Is There A ‘Best’ Plug-in Hybrid?

While more makes and models are on their way, the number of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) available now in the U.S. can still be still counted on the fingers of one hand.

Each is positioned as functional, fuel-efficient, low-emissions, mainstream-priced, and subsidy eligible, but is any one of them a stand-out “best?” We’re more than a little aware that some fans say unequivocally yes, but fact is, not all agree.

Since December 2010 when the “extended-range electric vehicle” (E-REV) Chevrolet Volt was launched, increasing volumes and variety has shown plug-in gas-electric cars are a legitimate choice, and people are making decisions based on their predilections and individual requirements.

Short of a full road test, we thought we’d put together a subjective overview of salient points as they occur to us on the available plug-in hybrid gas-electric cars – with links to each – should you wish to delve deeper.

The List

A short summation is some models stand out in some areas, but fall perceptibly short in others. While fans may sneer at certain cars, each one is relatively innovative and competitive in various respects.

Chevrolet Volt – launched December 2010
Toyota Prius PHEV – launched March 2012
C-Max Energi – launched October 2012
Fusion Energi – launched February 2013
Accord PHEV – launched January 2013

Why a PHEV?

Should you buy a plug-in hybrid? PHEVs offer the range and convenience of a high-mpg internal combustion car, but also operate like a purely electric car for limited distances – around 11 miles for the shortest to 38 or more for the longest.

Click image to enlarge.

Fusion Energi (not shown) shares numbers with C-Max Energi. Click image to enlarge.

Assuming you stay in the gas-free zone, a PHEV can be recharged at home for maybe one-quarter the cost of gas – saving time and money spent at the gas station, and they emit no hydrocarbons while operating electrically.

Point-Counterpoint

If your goal is to travel as far on electricity as possible, the Volt is the winner with 38 miles EPA-rated range. This can dip to the mid 20s in cold, or rise to the 40s and even 50 with sedate drivers, but its back-seat knee room can be tight for the vertically unchallenged. If you need a five seater, it handles only four. Also its forward visibility is a slightly more constrained with its wider A-pillars.

Chevrolet Volt.

Chevrolet Volt.

Depending on your tax status, the Volt is eligible for the highest $7,500 federal tax credit, and potential state credits are highest also.

Its price was cut to just below $35,000 for 2014 – probably doing nothing for resale value by those who bought a 2011-2013 for more – but it means some people have reported netting discounted, fully incentivized Volts in the $23,000-$27,000 range.

2012_Toyota_Prius_Plugin_017

The Volt is fun to drive, quick to 30 mph, decent to 60, goes to 100 in electric drive, and corners well among its peers.

Click image to expand.

Click image to expand.

As an alternative, the Prius PHEV now starts at around $30,000, ranges up to $40,000 or so, gets only $2,500 in federal credit potential, but it is midsize, seats five, and reverts to a 50 mpg Prius when the 4.4-kwh battery depletes.

People who drive at a moderate pace can stay mostly in full EV power up to around 14 miles in the Toyota, and on longer trips they get much better mileage and need only pay for regular gas, not premium like the 37 mpg Volt requires.

There is something of a cat-and-dog kind of adversarial stance between certain fans of the Volt and Prius PHEV. Critics of Toyota are quick to observe the EPA sticker says a mere 6 miles all-electric range, and 11 miles gas-plus-electric. This is true, but the EPA cycle mandates a heavy press of the accelerator at six miles which is why the gas comes on, and drivers have actually nursed 14-plus miles out of the battery.

The Volt – which is unique as an “E-REV,” would not turn on its gasoline generator under such conditions regardless, and functions as a pure EV until the battery runs out – except under certain higher operational speeds, as needed.

The Prius PHEV is based on the tried-and-true Japanese-made Prius Liftback. Depending on the daily range, a Volt can still beat a Prius PHEV’s averaged electric-plus-gas “mpg” score up to 50 or even 75 miles or more because the Volt goes so much farther gas-free.

Ford Fusion Energi.

Ford Fusion Energi.

At speed all PHEVs (and the E-REV) eat up electrons quicker, and they are best suited for sedate commuting if one desires maximum efficiency.

Splitting the gap between the Volt and Prius are the Fusion and C-Max Energi which start just under $33,000 for the C-Max and $39,000 for the Fusion, and share the same powertrain.

Ford has been vying for market position, most notably targeting Toyota in its advertising and press releases.

In short, Ford wanted its hybrids to be more mainstream in design, and faster in operation than the Prius. They are, but the extra power costs them in gas efficiency.

Ford C-Max Energi.

Ford C-Max Energi.

Both Energis are peppy, seat five, roomy for their class, and where they beat the Prius is with around 21 miles electric range and their all-electric speed surpasses the Prius at 85 mph.

Their gas mileage also splits the difference as do their $3,750 eligibility in federal subsidies – based on battery size. Otherwise, Ford and Toyota do share patents on their hybrid architecture.

The C-Max has more cargo capacity than the Prius, but its 43 mpg EPA and potentially less real-world gas mileage mean it’s not a no brainer.

Of them all, the Fusion Energi is arguably the one with which to blend-in the best. Only its badging distinguishes it from hybrid and conventional Fusion variants, but the same goes for the all-but vaporous but terrific Honda Accord PHEV.

It’s a shame Honda is not more bold with its PHEV, selling it only in California and New York, and planning to produce them only until next year.

The Accord PHEV’s revolutionary powertrain has no actual transmission, relying instead on two direct drive electric motors to serve as a de facto tranny. And, it’s paired with the “world’s most efficient” gasoline Atkinson-cycle engine.

Honda Accord PHEV.

Honda Accord PHEV.

The EPA numbers and real-world operation show it is more efficient in both electric mode and gas mode, but its 6.7-kwh battery in the trunk allows only around 14 miles range – about the same as a Prius, priced like the Prius PHEV Advanced, but in a package of Honda’s roomy five-seater Accord.

The Honda boasts the best resale value of them all, according to Kelley Blue Book, and no doubt it has a lot of the right stuff.

If Honda wanted to, it could engineer a PHEV based on the Accord PHEV to be the slam dunk among all. Needed would be more battery capacity for Volt-like (or beating) range and a design that retained the spaciousness, but the technology is already in place, if not the will to use it.

No, Honda has other plans. Like Toyota, it’s more bullish on regular hybrids and the Accord PHEV is the basis for the pending Accord Hybrid, which is the same car with a smaller battery, and no plug-in capability.

So What’s Best?

If we could take the benign route, we’d affix a bumper sticker on this and say “all of our kids are honor students.” More realistically, any one of them stands to work well, but the best compromise depends on what you want.

For one or two occupants and smaller rear-seat passengers, the Volt potentially offers the most compelling proposition given its long e-range. For those who regularly exceed EV range with longer daily or infrequent trips, it’s between the Prius and Fords. The $40k Accord is somewhere in the realm of the Fords and Toyota too, and while costing more, offers a unique alternative in return.

We told you what we’d like to do in fantasy wish-list: mix elements of each and redesign an ideal roomy, high-electric-range, affordable car that gets good gas mileage all at the same time.

Does that mean you should wait until the next generation? Maybe, but not necessarily. Leasing or being mindful of potential resale value to keep options open are things to weigh among myriad other considerations.

For more details one each, you can refer to articles linked above.