Contributing Author: Craig Fitzgerald
Technology is on a relentless march, but in a lot of ways, the automotive landscape in 2021 shares a lot with the turn of the last century. This August, the 18th green at the 70th annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance just showed an entire class of the early electric vehicles that were offered as the 19th century gave way to the 20th. You don’t have steam-powered cars to choose from in 2021, but you have many more options that took a century to come to fruition. We’re providing some help determining which one is right for you.
Right now, you have many options to think about when choosing a new vehicle, and sometimes three of those are available not only from the same manufacturer but the same model of vehicle.
Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) – Gasoline
Best for: long distance commutes
Not a whole lot of explanation required here. Gas-fired ICEs are easily the most plentiful propulsion choice, with the largest network of refueling stations at around 150,000 outlets from coast to coast.
Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) – Diesel:
Best for: Trailer towing, heavy payloads
Diesel engines are also powered by internal combustion, but instead of relying upon a spark plug to ignite a mixture of air and fuel in the combustion chamber, a diesel engine uses nothing other than compression to cause the fuel and air mixture to ignite. Diesel-powered vehicles now use additional aftertreatment to reduce particulate matter and break the harmful Nitrous Oxide (NOx) emissions down into nitrogen and water. Diesel is still most prevalent in trucks because the torque provided by a diesel engine is a major advantage in towing. Diesel offers the second most plentiful options for refueling across the country. About 55 percent of gas stations in the United States (around 82,500) offer diesel pumps.
Best for: Just about anyone who wants to save fuel but drive a conventional vehicle
Also known as “mild hybrid,” “power-assist hybrid,” “battery assist hybrid” or “BAHV,” light hybrids provide some of the fuel-saving benefits of a hybrid with a lot less technology. Light hybrids will typically shut the engine off when the vehicle is stopped or coasting and use regenerative braking when the brake pedal is applied. Unlike a traditional hybrid, a light hybrid will only accelerate under power provided by an internal combustion engine. Vehicles like the Volvo XC60 and XC90 are both light hybrids, which allows Volvo to suggest that it no longer produces a vehicle powered solely by internal combustion.
Best for: City commuters who often need to take longer trips
At this point, you’re probably familiar with what a hybrid is. It uses a gasoline engine and an electric motor in parallel to provide the benefits of an electric vehicle in heavy traffic, while also providing long-distance cruising with an internal combustion engine. Traditional hybrids have smaller battery packs that are charged as the engine runs normally, so there’s no need to plug the vehicle in. The first parallel hybrid to arrive in the United States was the Honda Insight in 1999, followed by the Toyota Prius seven months later.
Best For: Anyone who has considered an EV, but is still unsure of the range
There’s a lot of confusion about what a plug-in hybrid is, and how it differs from a conventional hybrid. First, a plug-in hybrid — as the name suggests — can be charged by a Level 1 or Level 2 charger, storing energy in batteries that typically range between 3 and 10 kW. Second, you can choose to operate a plug-in hybrid solely as an EV. For example, if you live 14 miles from your office, and your Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid has a 32 mile EV range, you can make a round trip to work on nothing but EV power. However, when you head off on a three-hour trip to Maine, you can do so without stopping for an hour every 250 miles to recharge. The gas engine and the hybrid drivetrain work in tandem, just like a conventional hybrid.
Electric Vehicle (EV):
Best For: People who have predictable commutes
As the name implies, an electric vehicle is primarily powered by electricity, stored in a large number of batteries. As the field at Pebble Beach showed, EVs were a vital part of early personal transportation in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but their range limitations kept them from wide adoption. Those challenges continued up until the 21st century when battery technology finally allowed range beyond about 100 miles. Many EVs today — like the Chevrolet Bolt, the Ford Mustang Mach-E, and the Nissan Leaf Plus — offer battery range between 250 to 300 miles, thanks to 62 to 100 kW battery packs. A dwindling number of EVs have gasoline “range extenders.” The only one left at this point is the BMW i3. Where it differs from a hybrid is that a range extender is purely a generator that provides electricity to charge the battery, rather than working in parallel with the electric motor. At the moment, there are about 100,000 public EV charging stations in the United States, not including Level 2 chargers installed in private homes.
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles:
Best For: Southern Californians
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are electric vehicles, but instead of relying on batteries, they use a hydrogen fuel cell to power the electric motor. They offer a number of advantages over EVs: There’s no battery life to be concerned with. They can be refueled in about the same time as refueling a gas engine. There are no harmful emissions caused by the electric generating plants that provide electric power. the major disadvantage is that there are currently only 45 hydrogen fueling stations in the entire country, and 43 of them are in California. The Toyota Marai and the Hyundai Nexo are the only hydrogen fuel cell vehicles available currently.
Whatever vehicle you choose in 2021 and beyond, the industry is working to be sure that it extracts as much energy as possible from whatever source of power it uses. Internal combustion engines are using auto stop/start technology to avoid wasting fuel from idling, and more and more hybrids are offering modes to allow for EV only driving for short periods. It’s a new world, and your choices are greater than ever.
Craig Fitzgerald began his automotive writing career in 1996, at AutoSite.com, one of the first online resources for car buyers. Over the years, he’s written for the Boston Globe, Forbes, and Hagerty. For seven years, he was the editor at Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car, and today, he’s the automotive editor at Drive magazine. He’s dad to a son and daughter, and plays rude guitar in a garage band in Worcester, Massachusetts.