What are range extender cars?

Got range anxiety? Torn between a plug-in hybrid or a range extender? Worry not, we've got all your questions covered...

Range extender cars are electric cars with a generator that tops up the battery to prevent it from going completely flat. Think about it like a backup generator, if the main power goes, then a generator with a different type of fuel can generate power to make sure the car can continue. 

The generator is normally powered by traditional fuel sources such as petrol or diesel that operate up when the battery level goes below a certain level. The generator itself cannot drive the vehicle but instead is a means of charging the battery that then drives the car. 

The only range extender cars available in the UK (currently): Mazda MX-30 R-EV
The only range-extender available in the UK (currently): Mazda MX-30 R-EV

Normally range extenders are components that sit within the body of the car, whether that is under the bonnet, above the axles, etc. They are fuelled in the same way you would a non-EV, through a port on the side of the car that then feeds the extender generator. 

> Revealed: Britain’s best-selling plug-in hybrids

As with all things when it comes to EVs there are significant differences in the range you can get from different extenders, typically offering between 100-200 miles of additional charge. 

There are also new technologies emerging that help to extend the range of EVs, with one of the best known being Fisker’s solar-panelled roof on the Ocean. Although there are question marks over the effectiveness of this, the idea is that the solar panels help to passively charge the batteries, whether that’s during a sunny road trip or, more commonly, sitting on a driveway. 

Rotary engine tech from Mazda MX-30 R-EV

What is the difference between hybrid and range extender cars?

A car that needs both batteries and fuel to operate – that sounds like a hybrid? 

The difference between a hybrid and a range extender is simply that a hybrid can drive the car using electric or traditional fuels, with two modes of propulsion. A range extender, on the other hand, can only drive the vehicle using electricity, but uses a generator to create additional electricity to power the vehicle.

However, there is confusion in the industry about the difference between the two with hybrid taking on new meanings. For instance, the Mazda MX-30 R-EV , which made headlines with its rotary engine technology last year, is currently the only new car that can be bought with a range extender in the UK but it confusingly won the What Car Best Plugin Hybrid award.

> Can you wave goodbye to range anxiety with Mazda MX-30 R-EV? Read our review to find out

Why would you buy a Range Extender car?

The argument for a range extender car has decreased as battery ranges have increased, because the further you can go without needing a fuel generator, the less likely you are to need a fuel generator. However, this isn’t always the case and especially with older electric cars, they make a lot more sense. 

At present, there are limited numbers of range extender electric vehicles available to buy in the UK, with the Mazda MX30 the only example we know of that has the option when being bought new. 

> Which electric car is right for me?

Mazda MX-30 R-EV’s rotary engine

Can you retrofit a range extender?

There are several companies currently offering retrofit services for range extenders, although at the moment the market is relatively small and the effectiveness and safety of retrofitting range extenders is not yet known. 

One innovation that could have an impact on this is the towable range extender, which would allow electric cars to significantly extend their range when needed by pulling a trailer behind which then charges the batteries in the car. 

These could be a fuel-powered generator that creates additional electricity or it could be additional batteries that can be used to power the car or a way to more effectively charge a battery through solar energy. 

This would be particularly useful for longer trips in remote areas. There is even the potential to create power for the extender through solar power, meaning that trips through places like rural America or the outback of Australia become considerably easier with an EV where you could potentially go several hundred miles between charging stations. 


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