Lots of people who drive fully electric cars look down on plug-in hybrids as pretenders, not “real” EVs. People who drive plug-in hybrids respond that their cars drive on electrons instead of molecules most of the time and cost significantly less to buy. Is one best? The answer, like most things in life, is, “It depends.” On what? The real question is not which is best in an overall, global sense. The real question is which one is best for you?
Let’s get one thing out of the way right up front. Any car that depends on a gasoline engine most of the time is not an EV. Conventional hybrids like the Toyota Prius do not qualify for the EV designation. Recently, some companies have been advertising their hybrid cars as “self-charging electric cars.” Yes, we’re looking at you, Lexus. Such deliberately misleading claims are an insult to the intelligence and a blatant attempt to confuse customers.
Our definition of a plug-in hybrid is a car with a smallish battery — typically between 8 and 18 kWh — that can propel the car using only an electric motor at highway speeds until the battery is depleted. Then, and only then, will an onboard gasoline engine take over to recharge the battery. Perhaps the best example is the Chevy Volt, which can travel up to 53 miles using nothing but its built-in battery pack.
Most plug-in hybrids have a battery-only range of 10 miles to 53 miles. The longer the range, the greater proportion of daily driving that can be done with zero tailpipe emissions. But longer range means bigger, more costly batteries. Once again, the most important consideration is you and how you drive a car most of the time. If your PHEV has a 10 mile range but you use it primarily to commute to work 4 miles a day and back, you could drive weeks or even months on battery power alone.
The typical American drives fewer than 25 miles a day on average. In that case, you could drive a Chevy Volt two days without plugging in or burning a drop of gasoline. In fact, Chevrolet programs the gasoline engine in the Volt to start itself up every few months just to make sure all the internal bits are kept properly lubricated. We have CleanTechnica readers who have driven a Volt for two years and used less than two tanks of gasoline the whole time. They can hold their heads high and say they truly drive an electric car.
The expectation for American drivers today is that a battery electric car should have at least 200 miles of range. That seems to be the number that people have in their heads when deciding whether an electric car has enough range. Whether they need that much range is a separate question. Perception is reality in most cases. Anything less than 200 miles makes people nervous.
Cost can be figured two ways — the cost to drive a car off the showroom floor and the total cost of ownership figuring in repairs, fuel, depreciation, insurance, and other factors. A plug-in hybrid typically costs less than a battery electric car simply because it has a smaller, less expensive battery pack. But it also has an onboard gasoline engine that requires fuel and routine maintenance.
Rebates and incentives also play a role in computing the total cost of any car. Full electrics qualify for up to $7,500 in US federal tax credits as well as various state and local incentives. Plug-in hybrids are eligible for smaller incentives, typically $3,000 to $4,500 at the US federal level. Only a few PHEVs — like the Chevy Volt, Honda Clarity PHEV, and Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid — are eligible for the full federal tax credit.
Another factor in computing the cost of a vehicle is what it is worth after a few years on the road. So far, the price of used battery electric cars has been hampered by fears about the need to replace a battery or concerns about running out of battery charge while away from home. Plug-in hybrids come with fewer of those concerns, which means their depreciation is somewhat less than fully electric cars.
The exception to all this is Tesla, which enjoys strong resale value due in part to the cachet of owning one as well as its all-around practicality and value. Used Model 3s are selling for more than they cost new in some cases.
Running out of battery power is still a concern for many. Although, truthfully, it seems to be more of an issue for people who don’t own an electric car than those who actually drive one. Of course, it is not a concern if the car you are driving is a plug-in hybrid. You simply drive until the battery is depleted and then the gasoline engine takes over. In most cases, the transition is seamless and barely noticeable from the driver’s seat.
Like range anxiety, charging is less of an issue for plug-in hybrid drivers simply because if it is too far to the next charger or the charger you want to use is already charging another vehicle (or blocked by a hulking diesel pickup truck), you simply motor serenely along on the engine until you get where you are going or find another charger. Fast charging and plug-in hybrids don’t go well together, though. Their small battery size means they cannot charge as fast as a car with a larger battery, making charging times for both about the same.
Pros & Cons
InsideEVs contributor David Murray recently wrote an article comparing his experiences as both a PHEV and BEV owner. He created the chart you see above that illustrates what he considers to be the “sweet spot” for range when driving a plug-in hybrid car.
The Chevy Volt and Honda Clarity PHEV are at the top end of that sweet spot. The Kia Niro PHEV is near the bottom. The Kia also costs thousands less than the Volt and the Clarity similarly equipped.
Some of the pluses for a fully electric car that Murray lists are greater torque (that’s the jolt you get when stepping on the accelerator), more regenerative braking, more interior room, lower maintenance costs, and larger incentives.
The list of advantages for plug-in hybrids includes:
- Availability — Not all plug-in vehicles are available in all areas. Outside of California, many areas have very few plug-in cars to choose from. Many BEVs are simply not available in a lot of areas.
- Body Style — If a person wants an EV, but they also want a particular body style, especially an SUV, this limits the options even more. Right now, there are more PHEV options than BEV options. (Note: the Tesla Model Y will alter things considerably.)
- Affordability — There are more PHEV options right now than BEV. Many of those PHEVs are more affordable than their BEV counterparts or competitors.
- Lack of Charging Infrastructure — 90% of the country has limited or no charging infrastructure. What little we have is often broken or ICE’d. For the general public to get onboard, we need 20 times as many chargers as we have and they need to be working and available.
- Dealerships — Dealers don’t really like anything with a plug on it. But they are less hostile to PHEVs since they don’t have to worry about charging them up and thus can treat the entire sales process just like an ICE vehicle. Plus, PHEVs will still need maintenance related to the internal combustion engine and all its clothing.
- Ignorance — This covers many areas, including possible ignorance of the customer or dealership regarding the advantages of a BEV. However, with my experience, the general public is not ready for BEVs, especially where I live. It’s going to take time for regular people to learn how to charge a car. It seems so simple to us, but for some people, it’s like learning quantum mechanics.
Murray and I agree on one point: plug-in hybrids will play an important part in the transition to 100% zero emissions transportation if for no other reason than they will help overcome the fear so many people have of running out of battery power. My wife and I took another couple to dinner in our Nissan LEAF a few weeks ago. Our friends sat in the back seat with their eyes glued to the range meter, cracking jokes about calling an Uber if we got stranded on the side of the road.
Their wisecracking was meant to be funny but there was a palpable undercurrent of fear in their voices. People really are afraid of these newfangled devices, just as people 100 years ago were afraid of automobiles in general. If plug-ins help calm some of those fears so people can begin to appreciate the advantages of electric cars, that’s reason enough to encourage their use.
The bottom line is, what is right for you? If a plug-in hybrid meets your needs and comes in a body style and price range that makes you happy, go for it. It will slash your personal emissions in any event. What’s wrong with that?
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