e-tron
  • Hyundai Kona
  • Ford Mustang Mach-e
  • Nissan Leaf
  • Kia e-Niro
  • VW ID.3
  • Renault Zoe
2. Hybrid electric vehicles

Hybrid cars work by having both a battery-powered electric motor and a petrol or diesel internal combustion engine.

Most will be able to drive with zero-emissions (electric only), but how far depends on the size of the battery and whether you can plug-in to recharge. To get the best out of a hybrid, you'd ideally use electric for short journeys or when you're driving in urban areas. You'd rely on the combustion engine for longer journeys or if the battery's low on charge.

There are 4 main types:

  • Mild hybrid electric vehicle – these are sometimes called electrified vehicles or battery assisted hybrid vehicles. They use an electric motor and battery to assist the combustion engine but have no zero-emission (electric only) capability.
  • Hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) – there are different types of HEVs – series and parallel. They're all capable of some zero-emission (electric only) driving, and many qualify as ultra low emission vehicles (ULEVs). You can't charge HEV batteries externally. Instead, they rely on electricity generated by braking, cruising and the petrol or diesel engine.
  • Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) – these have bigger batteries and can be plugged in to charge externally. PHEVs offer a longer, more practical zero-emissions (electric-only) range than HEVs. Depending on your lifestyle, you might find that you only use the combustion engine for occasional longer journeys.
  • Range-extended electric vehicles (REEVs) – the wheels are driven directly by electric motors and the battery can be charged by plugging in. But REEVs also have a small combustion engine. It runs a generator that produces electricity, so you can drive longer journeys without having to plug-in. Like HEVs and PHEVs, REEVs can be driven in 'electric only' mode.

Some popular models of PHEVs are:

  • BMW 330e
  • Peugeot 508 Hybrid 225
  • Hyundai IQONIQ
  • Toyota Prius
  • Ford Kuga PHEV
  • Audi Q5 TFSI e

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Are electric cars good for the environment?

Hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles could slash carbon emissions from transport. In turn, that'll help the government hit their lower carbon dioxide (CO2) targets. When driven on electricity only, they help reduce nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and other street-level pollution too.

BEVs produce even less CO2. They emit none when they drive (which is why they're called 'zero-emission vehicles'). But we do need to take into account manufacturing the batteries and producing the electricity that charges them.

A common question is: are electric cars worse for the environment? The answer is no – find out why below.

Do electric cars produce fewer emissions?

In 2019, BloombergNEF found that battery-powered cars create 40% less CO2 than petrol engines. Their study even considered manufacturing and assumed the electricity used to charge the cars came from coal.

That makes electric cars more eco-friendly than traditional cars. And it’s even better for the environment if we charge cars using renewable energy sources, like wind and solar, instead of fossil fuels.

In the UK, we already produce a lot of our electricity through renewable sources so there’s a big benefit to switching to electric cars here.

Will electric cars stop transport pollution?

There’s more to think about than just exhaust fumes. Pollution also comes from tiny particles of brake dust, tyre and road surface released by wear and tear.

When it comes to pollution from tyre and road wear, electric cars are similar to traditional petrol or diesel ones. But pollution from brake dust is much lower because of the way EVs work.

They use regenerative braking to recharge their batteries. When you take your foot off the accelerator, the electric motor(s) act as generators turned by the road wheels.

The generator turns mechanical energy into electrical energy and in doing so, slows the vehicle down. You'll find that you don't need to use the brakes as much, especially in stop-start city driving.

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What’s the range of an electric car?

Wondering how far you can drive on a single charge? As technology advances, newer electric cars tend to have bigger batteries and longer ranges. A realistic range of around 200 miles between charges isn't unusual now.

Here are the official ranges of popular electric cars (based on standard models – many also have extended range options):

Car model Official range
Jaguar I-Pace 286 miles
Tesla Model 3 278 miles
Ford Mustang Mach-e 273 miles
Hyundai Kona Electric 180 miles
Nissan Leaf 168 miles


What’s the range of a hybrid car?

PHEVs currently have an electric (zero-emissions) range of up to around 30 miles but this is expected to rise over the next few years. Remember that they also have a petrol or diesel engine too, so range is effectively unlimited – assuming you can find a fuel station.

That means PHEVs are likely to suit lifestyles involving a mix of short and longer journeys.

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How do I charge an electric car?

We know a lot of people worry that charging an electric car might be difficult and inconvenient.

Of our Members who said they wouldn’t consider an EV for their next car change in October 2020, 61% said this was because they didn’t think there were enough public chargepoints.1

But this worry may be unfounded. According to Zap Map, the UK has over 16,000 charging locations with over 44,000 connectors.

Charging at home

Most charging happens at home. It’s the cheapest and most convenient way of charging if you’ve got access to off-street parking and power. Here’s what you need to know:

  • You can charge most electric cars from a standard 13-amp socket (but it’ll be very slow and some manufacturers don't recommend it - it's generally better to use a specific EV charging point).
  • The Government’s Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme offers grants which cover up to 75% of the cost of one chargepoint and its installation, but the grant cap is set at £350 including VAT.
  • You can get 3.6kw to 22kw chargers, but chargers above 7.4kw require a 3 phase electricity supply which not many people have at home. Many people therefore opt for a 7kw one like the BP Pulse unit, which provides quick charging at home. A 7kw fast charger will charge a 30kwh battery in around 3 to 5 hours.
  • Some units have smart charging options that save money by charging at cheaper times of the day.

We’ve partnered with home charging experts, EO, to offer a £50 discount on their charging points. Discover more about charging an electric car at home

Charging at work

Many workplaces help employees switch to greener driving. The Workplace Charging Scheme can help with up-front costs, so speak to your HR department to get the ball rolling.

Charging on the road

You’ll find plenty of car charging points when you’re on the move. But different providers may have different payment methods, like an app, pre-paid card or fob. 

On the road, you’ll come across a mixture of chargers:

  • Rapid chargers (>50kw) can charge compatible batteries to 80% full in around 30 minutes or less. Rapid chargers all have the charging cable tethered to the charger. They can be found in service stations and motorway service areas.
  • Fast chargers (7kw to 22kw) take between 1 and 5 hours to charge a compatible EV, depending on the size of the battery and speed of the charger. They're sometimes called 'destination chargers' because they're found in places like car parks, shopping centres and tourist destinations where you'd normally leave your car for an hour or more.
  • Slow chargers (2.4kw to 6kw) have been installed in many homes and workplaces but charging can take over 12 hours.

Learn about the different EV chargers in our electric car chargepoint guide

The number of charging points is going to increase over the next few years. You’ll see more rapid chargers at motorway service areas and petrol stations, more charging spaces in car parks, and extra on-street chargepoints in residential areas, which might be built into lampposts.

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If you break down in an electric or hybrid car, we've got you covered.

What's the cost of charging electric cars?

How much it costs to charge your hybrid or BEV depends on a few different factors. The energy tariff, the location of the charging point and the size of your car's battery will all have an impact.

Charging at home will usually be the cheapest option (unless your employer lets you plug in for free). Rapid chargers at motorway service stations are some of the most expensive chargepoints, costing around £6 for 30 minutes' use.

You can calculate the cost of charging your car using this formula:

Size of battery (kWh) x Electricity cost of your supplier (pence per kilowatt hour) = Cost to charge an electric car

Here are the estimated costs to charge some popular EVs at home, based on the national average energy tariff of 14p per kWh:

Model Battery size Cost to fully charge
Jaguar I-Pace 90 kWh £12.60
Ford Mustang Mach-e 68 kWh £9.52
Tesla Model 3 53 kWh £7.42
Nissan Leaf 40 kWh £5.60
Hyundai Kona Electric 39 kWh £5.46

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What are the benefits of an electric car?

Here’s why an electric car could be a good choice:

  • It can cost as little as 2p per mile to power an EV.
  • BEV drivers pay no vehicle excise duty (VED), and are also exempt from the surcharge which applies to most cars over £40,000.
  • BEVs aren’t currently subject to the Congestion Charge in London.
  • BEVs are better for the environment – they produce zero exhaust emissions as you drive.
  • Many plug-in hybrids cost about the same as the equivalent diesel car.
  • Government grants are available for certain low-emission vehicles.
  • EV drivers also profit from Benefit in Kind (BIK) savings.

If you do buy an electric car, we can provide electric car insurance and electric car breakdown cover

Do EVs cost less in emissions charges and taxes?

Some, but not all, HEVs and PHEVs are ultra low emission vehicles (ULEV). To be considered a ULEV, the vehicle must produce equal to or less than 75g/km of CO2. 

Whether you have to pay emissions charges or are eligible for tax exemptions will depend on how much CO2 your car produces in official tests.

As BEVs are zero-emission vehicles, they benefit from no VED or Road Tax.

Clean Air Zones and Ultra Low Emission Zones

Electric vehicles will all meet the minimum requirements of Euro 4 petrol and Euro 6 diesel for CAZ and London's Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). These minimums are based on the Euro emissions standards.

London Congestion Charge

As far as the London congestion charge is concerned: only vehicles that meet the Euro 6 standard (petrol and diesel), emit no more than 75g/km of Co2 and have a minimum 20 mile zero emission capable range will qualify for the 100% cleaner vehicle discount.

Taxes and Benefit in Kind

The company car tax or BIK tax for zero-emissions vehicles currently stands at just 1%. It will rise to 2% in 2022/23 tax year and is set to remain at that level for the following 3 years.

There are therefore significant savings to be had on BIK tax compared to petrol and diesel cars, which are subject to higher costs due to emissions.

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Should I buy an electric car?

There's a lot of things to consider when buying an electric car, but we think it’s a good idea. AA President Edmund King is keen to encourage more people to drive EVs.

Many drivers still feel priced out of the electric car market, so more has to be done to encourage their uptake. Scrapping VAT, as happened in Norway, is the best way to accelerate their growth and give consumers confidence.

Edmund King OBE, AA President

Looking for more information on EVs? Check out our electric car guides, covering topics from maintenance to insurance.

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1 Based on AA Populus Survey in October 2020 with 16,201 respondents

Published:12 August 2019 | Updated: 1 July 2021 | Author: The AA