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In every industry, buzzwords and technical phrases can confuse and alienate the uninitiated. The car industry is as guilty as any other. At best, jargon around ‘powertrain electrification’ takes some explaining; at worst, the relentless use of techno-speak and acronyms discourages people from finding out more.
The growing list of available powertrains – the system that propels every car – can take some getting used to. Do you know your HEV from your MHEV
, or PHEV? Or your EV from your ICE?
More to the point, what do they do? And why should you care?
As governments around the world start planning the gradual phasing-out of gasoline and diesel internal combustion engines, it helps to understand some of the key technologies – the odds are one of them is likely to power your next car.
Take the humble ‘mild hybrid’ – or Mild Hybrid Electric Vehicle (MHEV), to give it its full moniker. This type of hybrid car is the closest you will get to the kind of car you’ve been driving for years.
The driving experience will be immediately familiar. Propelled by a normal gasoline or diesel engine, mild hybrids are typically fitted with a small electric motor which subtly, imperceptibly boosts efficiency.
Battery-powered, the electric motor takes some strain off the engine as you accelerate or start the car. Then it recharges the battery when you lift your foot off the gas, using engine revolutions to recharge the battery.
It would take the deductive powers of a fully qualified electrical engineer to notice the system in operation. The slight reduction in monthly fuel bills, however, might be a little more obvious.
Not to be mistaken with mild-hybrids, the hybrid electric vehicle (HEV – or just ‘hybrid’, for short) takes things a step further. With a more powerful electric motor recharged by a larger battery, hybrids benefit from a greater degree of electrification to reduce fuel consumption and emissions.
The Kia Niro Hybrid is one such example, with a 1.56 kWh battery on-call to support the engine. Hybrids can even run solely on electric power, emissions-free and nearly silent, for minutes at a time. The same regenerative tech means the car tops up its battery when the motor isn’t in use.
Hybrid and mild-hybrid cars typically can’t be plugged-in to recharge. They take care of that themselves, making them the ideal fuel-saving device for anyone without easy access to a charging source.
"If your area doesn’t have great charging infrastructure, then hybrids can make more sense.” says Pablo Martinez Masip, Director of Product Planning and Pricing at Kia Europe.
“With these vehicles it’s easy to tell if you are driving efficiently, as the car will provide longer electric-only driving range. For some people this becomes a bit of a game, where they try to beat their record every day.”
In researching your next car, you might come across the ‘plug-in hybrid’ – the PHEV. Though equipped with an internal combustion engine, these vehicles also feature an electric motor and rely even more on low-emissions electric power than standard hybrids.
As the moniker implies, they should be plugged in from time-to-time to replenish and then exploit the energy stored in their far larger batteries – typically around five or six times larger than the battery pack found in a conventional hybrid.
PHEVs provide drivers with silent, zero-emissions electric propulsion for around 50 to 60 kilometres (31 to 37 miles) – more than sufficient to complete most commutes without calling upon the combustion engine.
“The engine is always there if I need it for a longer drive,” says Kevin Davies from Hampshire in the UK, who recently replaced a gasoline car for a Kia Niro PHEV. “I’ve wanted to own an electric vehicle for a while, but I was worried about running out of charge on long journeys. A plug-in hybrid means I can do short daily drives on electric power alone, but the engine is there as a safety net if I need to go further.”
And charging need not be the problem it once was, with most PHEVs offered alongside a home charging unit. “I tend to charge it at home overnight, using cheap off-peak power,” says Kevin. “It means I leave the house every day with enough battery to do my daily mileage. I don’t visit fuel stations very often anymore.”
Charging a PHEV can take a matter of minutes from a DC fast charger, although many owners are more likely to recharge the battery pack from their own homes. From a conventional household ‘AC’ energy supply, this can take between two to five hours – perfect for an overnight charge while the car isn’t in use.
Pablo Martinez Masip says PHEV’s can be a great gateway to full EV ownership: “If people have the ability to install an electric chargepoint at home, or access to workplace charging, they can enjoy the electric-only driving during their daily commute, and still benefit from the range offered by the combustion engine when they go on longer trips.”
“In future the difference between filling up with petrol and charging a car will be minimal, making the transition from PHEV to EV even smoother.”
And what if you want the fully electric, ‘zero tailpipe emissions’ experience? You’ll need to get acquainted with the EV – the electric vehicle. With no internal combustion engine, EVs are powered purely by whisper-quiet electric motors fed by on-board batteries.
With EVs, you no longer need to hear about efficiency stats characterised by fuel consumption, like ‘miles per gallon’ or ‘litres per 100 kilometres’. Here, it’s all about range – how far you can go on a full charge.
It’s also all about where and when you recharge. “I bought an EV because it was easy to drive, it was environmentally-friendly, and it saved me money on running costs,” says Emilio from Madrid. “I recharge my car every three days or so, often while I visit a shopping centre or supermarket.”
Like PHEVs, EVs can be charged at home, at work, or anywhere else where electricity is within reach of a charging cable. The process can take longer than recharging a smaller PHEV battery, but recent improvements to charging and battery technology means it’s possible to recharge while you stop for a coffee.
The Kia e-Soul’s 64 kWh battery, for instance, can be recharged from 20% to 80% capacity from a ‘DC’ fast charger in under one hour. Although the growing range capabilities of many EVs means that drivers leaving the house every morning with a fully charged battery are unlikely to need to stop for a quick top-up.
And as city centres across Europe begin to turn the screw on internal combustion engines with expensive low-emissions zones, there are other advantages. “In Madrid, there are a raft of benefits for EV drivers,” explains Emilio. “We get free parking, free charging, and even access to restricted areas of the city centre.”
Yet the benefits of driving an electric car transcend practicalities and running costs. “The differences between driving this and my previous car are huge. It’s wonderfully relaxing and quiet to drive, particularly in town – if I’m stressed, driving my car really helps.
“I probably won’t own another petrol or diesel car.”
For the fast-growing number of converts like Emilio, experiencing pure-electric power changes perceptions for good.