Depending on who is spinning the news, plug-in hybrids may be the recipient of high praise, deep criticism, or to the dismay of advocates, they may completely fly under consumers’ radar – but sometimes even good new ideas take a while to sink in.
Presented as a solution to radically cut petroleum and emissions just like pure electric cars – coupled with the convenience of internal-combustion power – while some people have misconceptions about plug-in hybrids (PHEVs), their appeal is catching on.
Want proof? Toyota’s perennially top-ranked Camry Hybrid – though stickered about $7,000 less than an “extended-range electric” Chevy Volt– is just barely staying ahead in sales this year. Through July the mid-sized, more-spacious but non-plug-in Camry Hybrid is down 32 percent in the U.S. with 12,494 units sold, and the compact Volt is up 76 percent over last year with 12,214 sold.
What’s special about the Volt is mirrored also in a few other “blended” plug-in hybrids that to one degree or the other followed General Motors’ hatchback introduced in late 2010, and now the first to receive a full redesign in 2016.
The key to all plug-in gas-electric cars is their ability to drive gas-free and tailpipe emission-free for a certain distance in miles. That means the gas engine is shut off, but ready to instantly kick on when needed. This general PHEV formula is also gaining the attention of automakers who virtually every week, it seems, are announcing plans for more PHEVs as a suitable compromise to meet tightening global regulations.
For those just getting up to speed on this different type of car, following are some common objections. Of course every individual must still make choices deemed best for his or her own interests, so that is the watchword going in. These pointers are just to get people started, and you can follow through with more research if you wish.
Not Enough Electric Range?
Plug-in hybrids have been produced with as little as 11 miles range – from the former Toyota Prius PHV which is now being upgraded to 22 miles – to as high as the aforementioned Volt with 53 EPA-rated miles electric range.
We’ll include a chart in the photo gallery of every model sold in the U.S., but the short answer is even lower e-range plug-in hybrids stand to save a large percentage of fuel on typical commutes. Just 20 miles e-range such as could be achieved by the Ford C-Max or Fusion Energis, or 27-mile e-range Hyundai Sonata PHEV is enough for about 50 percent of all drivers to go gas free in average daily driving.
The U.S. Energy Department reports nearly 80 percent of drivers travel under 40 miles per day, meaning a Volt could meet the needs of tens of millions of drivers.
Dual Powertrain Too Complex?
Critics have also observed highly engineered, computer-controlled plug-in hybrids merge an electric powertrain with a hybrid gas powertrain meaning huge complexity with potential for “things to go wrong,” while threatening more maintenance.
“You have to maintain two systems, the battery-electric powertrain, and then you have ‘all’ the maintenance of a gasoline vehicle,” said advocate Mark Renburke of Drive Electric Cars New England paraphrasing an objection he often hears.
On the face of it, this sounds true, but it might be an oversimplification.
First, most critical is how well a given vehicle is engineered. Even a simple, low-budget gas-powered automobile, if it is poorly designed and constructed will be a costly problem.
And actually, because automakers are wanting to prove PHEVs and tending to position them atop a range or as a “halo,” they have taken pains to build them to last, and the record shows this they are doing.
As for maintenance, the manufacturers’ maintenance schedule may show no more trips to the shop required than for conventional cars. What’s more, brake components including pads, calipers, and rotors are spared greater use by regenerative braking which recaptures energy under deceleration and sends it as electricity to the battery to marginally add range. And, since the engine is only used part time, oil change intervals can go much longer, along with other tune-up related upkeep.
Engine is Redundant?
Tesla’s Elon Musk has called hybrids and plug-in hybrids “amphibians” implying they are partially adapted to two environments, expert at neither, and EV purists have otherwise said PHEVs meant to work like EVs part time are not the best idea. Why not just add batteries, they ask, shed the heavy engine being lugged around, and build a simpler pure EV?
To be sure, it’s a debate, but the new Volt is rated 106 MPGe, not far behind the 2016 Nissan Leaf’s 112 MPGe meaning it gives up little in efficiency in electric mode and other blended PHEVs are in the high 90s.
Related to the complexity issue is the packaging, and PHEVs converted from conventional siblings like the Fords, and Hyundai do give up some trunk space, but otherwise are as functional and useful as their stablemates while ultra thrifty on fuel.
As for the purists’ desire to shed the alleged ballast of an engine, Renburke observes, imagine also ditching the heater because it’s only used part time, or the windshield wipers for the same reason. While you’re at it, one might suggest foregoing the extra weight of reinforcing material in the body to strengthen it against crashes and all the safety tech including airbags, and what not, because these may only be used once, if at all.
Absurd? Yes. And the debate goes on, but PHEV advocates note a gas engine does have a use – it’s called virtually unlimited range and 5-minute refueling when needed via readily available petroleum infrastructure. Further, there is no need to rent a car when you want to go on a long trip, as might be the case for the die-hard EVer.
But, to each his own.
Won’t Pay Back?
Plug-in hybrids do cost more than comparable hybrids or conventional models but are eligible for a federal tax credit that ranges from $2,500-$7,500 depending on battery size. States also offer incentives that contribute toward balancing out the cost differential.
According to Kelley Blue Book’s cost to own formulation, a base (but still nicely equipped) Chevy Volt LT might net out to $1,000-$2,000 more than a Toyota Prius 3 despite the Prius having a sticker $8,000 less to start with. Thanks to its largest 18.4-kWh battery – more than twice that of some competitors – the Volt is eligible for the whole $7,500 federal credit, while a Prius gets zilch.
For any plug-in car’s value proposition, the watchword is total ownership costs factoring things above base selling price, taxes, fees, and estimating potential incentives, energy/fuel costs, insurance, depreciation, and estimated maintenance.
For what it’s worth also, the intangible benefit of running a potentially cleaner car, avoiding trips to the gas station, and enjoying the car itself are also factors in whether the expense is a good value.
New Unproven Technology?
Plug-in hybrids are really leaning on the legacy of a technology almost 20 years old. The first Prius was launched in Japan in 1997 and what’s most new about PHEVs is the larger li-ion traction battery and more-robust all-electric drive.
Batteries are warranted by manufacturers for at least 8 years/100,000 miles or possibly longer. Leasing a PHEV eliminates this worry, if that’s something you’d consider, and in any case li-ion batteries along with electric motors are established technology.
What’s believed to be the longest-mile plug-in gas-electric car on the road in the hands of a private owner is “Sparkie,” the 2012 Volt owned by Erick Belmer of Ohio. Sparkie has over 100,000 pure electric miles because it gets charged as many as 3-4 times a day, and it has accrued over 300,000 total road miles.
Belmer says the range has not decreased since new.
Other-brand PHEVs are also not known to be failing, now with a few years on the market, and overall, li-ion batteries and motors are also powering almost all new electrified cars on the market with massive growth and investments in this technology.
If considering a particular model, you will want to look further, but in the main to date, it’s been so far so good.