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Plug-In Hybrid Models Available Now In US

What is the difference between a hybrid and plug-in hybrid? Here’s everything you need to know about PHEVs.

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Over Christmas dinner, a neighbor asked me what plug-in hybrid cars were available for sale in America. I didn’t know the answer, so I let my friends at Google help me out. Below is a list I found at EV Adoption. The information is as of September 4, 2022, so there may be some changes since then, but this was the most current information, according to Google.

There is one other PHEV, the Ferrari SF 90 Stradale, but since it lists for $625,000, we thought most of our readers would not be interested in using one as a commuter vehicle or grocery-getter, so we omitted it. For the record, it has an 8 kWh battery and a range of 9 miles. Whoopdey doo!

What Is A Plug-In Hybrid?

It’s fair to say there is a some confusion about the differences between a hybrid, a plug-in hybrid, and a battery-electric vehicle, so let’s begin there. A hybrid has a gasoline engine that is the primary means of moving the car forward. It usually has a small battery (1.31 kWh in the current Prius) and an electric motor that help get the car moving from rest. Usually when you take your foot off the gas, the motor becomes a generator and sends some electricity back to the battery. The benefits are somewhat better fuel economy in stop and go driving. Typically, the battery and motor have no effect when the car is traveling at a constant speed, such as on the highway.

A hybrid car has no place to plug in. All the energy supplied to the battery comes from burning gasoline. While most are designed and built to be very efficient, they still have an exhaust pipe and still leave a trail of carbon dioxide in their wake at all times.

A plug-in hybrid can be recharged from an electrical outlet. Most of them have a battery of around 15 kWh, which means they have enough electrical energy to power the car using electricity only for 20 miles or more. The champion on the list above is the Karma GS-6 with 61 miles of range, but the Toyota RAV4 Prime, at 42 miles, is the best available in a car an ordinary person might buy. (Note: the next generation Prius Prime due out next year may match or exceed the range of the RAV4 Prime.)

What makes a plug-in hybrid desirable is that, for many people, it has enough range to drive purely on battery power for most daily driving chores. The average American drives less than 25 miles a day, which means all the driving done on a daily basis can be done without burning one drop of gasoline. Since these cars are designed to plug in to a standard 110 volt wall outlet (they can also be charged using 220 volts), they can replenish their batteries overnight and be ready for another day of emissions free driving the next morning.

Now here’s the best part. When it comes time to go over the river and through the woods for Christmas dinner at grandmother’s house, the onboard gasoline engine allows the car to act like a conventional car and drive as long and as far as your bladder will allow. No range anxiety ever! The owner gets to experience the power, the acceleration, the quietness, and the joys of regenerative braking that a fully electric car provides. That’s pretty sweet. For many drivers, a plug-in hybrid serves as a bridge to the battery-electric future of driving with none of the anxiety some people feel when driving an electric car.

Series Vs Parallel Hybrid

With that introduction, let’s explore a topic many people find totally confusing — series vs parallel. In a series hybrid, the gasoline engine has no mechanical connection to the wheels. It is there solely as a generator to supply electricity to the battery. A series hybrid is closest to a battery electric car.

In a parallel hybrid, the gasoline engine helps drive the wheels and also recharges the battery. The thing is, in a parallel hybrid, the engine can help move the car forward a little or a lot. Some models, particularly in Europe, rely on the gasoline engine almost constantly, which means the emissions reductions a plug-in hybrid is supposed to offer are frequently far less than expected.

If you are not sure whether the plug-in hybrid you are considering uses a series or parallel powertrain (some models use a combination), ask the sales staff at your local dealership. If their eyes roll back into their head and they start babbling, walk out and find a dealer whose sales people are trained to know the technical details of the products they are selling. Or let Google give you the answers you need.

Here’s an easy way to find out. Take the car for a test drive. From a complete stop, mash the throttle. If the car rockets forward in near total silence, it’s a series hybrid. If lots of mechanical sounds come from under the hood as the engine kicks in, it’s a parallel hybrid. In general, a series hybrid is closer to a true electric car experience and should be your preferred choice.

The Takeaway

Hybrids are all well and good, but they are just a more efficient way to travel with an internal combustion engine doing all the work. Plug-in hybrids can eliminate most of those carbon emissions, which is pretty much the point of the EV revolution, and do it without the range anxiety that plagues many drivers.

There is a downside, however. Pure electric cars have few moving parts and generally have much lower maintenance costs. There just aren’t as many pieces in the drivetrain to break or wear out. A plug-in hybrid still has a gasoline engine and a transmission with thousands of rotating parts whirring around inside. More parts means more maintenance.

Here’s the thing. Every car has to fit the use case of its owner. We might all want to drive a Porsche 911, but it might not be the right choice for our lifestyle. By the same token, we might all want a Tesla Model X with those incredible falcon wing doors, but a $100,000 vehicle may not in line with our budgetary concerns. No car is the right car if it doesn’t do what you need it to. There is one thing we have to tell you, though. A plug-in hybrid won’t do you much good if you don’t plug it in! You would be surprised how many forget that piece of the puzzle.

We here at CleanTechnica strongly advocate for strategies that allow us to go about our daily lives with the least amount of carbon emissions. But if you make your living hauling horse trailers or bulldozers, an electric vehicle is probably not for you. Our mission is to give you the information you need to make informed decisions that are right for you. For many, a plug-in hybrid may be just what the doctor ordered.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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