Pros and Cons Between Hybrids and Plug-in Hybrids

Every vehicle involves compromises, and the one that meets your needs ideally has the least.

For those of you wondering whether a hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) or plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) would be a better choice, this will compile in one place a number of the more prominent pros and cons for each.

It does not advocate for any particular powertrain type, and assumes ultimately you must make your own decisions as to what is right for you.

Defining Terms

For our purposes we’ll compare plug-ins only to full hybrids as these use the gas engine, electric motor, or both as the system control computer sees fit.

Full hybrids are technologically closer than “mild” hybrids to plug-in hybrids, and most plug-in hybrids are essentially full hybrids with extra large lithium-ion battery assemblies that can be plugged in, thus the name.

The Prius Liftback accounts for triple the sales of the next nearest hybrid.

The Prius Liftback accounts for triple the sales of the next nearest hybrid.

A distinction is seen with the Chevy Volt and Cadillac ELR “extended-range electric vehicles” (EREVs). These are technically PHEVs also, but the gas generator won’t kick on with full acceleration as with true PHEVs, and after battery depletion, the genset goes into charge sustaining mode.

All other PHEVs also emulate pure electric vehicles when charged but then morph back to the full hybrid system they’re based upon.

Price

Weighing in favor of regular hybrids is they cost less. Some, plug-ins like the Volt, have no regular hybrid corollary but PHEVs from Ford, Honda, and Toyota do. However, determining the surcharge for the plug-in option can be tricky as model-specific trim variances make it less than apples-to-apples.

An example would be Toyota’s Prius Liftback and Plug-in Hybrid. The Liftback’s trim level Three is close (not exact) to the base Prius PHEV’s content. Prices excluding destination fees are $25,765 for the hybrid, $32,000 for the PHEV. Disparities are also seen for Ford Fusion and Honda Accord HEV and PHEV models.

Honda is a case example of positioning its stellar-tech hybrids upscale, The PHEV pictured is around $40,000 and the regular hybrid begins at normally premium "EX" level and is positioned for households earning north of $90,000.

Honda is a case example of positioning its stellar-tech hybrids upscale, The PHEV pictured is around $40,000 and the regular hybrid begins at normally premium “EX” level and is positioned for households earning over $90,000.

Compounding pricing is automakers’ tendency to pack nice-to-very-nice content assortments. It’s been said the kinds of people springing for gas-saving, CO2-saving electrified vehicles also want above-average trimmings and will pay for them. Counter examples do exist, like the fairly plain Prius Liftback level Two, Prius c, and some others. The Lincoln MKZ is a real standout as Ford does not surcharge for the hybrid version.

SEE ALSO: Should You Buy or Lease a Plug-in Car?

In the plug-ins’ favor, however, are federal tax credits and potentially state incentives, whereas HEV credits ceased a few years ago. PHEV credits are dependent upon battery kilowatt-hours, with the Volt eligible for a full EV-sized $7,500, the two Ford Energis eligible for $4,007, and the Toyota PHEV eligible for $2,500, for example.

While the Volt has been panned as pricey, it now starts below $35,000, and with max federal benefit can be netted in Prius hybrid price territory but the Chevy’s back seat is more cramped and mpg in non-EV mode is only 37 mpg, not 50.

Leasing is also an option, especially with plug-ins. Special deals may be available and ability to return the car overcomes concerns about depreciation, long-term upkeep, and perceived obsolescence as battery tech improves.

Both hybrids and plug-in hybrids can be weighed by the usual criteria for assessing aspects like cargo space, utility, fun-to-dive factor, occupant capacity, and comfort.  C-Max Hybrid shown.

Both hybrids and plug-in hybrids can be weighed by the usual criteria for assessing aspects like cargo space, utility, fun-to-dive factor, occupant capacity, and comfort. C-Max Hybrid shown.

Also, for Californians and possibly others, eligibility for solo HOV lane access is another perk to paying up for a plug-in. This incentive has since dried up for regular hybrids.

A complete cost-benefit analysis should weigh more info as available than just net selling price and fuel costs. Other factors to track down include estimated depreciation, insurance, financing, maintenance and repairs. Some of these we’ll touch on, but a sweeping analysis is beyond this article’s scope.

Choices

The U.S. hybrid market began in 2000, and there are over 30 full hybrids today, many of them second- and third-generation. This compares to seven PHEVs since 2011, all of them first generation, and three of them relatively exotic – Cadillac ELR, Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid, and BMW i8.

Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid.

Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid.

Regular hybrids are less of a mystery to dealer service techs and independent repair shops. They also have a longer track record for resale value and have been improved from first efforts.

So how are plug-ins getting a leg up? Thus far, they have comprised relatively small but growing sales, and PHEVs do benefit from lessons learned from pre-existing hybrids.

And, all plug-ins knock it out of the park in fuel savings and environmental benefits, at least part time, and we’ll overview these aspects next.

Operational Costs

Both hybrids and plug-in hybrids run on gas and electricity, but the plug-ins run on cheaper electricity more often assuming charged battery. Their EPA estimated range – see fueleconomy.gov – is a key metric, as is their efficiency in “MPGe” or kwh/100 miles, and other ways the EPA lets you estimate.

Among myriad data, the EPA offers a plug-in hybrid comparison calculator and a handy PHEV operational cost calculator that lets you figure annual “fuel” cost in dollars.

Ford's Fusion Energi is top of a line that includes conventional and regular full hybrid variants.  In favor of HEVs is they are kind of techie, and PHEVs are more-so. Pure EV drive can give people a taste for silent, smooth torque that makes these like a gateway drug to going pure EV.

Ford’s Fusion Energi is top of a line that includes conventional and regular full hybrid variants. In favor of HEVs is they are kind of techie, and PHEVs are more-so. Pure EV drive can give people a taste for silent, smooth torque that makes these like a gateway drug to going pure EV.


And here’s an infrequently mentioned fact: plug-ins’ “fuel” costs vary on two fronts – 1) gas prices at the pump (including whether it takes regular like a Prius, or premium like a Volt), and 2) electricity costs.

In contrast, hybrids generate their own limited supply of electricity and store it in their batteries so this is a fixed cost and gas prices are all you need to be concerned with.

For plug-ins, electricity can vary between free for certain public or employer-supplied charging, to essentially free for home solar installations amortized over years, or a market rate you pay your local utility.

Energy costs assuming 30 miles daily driving, 10-15% stop-and-go, one 1,080 mile vacation = 12,000 miles/year. Also assumes one-time daily charging, gas $3.41. This was for electricity at 8.8 cents per kwh as in Washington state.

Energy costs assuming 30 miles daily driving, 10-15% stop-and-go, one 1,080 mile vacation = 12,000 miles/year. Also assumes one-time daily charging, gas $3.41. This was for electricity at 8.8 cents per kwh as in Washington state.

A look at residential electricity rates by state for June 2014, the latest federal info available, shows a low of 8.78 cents per kilowatt-hour in Washington state, to a high of 38.66 cents per kwh in Hawaii. More common are rates varying between 10 cents to the upper teens in New England and 20.88 cents in New York.

Assessing a 2015 Fusion Energi which splits the difference with 19 miles e-range compared to a low of 11-plus for the Prius, and 38-plus for the Volt, the EPA says fuel costs for one driven 12,000 miles annually can vary widely.

If you are one of the few for whom electricity is free, and buy regular gas at the current average $3.41 per gallon, your fuel cost will be a paltry $439 annually. As electricity prices escalate – and assuming the same gas prices and mileage – the numbers tick upwards:

2015 Fusion Energi annual “fuel” bill: 9 cents/kwh: $704; 12 cents: $792; 14 cents: $851; 16 cents: $910; 18 cents: $969; 20 cents: $1,028; 38 cents: $1,558.

All conditions as above being equal, this is the annual fuel bill at 21 cents/kwh as estimated for New York.

All conditions as above being equal, this is the annual fuel bill at 21 cents/kwh as estimated for New York.

EPA window stickers estimate costs based on national averages and actually gas prices also vary by state. Our examples above with equal gas prices were to show a point seldom made about electricity, but higher or lower gas prices will also play into varying operational costs.

Whether these differences matter to your budget, they are something to be aware of.

In any case, relying on electricity for your daily driving is cheaper even at higher utility rates. When a PHEV’s battery runs out, it resorts to regular hybrid mode – except for the Volt and ELR which begin charge sustaining. In the case of plug-in variants such as the Toyota Prius, EPA mileage is the same as the non-plug-in hybrid, whereas the Honda Accord drops by 1 mpg when stored grid energy is gone, and the Ford Fusion declines by 4 mpg.

Environmental Benefits

Assuming your daily commute stays all or mostly in the e-zone, plug-ins operate like part-time electric cars.

Electric operation produces zero emissions, and regular hybrids rarely are zero-emission vehicles. Their small batteries may allow a mile or so at lower speeds of pure electric drive, but they more often run with intermittent EV mode working with the gas engine.

Serious particle smog episode in London. © Simon Birkett 2014.

Serious particle smog episode in London. © Simon Birkett 2014.


At the other extreme is the Volt, which gets the highest 38 miles EPA rated e-range. Considering 75 percent of Americans drive within its e-range, it may run as a pure EV the majority of the time.

But remember, like Cinderella’s pumpkin, PHEVs do go back to less amazing modes of transport after a time. That is, they become no more efficient than regular hybrids, or mildly less, after stored electricity runs out.

You should compare your daily estimated range and the prospective PHEV’s estimated e-range but even if you exceed e-range, the PHEVs save extreme emissions and fuel while they are charged.

Convenience

Salesmen – and auto reviewers sometimes too – will tout whether a vehicle needs to plug in as though it’s a benefit or alternately a drawback. Actually, either could be true.

A regular hybrid need only fill up at the gas station. Toyota is famous for saying its hybrids are convenient because they require no new behaviors be learned and it has steered wide of plug-in EVs in favor of pending fuel cells which also “fill up” at the pump.

2012-ford-focus-electric

But PHEV – and EV – users get to plug their car in at night, nice and easy, assuming they have a garage or designated parking spot. And they may be able to plug in en route or at work to extend range and maximize those e-benefits.

In the Volt’s case, and even the 19-mile-range Energi siblings’ case or 11-mile Prius PHEV’s case, drivers may avoid the gas station. And, as electric vehicle advocate Tesla likes to observe, never having to stop at a gas station is a pure benefit.

Either way, plugging in can be spun as an extreme privilege or onerous depending on who’s selling what, but one way or the other you need to replenish the car.

Maintenance, Repair, Resale Value

“Yeah but, what about the battery” is a common objection the uninitiated express. To be sure, hybrids merge two powertrains, some have fared better or worse, but the track record is relatively good, and PHEVs ought to do as well.

Since as a type PHEVs have only been on sale for 2-3 years or so, a large case sample of high-mileage old PHEVs and their large li-ion battery packs does not exist, but automakers have taken precautions to baby them.

prius-v-sunburst-610
Otherwise, potential buyers would do well to cross-search reliability records, resale estimates, and check with insurance companies for rates to gauge potential backend expenses.

We suggested leasing as a conservative option, but exceptions do exist. The relatively scarce Honda Accord Hybrid was rated by Kelley Blue Book as the 2014 Best Plug-in Value. The Fusion Energi was second, followed by the Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid.

Decisions

Our purpose here was just to jog your thought processes toward a more in-depth look.

Drilling down involves more than the usual considerations, and payback may be partly or wholly in operational costs, also in environmental benefits, and the neato experience these cars can individually provide.

Hybrid and plug-in hybrids do make sense for a growing number of people, the market is expanding, and deciding on what matters most for your situation can be worth the effort.