BUYERS GUIDE: Understanding Plug-in Hybrids & Range-Extended Electric Vehicles And Why They Make Sense

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Automakers and experts say that plug-in hybrids and range-extended EVs are misunderstood. We make the case that they are the future. What you need to know about this fast-growing segment.


2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid

Last week, Hyundai presented its Ioniq family at a press launch to the New England Motor Press Association. Michael O’Brien, Vice President of Product, Corporate & Digital Planning, called the Ioniq plug-in hybrid the “most misunderstood” member of Hyundai’s lineup. The very same day, Consumer Reports‘ expert Gabe Shenhar commented during a “Talking Cars” episode, that “The Plug-in hybrid is not a very well understood concept.”

These industry insiders agree that consumers are confused about the basics of how a plug-in hybrid is used and the design’s many advantages. How plug-in cars can be more affordable than conventional hybrids or mainstream EVs, given their dual drivetrains, is even more of a mystery to first-time green car shoppers.

Plug-In Hybrids – How They Work

A plug-in hybrid vehicle is most easily described as a hybrid vehicle that also has the ability to operate as an electric vehicle. A plug-in hybrid has most of the same technology as a typical hybrid, but packs a slightly stronger electric motor, a place to plug the vehicle in, and a larger battery pack. As the name suggests, a plug-in hybrid can operate for hundreds of miles as a high-mileage hybrid on gasoline, but it can also be plugged in at home or at a mobile charging station and operate as a zero emissions vehicle for limited distances using only its electric drive to power the vehicle.

Plugging in the vehicle tops off the battery to enable the electric-only operation of the vehicle. Once the charge is fully depleted, the vehicle will again operate as a gasoline hybrid with no interruption. An owner of a plug-in hybrid vehicle can drive without ever charging up their vehicle, or they could charge up each evening at home and also on the go to maximize the EV-only range they have to use. In fact, many plug-in hybrid and extended range EV owners use their vehicles primarily as EVs.

Examples of plug-in hybrid vehicles are the Toyota Prius Prime, the Chrysler Pacifica Plug-in, the Ford Fusion Energi, Ford C-Max Energi, and the Hyundai Sonata Plug-in hybrid. Hyundai is also planning to launch a new plug-in hybrid Ioniq this fall.

Plug-in Hybrids vs. Extended Range Electric Vehicles – What’s The Difference?

There is no practical difference between a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) and an extended-range hybrid electric vehicle (EREV). They operate basically the same way and both can operate with or without an electric charge as hybrids. The most popular example of an EREV is the Chevy Volt.

There is one thing that is easy to say about these vehicles in general, and that is that traditionally, EREVs have had a longer EV-only operating range than PHEVs. For example, a Prius Prime has a range of about 25 miles on electricity before it reverts to hybrid operation, and a Chevy Volt has a range of about 53 miles on its batteries alone before reverting to hybrid operation. However, with each new generation, both types of vehicles are increasing their EV-only range. In fact, many newer plug-in hybrids are approaching the 30-mile EV range point now. The original Volt only had a 38-mile range. As you can see, the definitions and terms are not static.

Plug-In Hybrids & Extended Range Electric Vehicles – Advantages

The most important advantages of a plug-in hybrid or extended range hybrid electric vehicle, compared to a battery electric vehicle (BEV) that only operates on electricity, are range and ease of refueling. Even the most expensive long-range battery electric cars like the Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model S have a range of between 200 and 300 miles on a full charge. Recharging a depleted electric vehicle back up to 100% takes at least an hour on the fastest chargers. On the slowest charge sources, like a home 115-volt circuit, it can take as much as 20 hours.

By contrast, plug-in hybrid cars like the Chevy Volt and Prius Prime have a total range of 420 miles and 640 miles respectively because they carry enough gasoline to keep going after the EV battery is depleted. This makes them a no-compromise vehicle for those that want to use the car as an EV for daily chores and commuting, but also want the same car to be able to drive directly to a distant relative’s home, or a vacation spot with no hassles related to plugging in.

There is another plus related to the smaller batteries that the PHEVs and EREVs carry. Since they are smaller, they don’t require any special chargers to top off to 100% relatively quickly. Both can easily recharge to full at home on a normal 115-volt circuit overnight. The Prius Prime can charge from empty to full in about 5 hours on an 115-volt circuit or about 2 hours on a dedicated home 230-volt circuit (like your dryer uses).

The advantages don’t stop there. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, plug-in hybrids are actually more efficient than battery-electric cars when operating as EVs. In fact, the Prius Prime is a more efficient car than the Chevy Bolt battery-electric. This is mainly because plug-in hybrids are lighter than battery-electric cars. The batteries in cars like a Tesla Model S are extremely heavy and they make the car use more electricity per mile. Then there is the cost to refuel to consider. In some locations in the U.S. that are target markets for EVs, it is actually less expensive to use gasoline than it is to use electricity to propel a plug-in hybrid car. Utilities may offer special incentives for home charges during off-hours, but recharging on the go can be more expensive. Plug-in hybrid owners have the best of both worlds when it comes to low cost per mile for energy.

One other way that plug-in hybrids rival EVs is the cost of maintenance. Despite the theory that an EV should be cheaper to maintain than a vehicle with an internal combustion engine, automakers have not proven that in practice. In fact, one of the most expensive to maintain cars in America is the Tesla Model S. Don’t take our word for it. Look at Tesla’s price chart below.

 – Buying a Fully-electric Vehicle? Here is how Your Electric Bill Will Change

Plug-In Hybrids – Understanding Costs and Incentives

Electric vehicle buyers enjoy a tax deduction from the federal government and also local state incentives. These can add up to thousands of dollars in savings. However, plug-in hybrid and EREV vehicles also qualify. The amounts are typically lower for plug-in models, but that is not always the case. The Chrysler Pacifica Plug-in hybrid qualifies for the maximum federal tax deduction of $7,500. Owners who qualify for the federal tax deductions will find that the Prius Plug-in Hybrid and the Hyundai Sonata Plug-in hybrid are actually a bit less expensive than the hybrid-only versions of those same cars.

See A List of Green Vehicle Incentives By Model

Plug-In Hybrids & Extended Range Electric Vehicles- Do They Sell?

Plug-in hybrid and extended range electric vehicles are the top-selling EVs in America. In the first four months of 2017, the Chevy Volt EREV was the top-selling EV for January and February and the Prius Prime was the top-selling EV for April.  They also rank first and third overall year to date. Ford’s two plug-in offerings, the Fusion Energi and C-Max Energi combine to outsell the Nissan Leaf.

Plug-In Hybrids & Extended Range Electric Vehicles – The Coming Years.

The conventional wisdom from a few years back was that as battery density went up and costs came down, electric vehicles would begin to take over the green vehicle market and start to make inroads to the mainstream market as well. In fact, the opposite is happening so far. As batteries get smaller for a given range and the cost comes down, automakers are putting higher-capacity batteries into plug-in hybrids and extended range electric vehicles while keeping prices at levels that buyers can afford. Mike O’Brien at Hyundai makes the case that, like power and amenities were once luxuries that buyers would pay more for, range from batteries is becoming the new price adder for green vehicles. If current trends hold, plug-in cars will have electric-only ranges of 50 miles or more in the next generation. That is more than the vast majority of Americans drive per day. At least that is what the EV advocates have been telling us for many years. Combine that zero-emissions operating range with a lower price and the ability to drive 400 to 600 miles without stopping, and such a car is hard to beat in the green vehicle marketplace. As the Chevy Volt and Prius Prime are proving.

Image of Prius Prime Charging at Waters Corporation courtesy of Jesse Rudavsky.



John Goreham

John Goreham