I am excited and inspired by electric cars. Their adoption has accelerated dramatically over the last three years as manufacturers have started to fulfill the promise of electric cars. They are good solutions for many Americans, but I’m not sure they’ll work yet for most Americans. What will? Plug-in hybrids, or PHEVs. As we move towards an increasingly electrified future, it’s about time we consider the role PHEVs can play.
Of course, any article about what’s to come in the world of cars requires a lot of important clarifications to preempt any arguments based on existing biases. There is no Switzerland in the automotive world. From the rampant anti-car screeds on r/FuckCars, to unhinged Tesla fanboys, to coal-rollers, to EV skeptics, to Radwooders, it’s not possible to find a real middle ground.
I will not attempt to find one here, but I’ll lay out a few beliefs I have to inform where my mind is at:
- Global warming is real and potentially quite disruptive to life on this planet.
- While electric cars are not perfect and do create pollution and contribute to global conflict, the carbon footprint benefit of someone switching to an electric car significantly outweighs the negatives.
- It would be a disaster if everyone switched to an EV tomorrow as the grid and public charging network is woefully unprepared. As a society, it should be a top priority to correct this.
- It’s clear that neither car manufacturers nor battery suppliers are in the position to meet even one-tenth of the demand for electric passenger cars under new government regulations.
- People have a right to travel and, if they enjoy cars, should be allowed to buy and drive just about any car they want.
- Commuting sucks for most people, and replacing a lot of it with public transit, biking, and work-from-home is a net benefit both to society and car enthusiasts. This is easier said than done in some places, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying.
- Just replacing every gas-powered car with an EV that has a giant battery doesn’t correct our land use issues.
- Driving in cities, largely, sucks. We should redesign public spaces and streets in denser environments to support biking, pedestrians, and public transit. Just putting chargers everywhere for, mostly, wealthier people is not solving the problem.
- Density is good, but not everyone wants to live in a higher-density environment. Cars are still necessary for a lot of people, and fun for others.
You may not agree with me on all of those points, but if you don’t agree with any of them then this is probably not going to be an enjoyable article for you to read.
The point is, right now we’re in a kind of transition phase. The traditional, gas-powered, not-smart era of cars is slowly giving way to a more electrified and connected one. We have a lot of problems to tackle as that happens, including adding access to new fuel sources and charging. But it also gives us a chance to reexamine what wasn’t good about that era of cars and try to make the future better.
Hence where I’m at on PHEVs right now. I see them as a great solution in this bridge era and probably beyond it as well—maybe more than most car buyers realize.
The options for PHEVs these days are fantastic, and cover a huge range of cars. If you want an off-roader, you can grab the extremely popular Jeep Wrangler 4xe. A minivan? Try the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid. At the cheaper end of the market, there’s the incredible Toyota Prius Prime for around $34,000. At the extreme end of what you can buy is the $500,000 Ferrari SF90 Stradale.
What Counts As A PHEV?
What all these cars have in common are the following:
- A gas-powered motor capable of propelling the car (either driving the wheels or acting as a generator for batteries, which drive the wheels via a motor/motors)
- An electric motor capable of driving the car with the gas engine turned off.
- A battery pack.
- The ability to charge the battery pack using a port on the car that connects to an external power source.
That’s it. If the only source of power for the onboard battery is the car’s gas motor (plus brake regen), that’s just a normal hybrid.
Not all PHEVs have the same mission and not all are created equal. Some PHEVs, like the Prius Prime, have a larger battery pack and are designed for efficiency, allowing an owner to travel over 40 miles on a single charge. The aforementioned Ferrari? You’re lucky to get 9 miles of pure EV driving as it’s designed to use its electric motors to make you a lot faster on a race track.
Right in between is the Jeep Wrangler 4xe, which returns a completely usable 22 miles of EV-only range, plus gives drivers the added benefit of extra torque in off-road situations. There’s a bit of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too to PHEVs in that, when run as EVs, they can reduce the need to use gas at all; when the internal combustion engine is utilized, a PHEV typically gives a driver more power and more efficiency, even if they never plug it in.
As with anything in life, plug-in hybrids aren’t without their drawbacks. A Wrangler 4xe starts at $54,735, while a comparable Rubicon starts at $47,495. The 4xe, though, does qualify for a $3,750 federal tax credit. Having both a gas engine and an electric motor adds weight, which reduces the efficiency of the vehicle.
See, if you only use the car in EV mode then you’re probably hauling around a gas motor for no good reason. And if you’re only using it in ICE mode, that’s sort of defeating the point as well. This is part of why PHEVs get so much shit in various emissions studies out of Europe: too many companies bought them for their corporate fleets thanks to generous tax breaks, and then those drivers (who were often using company gas cards anyway) never charged them. You have to charge these cars or you’re screwing yourself.
In order to evaluate the usefulness of plug-in hybrids, I borrowed two very different types of these vehicles: The 2023 Kia Niro PHEV and the Volvo S60 Recharge.
The Kia Niro PHEV: A Lot Of Car For $34,000
I can’t drive two cars simultaneously, so friend-of-the-site Joel Johnson picked up the Kia Niro PHEV for me. Almost immediately, he was cornered by someone in a grocery store parking lot who not only knew what it was, but wanted to congratulate Joel for driving it! I get it. The little Niro looks like a $60,000 design on a car that starts around $34,000 [Editor’s Note: I don’t know if I quite agree, but it does look interesting. -DT]. Even our completely loaded version barely cost over $40,000.
Fast Facts: 2023 Kia Niro SX Touring
- Cost: $33,840 (Base), $41,635 (as tested)
- Powertrain: 1.6-liter four-cylinder w/ electric motor assist (FWD)
- Electric Motor: 62 kW permanent magnet synchronous motor
- Power: 180 hp / 195 lb-ft (Combined gas/electric)
- Battery Size: 11.1-kWh lithium-ion polymer battery
- Electric Range: 34 Miles
The Niro is interesting in that it only comes in hybrid or EV form. The non-plugin Niro HEV is a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine with a small battery and small electric motor that gets a combined 53 mpg. Move up to the plug-in and you get a bigger battery pack. The EV version gets a sensible 253 miles of range on the EPA range test.
There are two main types of plug-in hybrids: vehicles that connect the electric motor to the transmission to the drive the wheels (like the Niro), and ones (like the S60) that power the wheels or axles directly using one or more electric motors. This technology is still relatively new so there are some interesting variations. The Wrangler 4xe actually has two motors, with one connected to the 2.0-liter motor to provide additional torque (a BSG, Belt Starter Generator on the accessory drive — the “P0” hybrid system), and another connected to the transmission that replaces the torque converter (an ISG, Inline Starter Generator — the “P2” hybrid system).
With the Niro PHEV, the electric motor is typically powering the car at low speeds (where electric motors are more efficient), during acceleration where it can give the car a little extra punch, and when it can keep propelling the car forward during high-speed cruising. Here’s a neat graphic from Kia that shows how it works:
If all you want is electric power, the Niro has an EV mode to restrict EV use. There’s also an EV+ mode that uses the EV except when the accelerator pedal is pushed all the way to the floor.
In practice, this means you can have a pure EV for about 34 miles. That’s probably enough distance for many people to travel to-and-from work, though not everyone. According to a 2021 study by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the average worker only commutes about 15.2 miles a day. This same worker, however, ends up traveling about 44.8 miles a day when shopping, recreation, and other activities are included.
If you own one of these cars and can charge overnight, but not at work, you’ll be covered for most of the day. If a Type 2 public charger is available at work, it should only take about two hours to fully recharge the battery from zero. Even with a standard three-pin 120-volt plug, the Niro can get to 100% in about six hours.
Joel has the ability to plug into a wall at his garage so it’s easy for him to charge up overnight. It’s a little harder for me as my parking spot lacks a charger, though there are public chargers nearby.
The Niro is definitely going on the list of cars I can recommend to people as I found the car to be nerdy enough to appeal to the tech-curious side of me and practical enough to appeal to the dad in me. I think the Niro looks great, is extremely efficient, and is quite roomy for something with a battery pack wedged under the seats. The EPA interior volume is 120.3 cubic feet, which is about the same size as a Honda HR-V.
We took both the Volvo and the Kia up to the FCP Euro Proving Grounds autocross course at the historic Lime Rock Park race track in northern Connecticut for some tire-squealing hijinks while FCP Euro worked on their BTCC-inspired Volvo 850 wagon project.
While its 0-60 mph time in the mid-7-second range isn’t great, the car does have 180 horsepower and only weighs about 3,300 pounds, so both Joel and I were able to toss it around without tossing our cookies. Is it fast, no? It’s not supposed to be. It’s sufficient.
Overall, it’s a completely livable car, at a reasonable price, that feels nice and barely needs any gasoline for the average commuter.
The Volvo S60 T8 Recharge PHEV: This Thing’s A Rocket
Patrick had an S60 T8 Recharge a couple of weeks before I did, and his advice was to go out and find an unsuspecting Challenger owner to dust at a stoplight. He was right. Given that it’ll do 0-60 mph in about 4.1 seconds, most muscle cars don’t stand a chance.
This thing is the rare sleeper these days that doesn’t scream “LOOK AT ME, I’M A SLEEPER.” It’s still a Volvo. It’s discrete and handsome. But it has 455 horsepower and can kick your ass before you even knew it was coming for you.
Fast Facts: 2023 Volvo S60 T8 Recharge Black Edition
- Cost: $57,950 (Base), $63,690 (as tested)
- Drivetrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged (front wheels), electric motor (rear wheels)
- Power: 455 hp / 523 lb-ft (Combined gas/electric)
- Battery Size: 18/8-kWh lithium-ion polymer battery
- Electric Range: 40 Miles
Unlike the Niro PHEV, The S60’s gas motor and electric motor are not connected via the transmission. Up front is Volvo’s turbocharged and intercooled 2.0-liter inline-four, which has enough grunt on its own to make for a quick little sedan. The 143-horsepower electric motor sitting over the rear axle creates an all-wheel-drive car that confidently pulls from a dead stop with a rush of acceleration and very little drama. This is quite similar to what the Polestar 1 offers, which makes sense since Polestar helped make this car.
It’s an absolute hoot in a straight line if you want to involve the gas motor. If you don’t, it’s also a relatively nice electric car. I got the S60 Recharge delivered and immediately put it in “Pure EV” mode to experience EV-only driving. While I did inadvertently trip the gas motor a couple of times under hard acceleration, I was able to drive from my kid’s ballet practice, to the store, to any number of weekend chores only using electric power. I was even able to plug in to a local fast charger during a coffee run and grab a couple of extra miles of range while I waited in line for a chocolate babka (look to the babka!)
While the S60 does weigh over 4,400 pounds, apparently 143 electric horsepower is enough power to not feel slow when poking around town.
As with the Kia, I took the S60 Recharge around the FCP Euro track to see how fast it could go in both modes. While the car was on all-season tires and is not designed for racetracks, it actually did quite well, setting a 42.8-second time. Our old friend Michael Roselli was there and was able to get the lap time down almost to 40 seconds.
In “Power” mode, the car is smart enough to guess what the driver wants and shoves as much torque into the rear tires as it can. It’s not a huge shove, but it’s enough to get the car to counter some of its natural tendency towards understeer. If, like me, you push the car right to the edge (or, perhaps, needlessly over it), Volvo’s seatbelt tensioners will step in to corset you into the seat until you promise to stop.
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For even more fun, we all challenged to go into EV-only mode to see how much slower just 143 horsepower will get you. It wasn’t slow! You can see in the video above that I was able to get a 48.4-second lap out of the S60 Recharge (curiously, all of us ended up at basically 48 seconds when we tried). The biggest challenge, honestly, was not making the engine turn on by pushing too hard on the accelerator pedal. I was able to get the car up to about 60 mph on the “straight” without tripping the gas engine and Volvo says the car can go up to 72 mph in Pure EV mode.
Again, the most obvious difference between this and the Polestar 1 is this car lacks the fancy Akebono brakes and Ohlins adjustable dampers at each corner. The S60 is also about $100,000 cheaper than the Polestar.
Inside, the Volvo is a comfortable and semi-luxurious place to be. It’s pretty much a standard Volvo and, other than a few extra controls, you’d have no idea it was a PHEV. With a larger battery, expect the S60 to take more than ten hours to fill up on a 110-volt home charger. On a 220v home charger, the Volvo should take about five hours and a Level 2 charger should take about 2.5 hours.
While Autopian writer Thomas might enjoy the $3,200 Bowers and Wilkins premium sound system, I’d chuck to keep the price closer to $60,000. The Black Edition does bring the black grill, badging, and dark metallic paint, which does look good.
(Editor’s Note: I absolutely love the S60 Recharge. The vague “Recharge” branding does it no favors, but it’s a land-missile of a sedan with incredibly comfortable seats and phenomenal fuel economy and electric range. The tech is a bit dated because that generation of Volvo’s been around for a bit, but it still looks great inside and out. And while it’s no handler, I couldn’t believe the speed this hybrid put down. I’m not sure anyone builds a better sleeper right now than this.
Oh, and to the driver of that modified Honda Civic Type R that I encountered on the Palisades Parkway: Sorry, kid. Nothing personal, I promise. -PG)
Honestly, just spay the $70,000 for the V60 wagon edition and what you’ll have is one of the coolest, most practical, and surprisingly fast vehicles you can buy.
I made the mistake of configuring this car on Volvo’s site and now I want it. If there are two complaints I have about this car, it’s that it requires premium fuel when it needs fuel (because of the high-strung motor) and there’s no physical button to switch between Pure EV and other modes, meaning you have to use the touchscreen to change your propulsion.
Plug-In Hybrids Are A Great Way To Learn About Your Commute
How much do you really drive in a day? Most commuters are desensitized to putting gas in their cars and only become aware of it when prices at the pump get above a certain level. When driving a plug-in hybrid, as with a lot of EVs, you’re training yourself to think about how much you’re driving.
For instance, it’s about 5.1 miles from my parking spot to my daughter’s dance studio. If I add 0.2 miles to go to the bakery while she dances I can plug into the Level 2 charger nearby and add about 2.8 kilowatt hours of juice to the battery. I can also get a cookie. This means that, if I leave home with a full battery, by the time I make the round trip, I’ll still have about 35 miles of range when I get home.
While at the track, we used a couple of the Porsche Destination Chargers that Porsche has kindly put in key locations around the world, and it was fun to go and get lunch and come back to find a couple of miles had been added back.
Plug-In Hybrids Are Electric Cars With None Of The Anxiety
The question I ask when people complain about not being able to drive an electric car because of range is: How often do you drive more than 200 miles in a day? It’s rare. Most people can remember when they had to drive more than 200 miles because it was a special occasion of some kind. My parents live about 200 miles away, round trip, and that’s the longest journey we typically take. The average EV would be fine for us.
Trying to maintain the battery as much as possible, I found myself asking questions like: Is it worth it to get in the car to drive five miles to the good grocery store for milk or can I just walk around the corner to the average grocery store to get exactly the same thing?
Admittedly, it becomes a little bit like a game, but it’s a game that saves money and energy… assuming you don’t spend all of your money on cookies.
Is A PHEV Right For You?
PHEVs are usable for almost everyone, but I think these are the questions to ask before purchasing one:
- Do I have the ability to charge my car at home or access a public charging station convenient to where the car is parked?
- Is my typical travel under 50 miles a day?
- Do I occasionally need to drive more than 250 miles in a day?
If you answered “yes” to all of those questions then a PHEV is good for you. If you drive more than 250 miles a day, every day, then a more efficient gas or longer-range electric car is also an option with considering.
America (And The World) Want PHEVs. But We May Not Get Them For Long
Last year, one in four Jeep Wranglers sold in the United States was a 4xe plug-in hybrid. According to this Automotive News report, this number increased to one-in-three in the first quarter of 2023 (albeit, partially due to federal tax incentive rules changing). It’s actually this country’s best-selling PHEV. The Jeep Grand Cherokee 4xe went on sale late last year, and they represented about 13% of all Grand Cherokees sold through March of this year.
This isn’t just an American phenomenon. The biggest seller of electrified cars in the world isn’t Tesla, it’s Chinese company BYD. In 2022, they sold 911,141 electric cars. You know what they sold more of? Per InsideEVs, BYD managed to move 946,238 PHEVs, which was a 247% year-over-year increase. [Editor’s note: BYD is weird and tends to mix PHEVs and range-extender cars with its “electric vehicle” numbers, while we in the West tend to draw a harder line between the two. -PG]
[Editor’s Note: Matt alludes to this later, but I’ll mention it anyway: Though it may seem counterintuitive, buying a high-range fully-electric car could be worse for the environment than buying a hybrid, especially if you’re only commuting a short distance daily. Buying a 180 kWh Rivian R1T and driving that 33 miles everyday could be dirtier than buying a plug-in hybrid with a smaller battery whose EV-only range aligns more with your daily commute. That’s because with the Rivian, you’d be carrying over 1,000 pounds of dirty-to-create lithium-ion batteries around for really no reason (I suppose you’d have to charge less frequently), as you just need a battery probably not much bigger than 1/10th that size to handle your daily duties.
Of course, as you took your occasional 100+ mile weekend road trips using the onboard gas motor, the high-mileage EV Rivian would eventually become cleaner (and indeed, this is how most Americans drive their cars — it’s more than just short around-town driving), but it’s also worth considering the question: From a mineral-resource standpoint, does it make more sense to sell a single $100,000 truck with a 180 kWh battery, or does it make more sense to split that 180 kWh battery into sixteen 11kWh batteries (the same size as the Niro PHEV’s) and get 16 families out of gas-only cars and into cheap hybrids, commuting to and from work daily using only electric power? Of course, for any of these questions to even be worth asking, PHEV users can’t go on long gas-powered road trips all the time, and they have to actually charge their cars. This second point is important, because a PHEV can actually be worse for the environment than a gas car if folks don’t leverage its electric-only capabilities; perhaps there should be some kind of software requirement that makes it difficult to use a PHEV as a gas-only car everyday? I really don’t know, but I love PHEVs nonetheless. I own one with a tiny 22 kWh battery, and rarely ever use the gas range extender. For my use-case and on my budget, I think it’s the cleanest automotive option that provides me with piece-of-mind should I need to travel a few miles over 80 on an occasional weekend. -DT].
There’s a wide range of options for plug-in hybrid vehicles in the United States if what you want is a crossover, small hatch, sedan, or supercar. The best value is probably the $32,000 Toyota Prius Prime, though it doesn’t qualify for any federal tax credits. If you want a tax credit, the Ford Escape PHEV qualifies for $3,750 of federal incentives and returns a good 37 miles of range.
What we lack in the United States is a plug-in hybrid pickup truck and something more affordable, like the BYD Qin, which retails for about $20,000 in China. If an automaker can produce a sub $30k, reasonable PHEV that qualifies for at least half of the federal tax incentives I think it would be a hit. I feel similarly about a PHEV pickup that’s under $50,000.
The problem is that signs show this type of car may be in decline, unfortunately. About one in four cars Toyota/Lexus sells is a hybrid, but only three of their U.S. cars are of the plug-in kind.
Few other automakers are willing to get into this market if they aren’t already because they think it’s more cost-effective to “skip a step” and go straight to EVs. Considering the costs involved, it’s tough to blame them. And on the buyer side, battery EV demand and ownership is rising fast while the same for hybrids and PHEVs is either peaking or declining.
That’s a shame. Almost everyone outside of urban apartment dwellers could make great use of a PHEV. Their smaller battery packs are a net benefit because they utilize fewer precious metals to build and require less energy to fully charge while delivering enough electric mileage for most people. PHEVs can train drivers to think about their commutes and optimize for efficiency as opposed to just convenience. In the case of both the Wrangler 4xe and S60 Recharge, the plug-in hybrid versions are more capable vehicles than their purely gas counterparts. And despite what some studies say, they are phenomenal at reducing emissions—which we should all care about—versus their all-gas counterparts, not just saving on fuel costs. If drivers actually charge them and use them right, of course.
I think most people, eventually, will switch to purely electric cars, but we’re not as close to that day as many people would like to think. This great country was built on clever and well-intentioned stopgap solutions. I don’t see why this should be any different, and if we’re in this bridge phase, I’d like to see more automakers step up and fill that need.
Photos: Author, Joel Johnson, all the good ones: Mark Loper/FCP Euro
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