Shopping for Plug-in Hybrids

If you’re excited enough about plug-in hybrids to start shopping for one, you may need to reset your expectations. Despite all the media attention about plug-in hybrids—also known as plug-in hybrid electric vehicles or PHEVs—it’s still not yet possible for an individual consumer to buy one, and only a few have gone to fleets or government agencies.

Toyota, the current leader in hybrids, is saying that it will produce a few demonstration plug-ins by 2010, but those will not be available to the public. General Motors got a lot buzz for its PHEV concept, the Chevrolet Volt, at the 2007 North American International Auto Show, and has plans for a plug-in version of the Saturn Vue Green Line—but the company’s target dates for putting those vehicles on sale are somewhat fluid. And while DaimlerChrysler has a small fleet of PHEV prototypes, they are built on a large van platform more suitable as a delivery vehicle than for the average family’s daily jaunts to work, the supermarket, or soccer practice.

To Our Own Devices

For the moment, if you have your heart set on owning a PHEV, you won’t be headed to the local dealership. You’ll have to build it yourself, or get someone else to do it for you. Sound crazy? Maybe, but already there are dozens of PHEVs on the road in North America, and a few more are built each month. Except for the do-it-yourself conversions, all of these vehicles are in the hands of institutions, such as electric utilities, local governments, and air quality management districts.

Like any heavily modified car, the first PHEVs are expensive, can have reliability issues, and have not been crash-tested in their modified form. But their owners enjoy exceptionally high gas mileage, greater all-electric range, and the privilege of being automotive pioneers.

Most of today’s PHEVs start with a stock, late-model (2004-2007) Toyota Prius. Larger battery packs are added, either supplementing the existing battery or replacing it entirely. The extra energy from these batteries allows these conversions to drive longer in all-electric mode, although they are still subject to the “rules” of the Prius drivetrain. For example, hard acceleration, speeds above 34 MPH, or use of climate controls brings the gasoline engine on. Even with the engine on, however, Prius-based PHEVs still achieve higher mileage—about double that of a conventional Prius—because the extra electricity can be blended in more frequently than in a standard Prius.

Today’s PHEVs vary widely in performance. Why? The answer is in the amount of energy they can store on-board the vehicle:

  • Current Prius-based PHEVs store between two and seven times the energy stored in a standard Prius battery. Overall, Prius-based PHEVs average between 65 and 95 MPG, with periods of driving at well over 100 MPG.

The more energy in the battery pack, the further the vehicle can go in all electric-mode, and the longer it can “boost” MPG on the highway. Storing more energy isn’t just a matter of putting in a bigger battery—the type of battery is also important since each battery chemistry has different characteristics.

I Want My PHEV

Still itching to have your own plug-in hybrid? The list of companies offering plug-in conversions, kits, or related services is growing everyday. Many are focused on building vehicles for government agencies and other fleets, but some are now taking orders. We’ll continue to add to this list as learn about new companies. Send us a note, if you hear of a new conversion company, and we’ll add it to the list. Because the sand is shifting so quickly, you’ll need to do your own leg work in terms of getting an exact price, turnaround time, and technical specs.