Plug-in hybrids were first introduced in late 2010, and several automakers have said we will be seeing several more over the next few years.
To date the selection for sale in the U.S. tallies to nine but reasons why they are on the rise include they’re an excellent way for automakers to meet increasingly tough emissions and mpg regulations.
If you are just learning about them, following are some highlights and insights to get you started.
A Couple Different Types
As vehicles that build upon technology already developed for regular gas-electric hybrids, there are a couple of general categories of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV).
These are the 1) “extended-range electric vehicles” (EREV) and 2) parallel or blended hybrids.
Within the EREV category for now is only the Chevy Volt, Cadillac ELR and range-extended version of the BMW i3. The now-extinct Fisker Karma had been one, and it was actually a pure “series hybrid” never allowing the engine to drive the wheels but using it to only to generate electricity. The range-extended BMW’s i3 REx operates in series. The GM products are similar and operate in series mode much of the time.
All other plug-in hybrids are the blended variety. Here the engine and electric motor both are connected mechanically to the wheels. Like the EREVs, they also have lithium-ion batteries to provide a certain electric range and then when that is depleted, they go back to regular hybrid operation.
Some PHEVs Are Greener Than Others
There is a bit of a dichotomy going on in the marketplace. Cars targeted at ordinary work-a-day driving like the Volt, Ford C-Max and Fusion Energi siblings, Toyota Prius PHV, and pending Hyundai Sonata PHEV are the greenest.
Green speaks to greenhouse gas emissions, and the flip side of that coin is fuel efficiency, or in other words potential fuel savings.
Beyond that you have the new breed of powerful and luxurious plug-in hybrids. Hybridization is a marvelous way for automakers to do what they used to when they turbocharged or supercharged an internal combustion engine. The net result is more power – but electric motors instead of cramming more fuel use zero fuel, so voila, more power and “green” factor all in one stroke.
Note several supercars pushing upwards of 800-1,000-plus horsepower are PHEVs and it’s like having an ace in the hole to satisfy regulators and consumers who both want more of mutually contradictory objectives – mpg and mph.
The same thinking is trickling into luxury offerings by German brands, Japanese like Lexus which will wow us with more next spring, and others. These high-end PHEVs can still beat the efficiency and emissions of comparable luxurious and powerful conventional models, but they have a potential dark side to their green factor.
Namely, if packed with upwards of 400-plus horsepower, green cred comes from just enough electric energy storage to nurse them through government test cycles, give them a modicum of pure EV range, and make them look like heros. And they are heros as long as you don’t call on all that horsepower.
Horses – even hybrid horses – like to be fed and cars set up to rely mainly on potent gas engines will drink that fuel. There is no free lunch, but then this is even true to a certain point for all-electric Teslas if you use all they have also. The difference is the electric motor in a Tesla is more than twice as efficient as gas. However, a 700-horsepower-plus Tesla will still eat range and electrons too if you want to post a video of it out-sprinting a Lamborghini.
But, coming back to high-power PHEVs, they can use fuel and emit from the tailpipe within the spectrum of conventional gas cars when pushed harder.
So, if the plan is not to use the power frequently you’re fine, they can beat conventional cars, this is true. But if your thought is to slash emissions, there can be a large difference between official EPA ratings and what the vehicle does when on the boil.
In short, the relatively less-powerful PHEVs intended as more-sensible transportation have less potential to burn fuel even if you do drive like you stole them. Energy costs to produce, it does emit, and the laws of physics can’t be violated, just worked around to a point.
There’s the Volt and Everything Else
Plug-in hybrids are a step above regular hybrids because they work like part-time EVs. Electricity is your friend, and even in the dirtiest coal-intensive grid in the country, all-electric drive edges out an average modern internal combustion car.
That said, the Volt has more all-electric range than any PHEV on the market – more than double. The Cadillac ELR is second-highest too, but it costs more, is a luxury purchase, and the new 2016 Volt offers 13-miles more range at 53 miles combined.
(Sssh! Don’t tell anyone GM’s double-priced Cadillac is soundly beaten by a humble Chevy).
The nearest competitor to the Volt in its general price and demographic range would be the pending Hyundai Sonata PHEV which may offer 24 miles, and beyond that are the 19-mile C-Max and Fusion Energi by Ford.
Looking at EPA ratings for annual greenhouse gases, there is not as huge of a grams-CO2-per-mile difference, but these numbers can be misleading. The real game is staying in the e-drive zone because that is where a plug-in hybrid is much-more efficient and emissions at the tailpipe are zero, though upstream emissions at the grid need to be factored.
This assumes you are not using solar to recharge. If you are, then solar dovetails beautifully with an electric plug-in car – be it hybrid or all-electric.
As it is, the Volt runs like an EV for 35-38 miles for gen one, and 53 miles for gen two, and General Motors OnStar telematics data suggests on average 2016 Volt drivers will go 1,000 miles between fillups. If they fill up the tank every eight gallons, GM is effectively saying it’s good for 125 mpg given all the electric miles you’ll get.
Opportunity charging along the way or at your destination, if available, increases the potential. The Volt is so good at being used like a pure EV with only part time gas use, it’s become a sport for some hard-core fans, and the present record on Voltstats.net is 118,000 mpg.
If you drive within the e-zone every day, accounting for some miles range lost during winter where applicable, the Volt can go long intervals without turning on the engine. Exceptions are 1) Cold temperatures may induce it to kick on to augment HVAC, and 2), Engine Maintenance Mode. EMM ensures the range extender starts up at least once every six weeks to run long enough to heat the engine up to full operating temperature and lubricate all the internal parts; 3 the engine computer monitors gas and will burn off gas before it goes past its freshness date
Anecdotes of ordinary Volt drivers going months between fillups were common when the car got 35-38 miles, and the new 53 miles will help.
But beyond the Volt, all PHEVs are potentially capable of running electrically, so it depends on your actual distance.
Unfortunately for some, the Volt is smaller inside than midsized competitors, so it is not a clear win in that category.
PHEVs Could Become A Gateway Drug To A Pure EV
Once you get a taste of driving all-electric in whatever PHEV you get, you may find yourself wanting more e-range.
All-electric driving can feel preferable 1) because it’s quiet, smooth, and novel, especially in the beginning, and 2) because it is cleaner and more energy efficient as mentioned.
As soon as next year we may see the Chevy Bolt EV ready for sale and this is supposed to be around $38,000 before federal or state incentives, net at $30,000 or upper 20s, and get 200 miles range.
That could eliminate range anxiety, and already people have jumped out of cars like the Volt and into ones like the Tesla Model S, or even the Leaf or other sub-100-mile EVs.
Range anxiety can be a valid fear – or an irrational fear – of the unknown. For the latter, once the ins and outs are experienced, peoples’ comfort levels can go up. Some may decide an 84-mile Leaf will work for them.
Price And Value Is A More Complex Question
PHEVs are all eligible for a varying federal tax credit based on their battery size in kilowatt-hours with the cap being $7,500. States may offer something too.
But PHEVs do cost more, maybe $4,000-$8,000 more for the mainstream varieties. Costs are higher because they are really combining two relatively sophisticated powertrains into one vehicle. This can scare some people off or attract them depending on their view.
In their favor, the less the gas engine is used, the less maintenenace it needs compared to a conventional car running it all the time. The electric powertrain needs no normal maintenance. Brake pads are used less because regenerative braking spares them, and oil changes can come very infrequently.
But they are complex machines and it would be fiction to say there is nothing to ever be concerned over. Same could be said of any of today’s complicated, computer-packed cars though, but remarkably, reliability keeps getting better overall.
A total cost of ownership comparo such as by Edmunds’ online True Cost to Own calculator may show some 2015 PHEVs – latest year available – either doing well, or not as well as regular hybrid siblings or other comparable cars.
This latter possibility is the case in Southern California zip code selected for the C-Max Energi which Edmunds pegs at $36,169 cash, and its five-year total ownership cost is $55,076. By comparison, the C-Max Hybrid selling for $29,129 costs $48,469 over five years according to Edmunds.
A Prius Plug-in Hybrid about matches the regular Prius however. The base PHV’s sales price is $30,959 and TCO is just $36,544. By contrast the Prius trim level III costs $26,759 and in five years costs $36,676.
The outgoing 2015 Volt however, eligible for max credits has the strongest TCO. Sales price of $34,933 and five-year TCO is $37,278.
Compare that to a $22,675 Cruze Eco, which costs $42,339 in five years by Edmunds’ reckoning.
Ever hear of “pay me now or pay me later?”
Variables to consider can be several, including depreciation, taxes and fees, finance charges, fuel, insurance, maintenance, repairs and potential tax credit or other incentives.
Beyond these, personal preference, vehicle design and style and play in, as does whether you have access to solar, or otherwise comped charging. Also, if you charge intraday, that reduces cost, as does your actual mileage, driving style, and many factors besides.
The short answer is from a cost perspective, PHEVs may not be a no-brainer, but they can make good sense depending on your needs and values.