Fiat Chrysler (FCA) recently announced the Jeep Wrangler 4xe (pronounced “Four by E”), a plugin hybrid (PHEV) with 25-miles of all-electric range followed by hundreds of miles of gas-powered range. Other than the electric drive, it’s the same in most other respects to any other Wrangler, meaning it will have great off-road capability while being far more efficient (FCA claims 50 MPGe).
Here at CleanTechnica, we tend to be big fans of battery EVs (BEV). For most use cases, and for much of the population, a battery-only EV without a range extender is a great option. Most driving happens within one battery’s range of home, and for the occasional road trip, charging networks along major interstates have come a long way for 200+ mile BEVs with a Tesla, CCS, or CHAdeMO connector.
Despite all this, there are cases where a PHEV is a great way to introduce electrification where it otherwise would be rejected.
The PHEV vs BEV Debate
As I’ve pointed out, though, there are limitations, especially in rural areas. I won’t rehash everything from my previous article here, but I’ll summarize the main points. Infrastructure has improved, but there are still major gaps that can turn what should be a 1-3 day trip into a weeklong misadventure. Even good charging availability still means adding hours to long trips (and maybe an extra 1-2 days for a cross-continent trip). Also, most people just don’t want to buy or rent another car just for road trips. For drivers in “flyover country,” a PHEV may be the best EV for them at this point.
On the other hand, many EV drivers won’t be faced with these problems at all because they live in a city or state with lots of infrastructure and/or don’t do cross-continent trips. Among those who travel into rural areas or take these long trips, many people only do this rarely, so the occasional inconvenience isn’t enough to make a difference against the benefits of a BEV. Even for some rural owners, if they do all of their driving within range of home, there’s no need for other infrastructure.
It really all comes down to what you plan to do with the vehicle, and the scales do seem to be tipping in favor of BEVs over time as infrastructure and charging times improve.
Why PHEV Makes More Sense for the Wrangler
With the Jeep Wrangler 4xe, the PHEV makes a lot more sense in 2020, and will probably continue to make sense for at least a decade.
If all you want is the Jeep name and looks, but don’t want to spend the extra bucks for solid axles, a longitudinal engine, body-on-frame construction, four-wheel drive, and scads of clearance, then you buy one of the rebadged front-drive Fiat crossovers (Cherokee and Renegade). For most people, that’s the better choice both in terms of price and efficiency.
For people wanting serious off-road capabilities (whether for real use or for bragging rights), the reworked minivan platform just isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to want a Wrangler or something like it. The 4xe definitely delivers in this regard, with Trail Rated running gear, including solid front and rear axles, full-time 4×4 two-speed transfer case, fully articulating suspension, and 30 inches of water fording capability. On top of the power from the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, it has two electric motors fed by a 400-volt, 17 kWh, 96-cell battery pack that mounts beneath the second-row seat to protect it from outside elements and to preserve not only the interior space, but the clearance.
We know that it’s possible to get all of this capability (and more) with a BEV. Companies like Bollinger prove this much. The problem isn’t that BEVs can’t be serious off-roaders; The issue is where the serious off-roading happens.
To illustrate this, let’s look at two very popular trails: California’s Rubicon Trail, and Moab, Utah’s many trails.
The Rubicon Trail is an example of a place where an off-roading EV can shine. It’s surrounded by a ring of rapid charging stations (in this case CCS, the most likely standard a hypothetical BEV Jeep would use). There are 4-6 stations in short range of the trail’s starting point (Georgetown), so even outages wouldn’t keep you from starting the trail. Over 22 miles, even if you were to go all-out on the elevation gain and burn up half a battery, you’d still have plenty of opportunity to charge at the other end.
Moab isn’t as friendly, currently. You can use Electrify America’s fast CCS stations to get to Moab from almost anywhere, but you might struggle getting back home on I-70 if you’re headed home through Vegas with a heavy BEV. But, assuming you get there, you’d have to be careful about charging after you’ve run a few. There’s only one CCS station with 50 kW max. If it’s being used by other BEV off-roaders or it’s down, you’re going to be charging at level 2 speeds to keep running trails and to climb back up to Green River or Grand Junction on the way home.
Let’s look at one more extreme trail in the Southwest:
At 3000 feet above the Colorado River, Tuweep is one of the most amazing views the Grand Canyon has to offer. Getting there is even more amazing. From remote trailheads (far from EV chargers over mountainous terrain, but on pavement), you can travel either 56 or 61 miles along grueling trails that frequently break axles, pierce tough tires, or leave you stranded in deep mud. Come unprepared for any of the obstacles, and you will need to pay $1000 to $2000 for a tow that may or may not come. Even if you take the direct route from St. George Utah with a fresh charge, you have 90 miles of muddy road ahead, and still have to make the return trip. There’s no charging of any kind out near the canyon unless you bring a generator or something.
Want to make Flagstaff, the North Rim, or Kanab your base camp? Forget about it. The nearest Level 2 station is at a hotel not far from Page, Arizona or in St. George.
Even the best off-road BEVs presently available or available in the near future would struggle to make this trip, and would probably leave you stranded on the way back to civilization. A PHEV Jeep, on the other hand, would easily do it. Even if you ended up needing spare fuel, you could carry along a gas can.
Worse, it seems unlikely that the National Park Service will ever allow anyone to construct a charging station out there. Even if they did, the economics just aren’t there. Visitors to the area are few and far between, and the costs to bring in electricity are downright astronomical.
While there are many trails within easy reach of CCS charging, and the availability continues to grow, there are places that won’t see more charging for years or decades, and many that are likely to never see charging infrastructure of any kind. If you’re looking for a serious off-roader and want to take it out on wild adventures, a PHEV is probably the best option for the foreseeable future.
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