It’s been half a decade since the first major manufacturer plug-in electrified vehicles (PEVs) came to the U.S. market, but what would make more sense – a pure EV or plug-in hybrid?
To ask this question is sort of like shooting at a moving target as the state of technology and products on the market is evolving.
That said, for those of you just starting to mull your options, we’ll cover some of the highlights to kick start your thought processes and hopefully help you toward a more informed decision.
First off, why do plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles exist?
Answer: They are a first viable step toward weaning away from petroleum.
To do that, PEVs build on existing automotive technology with the core difference being what makes them go. Their powertrains make use of far-more efficient electric motors to reduce or eliminate petroleum use, as well as curb or eliminate tailpipe emissions.
Electricity is domestically produced, and the grid is getting cleaner year by year.
In broadest terms a plug-in hybrid is defined as a hybrid electric vehicle with a larger battery and connection to the grid (or renewably sourced electricity). It stores more electric energy so as to be able to run on pure electricity for longer runs. Of course there are different (and better or worse) technological approaches, but the general idea is part time electric range, with gas backup.
A battery electric or “all-electric vehicle” uses a battery and traction motor(s) and no internal combustion. It also has connection to the grid (or renewably sourced electricity).
There are 26 plug-in electrified cars for sale in the U.S. out of more than 50 globally, but most of these are cars. There are no plug-in trucks (yet) available for retail consumer sale, there are only a couple high-end SUVs and only one minivan due late this year.
Of these vehicles, 15 are plug-in hybrids, 12 are battery electrics, and there have been some that have already come and gone from the market – like the Honda Accord plug-in hybrid, Honda Fit EV, Toyota RAV4 EV.
Of the plug-in cars, all carry a price premium over comparable conventional cars with the idea that they pay back in other ways – such as reduced operation costs, maintenance, or enhanced environmental benefits.
The ones that offer a better case for superior economic sense are the ones priced below a $40,000 threshold. As is true of any luxury purchase, there are benefits to high-end plug-in cars like the all-electric Tesla Model S, Mercedes S550 PHEV, Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid but we’ll arbitrarily remember here a prime raison d’etre for PEVs.
The vehicles hoped to move the dial away from sole reliance on internal combustion are those intended to have broadest mass appeal. Granted the Model S was the best-selling PEV last year, and quite the exception, but even Tesla wants to build a Model 3 priced from $35,000 as well, and that has been its aim all along.
Core PHEV Benefits
The single biggest reason to go plug-in hybrid versus a regular hybrid is to be able to use it like a part-time all-electric vehicle. As one example, a Ford Fusion Energi is EPA-rated 4 mpg less when run in hybrid mode than a Fusion Hybrid – but if one drives it within its 19-miles EV range daily, gas consumption – and gas price – are not so relevant.
Another benefit of course is no range anxiety.
All-electric cars have a simpler powertrain instead of two merged together, and offer several benefits.
They cost much less to operate than gas cars, emit nothing at the tailpipe – though upstream emissions as applicable for grid energy should be factored, though it is typically less than what comes from a high-mpg hybrid.
The EPA has a calculator to help determine upstream emissions in your zip code.
A bunch of other subjective benefits that more or less may apply to PHEVs also can be weighed. These include that EVs are quiet and convenient to “fuel” from home, and high-tech, novel, and fairly fun to drive.
EVs run off and leave PHEVs however with regard to scheduled maintenance and gone are such things as air filter and oil/filter changes, spark plug changes, exhaust system concerns including emission testing, multi-speed transmission and potential long-term concerns.
This said, any implication that EVs are nearly trouble free just because they lack internal combustion can be over-billed by the zealous. They still have body, chassis, paint, interior components, suspension, tires, HVAC, power equipment, other servo motors, onboard computers, and a host of things that “can go wrong” like any automobile. Those items must be well designed and constructed or gas engine or no, EVs may still wind up in the shop – though so far the record for most has been good.
As for PHEVs, those that run on electricity more also save their engine and thus maintenance intervals may be spaced farther.
All plug-in cars also tend to be easier on brake pads as their regenerative brakes spare them from use as hard as would be seen on conventional vehicles.
Among close-to-mainstream priced vehicles in the plug-in hybrid segment, there are several.
These are the “extended-range electric” Chevy Volt with 53-mile EV range, and the 19-mile Fusion Energi and its C-Max Energi sibling sharing the same powertrain. Also, there’s the 27-mile-range Hyundai Sonata PHEV and later this year Kia will have an Optima PHEV with the same powertrain.
For good measure, we might include the BMW i3 REx which is more a range-extended EV than pure PHEV, and Audi A3 PHEV.
Among pure battery electric cars, there’s the 240-270-mile range Tesla S and now X crossover, 81-mile BMW i3 BEV, 84-107-mile Nissan Leaf, 83-mile VW e-Golf, up-to-over 100-mile Mercedes B-Class Electric, Kia Soul EV, Chevy Spark EV, and Fiat 500e.
Some of these are not 50-state available.
There is no silver bullet in terms of function and performance. In an ideal world, people have expressed the desire for an EV with range of a typical gas car that fills up in 3 minutes and priced about the same also. People who insist on this will find no cars that meet their criteria.
The closest thing to that yet known will be the 2017 Chevy Bolt due to cost just below $30,000 with federal tax credit factored in, and with range of 200-plus miles. That’s less range than a Toyota Corolla, VW Golf, Chevy Cruze, or nearly any other gas car, but it’s double the range of other EVs in that price segment. And, what EVs offer in other benefits offsets range objections for those who buy them.
In favor of all pure EVs today is they are eligible for a larger $7,500 federal tax credit, and most PHEVs get less than $5,000 with the exception of the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica PHEV minivan which with 16-kilowatt-hour battery will be eligible for $7,500 as well.
The main benefit of PHEVs is the aforementioned zero range anxiety compared to any internal combustion car. They fill up at a gas pump if desired, and the idea is just this – to give the best of both worlds – EV and gas – within limits. One drawback – and worth checking into further for snowbelters – is the degree to which the cabin heat may induce the gas engine to come on just to provide said heat. This can vary from model to model.
With EVs charging from home is usually considered a convenience when possible – but if home situations don’t permit, this can be a deal breaker for them next to PHEVs or simply regular hybrids.
Also, it does take more resourcefulness to compensate for less public infrastructure as well as charges that can take hours instead of minutes.
On the flip side, the main drawback to pure EVs in today’s sub-$40,000 or so level is potential for range anxiety, though this can be overblown and early adopters have been known to vociferously say what they have is enough. Indeed, daily driving is under 40 miles for 75 percent of people, so an EV with double that or more can easily work day in and day out.
Cost of Ownership
A comprehensive cost of ownership analysis for all models is beyond this article’s scope, but before anyone gets sticker shock at loftier prices, this question may prove surprising results.
For example, in southern California, Edmunds True Cost to Own calculator says a 2014 (latest year available) Chevy Volt bought for $35,063 has a five-year total ownership cost of $36,417 – a paltry $1,354 over what it cost over five years! Compare that to a Chevy Cruze Eco bought for $22,456 and with TCO of $38,090. Considering Volt owners may drive 80-percent or more in pure EV mode, they may beat this, especially with renewable or free charging available, as the case may be.
Another EV example is the Nissan Leaf driven 15,000 miles annually. A base S model bought in Ohio for $28,832 has a TCO that seriously pays back of $25,788 after five years. This too can be beaten under certain circumstances by resourceful owners and it is about the same as a Versa Note bought for $18,061 with TCO of $25,798.
Leasing deals may also be available that are more attractive, and leases eliminate some of the liability with owning a vehicle that may be surpassed by more-evolved products sooner than would be a conventional car.
In the next year and beyond more plug-in hybrids are due, as are more battery electric cars. More range is in the offing so as mentioned, this question is a moving target.
Obviously more variables would be in play, everyone’s unique circumstances ultimately dictate what car is most ideal, but with caveat emptor in place, the main takeaway here is first-gen cars of either type can make sense.