Home » MotorTrend’s Ridiculous Arguments Against Plug-In Hybrids: Just Say Hell No

MotorTrend’s Ridiculous Arguments Against Plug-In Hybrids: Just Say Hell No

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Last week Motor Trend wrote the article “Plug-In Hybrids? Just Say Hell No,” with a subheading that read “EVs have progressed. It’s time to ditch the training wheels.” I’m a fan of the author, Johnny Lieberman, but I have to call his “take” what it is: a steaming hot pile of manure.

I’ve already described in detail why PHEVs are valuable to American consumers and to the climate at large—these assertions are not refutable, they are simply fact. Still, Lieberman and many other journalists keep writing the same things: that EVs are so good these days that we should just get rid of PHEVs, and that not every PHEV owner plugs in all the time, anyway. Those are pretty much the main arguments against PHEVs, and they’re just ridiculous.

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These authors’ “all or nothing” stances towards EVs are detrimental to our planet and they don’t help the consumer. I will not stand for it.

The Basic Premise: Getting More People Into Electric Cars Is A Net Societal Good

Let’s start with a basic premise: The best thing for the environment is to, as quickly as possible, get as many people driving electric as possible.

That’s a fair premise, right? Obviously, there are infrastructure saturation concerns, but by and large, the premise seems sound. Climate change is about cumulative emissions, so time matters. We need to get folks out of their guzzlers and zipping around on grid power ASAP. Then we gotta clean that grid up more and more (aka decarbonize the grid).

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Then… Why Aren’t More People Buying EVs?

OK, so the premise is established. Now let’s take the next logical step from that premise: We have to determine why everyone can’t drive an EV immediately. Let’s, for the sake of simplicity, talk about those in the market for a new car. Why is it that over 80 percent of all vehicle sales are still traditional gas cars? For us to meet the goal established by our premise, we need to get those folks driving electric now! What’s happening? Let’s figure out the possible problems.

To simplify this, let’s just put the problems in terms of supply and demand. If every new car buyer wanted to drive an EV, and there was plenty of EV supply/variety at a good price, then our problem would be solved. And yet, less than 10 percent of new cars in the United States are EVs. So something is happening on the supply or demand side — which is it? The answer is: Both.

There are lots of reasons why not all car sales are EVs right now, including supply constraints, EV skepticism (including concerns about EV longevity/range/infrastructure/depreciation), and cost. Many of these, as the anti-PHEV article by MotorTrend correctly points out, may go away in time, with EVs dropping in cost year by year, infrastructure building up, and folks becoming better-versed on how EVs work. But, as I established earlier, climate change is a cumulative emissions issue. In 2024, we have lots of people looking to buy a new car they can drive for the next five or 10 years; they could choose an EV, but at least 90% of them do not.

The result? They keep driving gas cars, harming the environment.

This is a choice automakers have made, and it’s a choice that lots of anti-PHEV folks apparently want consumers to continue to make: “Buy an EV or keep driving gas guzzlers.” It’s the “All or Nothing” approach to electric vehicles and it’s doing significant harm to the environment.

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Let’s Imagine A Customer Who Wants A Truck That Can Tow

Take example-customer Joey. Joey wants to buy a pickup truck to replace his 1997 Chevy Silverado, a V8 workhorse that has seen one too many Michigan winters and has succumbed to rust. He shops around and finds a Ford F-150 Lightning. “Oh wow, that’s a nice truck,” he says. “But damn, that’s not cheap. Worse, the thing can only tow a trailer 100 miles before needing a long recharge.

Joey passes. He looks at the Rivian R1T; it has the same issues. He checks out the Cybertruck — well, damn, it’s expensive and can’t tow far, either! Finally, he visits a Chevy dealership and sees the Silverado EV — it can tow his trailer for 200 miles! Awesome!

Except the reason it can tow a trailer 200 miles is that Chevy shoved a humongous 200+ kWh battery pack into it — a heavy, expensive, dirty-to-manufacture battery. “Yeah, that’s too expensive, I’m out,” says Joey. So Joey runs to his local Ford dealer and picks up an F-150 hybrid, which gets only 24 MPG combined. Joey continues to spew emissions into the air from his ICE pickup for the next 10 years.

Now let’s look at an alternative. Let’s say Joey waits a few months for the Ram Ramcharger to hit the market. The Ramcharger is a plug-in hybrid, though more specifically, you can call it an extended-range EV, or EREV. Joey checks it out. It can tow lots of weight, it has ridiculous range since the gasoline engine acts as a generator once the battery is depleted, it has a smaller battery that’s lighter and cleaner and cheaper to manufacture than that of an EV truck with the same range, and Joey can drive it in electric mode 95% of the miles he drives, since he really doesn’t tow that often.

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So Joey turns in his gas guzzler today, and instead of driving a 24 MPG F-150 hybrid (or a 21 MPG Ram non-hybrid or his patched-up old 15 MPG Chevy V8) for the next decade, he spends 95% of his miles driving his Ramcharger in EV mode, only using the range extender when towing once every couple of years. The environment benefits. (Note: The Ram Ramcharger is expected to cost about as much as the Ram REV fully-electric truck, but per my conversation with experts at Munro & Associates, range-extended EVs can be cheaper to build than EVs since their batteries are so much smaller. The MotorTrend piece also notes that PHEVs tend to be cheaper than EVs).

Car Buying Is Not Rational

PHEV detractors will retort with these two non-points:

1. If this fake “Joey” person only tows once every couple of years, then he should just buy an EV and not a PHEV. He’s barely even towing!

2. What if he doesn’t charge and just uses the gas engine all the time?

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These are the two main arguments against PHEVs, but they both fall flat under scrutiny.

First, when it comes to purchasing decisions, it’s really not that relevant what consumers actually do with their vehicles, it’s about what they think they can do. It’s why sports car buyers buy sports cars — not because they race them all the time, but because they could if they wanted to. It’s the same reason why people buy Jeep Wranglers — not because those customers off-road all the time, but because they could. It’s the same thing with trucks; people buy them not because they tow or haul that often, but because they could. It’s a vehicle’s capability — its potential — that creates its image, and it’s that image that consumers buy into. It’s been that way since the beginning of cars, and it’s never going to change.

To Lieberman’s credit, he acknowledges this:

Another argument is that a PHEV is perfect for running around town and then when it’s time for a road trip you have a gasoline vehicle. I absolutely get this part, especially psychologically. Lord knows, I’ve spent my fair share of time screaming into a phone about a slow/broken charger. But charging is improving.

But “charging is improving” isn’t enough of a counterpoint when less than 10% of new car sales are EVs. Are we just going to wait for infrastructure to improve as millions of Americans spew emissions from their tailpipes? Or are we going to give those Americans more options to drive electric today? Obviously, the second one is the answer, and we can make that happen by offering more PHEVs.

‘But Not Every PHEV Owner Charges’

The second point that many anti-PHEV folks make is about PHEV owners not actually charging their vehicles. ‘PHEVs are less efficient than gas counterparts when they’re not charged, and not all PHEV owners charge, so PHEVs are bad’ is the crux of the argument.

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This I don’t entirely understand, either. First, if it’s inconvenient for these folks to charge, then how do we expect to sell them EVs, which require charging? More importantly, there’s not amazing data out there on what the “electric drive share” (i.e. how much of a vehicle’s driven mileage is done in electric-only mode) of a typical PHEV is today. Chevy famously said that over 65 percent of a Volt’s drive time (not miles) is done in electric mode:

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And according to The Detroit Free Press, the best-selling PHEV in the U.S., the Jeep Wrangler 4Xe, is seeing plenty of charging. From the news site:

…Jeep owners are enthusiastic about EV mode. A whopping 90% of 4xe owners charge their vehicles an average of five times a week, Jeep North America boss Jim Morrison told me.

“A lot of our customers go days at a time without breaking into gasoline power,” Morrison said. “It’s something our customers want to do. They love the 4xe because it’s a really good Jeep. It’s fun to drive and quiet.”

Jeep collected data from 50,000 4xe owners who agreed to have their charging and driving behavior monitored anonymously.

The charging rate is even more impressive because the 4xe’s electric range is considerably below what the Strong Plug-in Hybrid Coalition considers necessary to encourage regular charging.

Remember that last line about electric range being too low to encourage charging, because I’ll get back to it in a second. For now, I’ll paste a bit more data from that Detroit Free Press article:

Kia sells a trio of plug-in hybrid small SUVs: the Niro, Sorento and Sportage. Assembled outside North America, they are not eligible for federal tax credits, but their charging rates are encouraging.

Owners of all three report frequently plugging in to charge daily or nightly:

◾ Niro: 70%

◾ Sorento: 80%

◾ Sportage: 62%

Obviously, that Kia study is fairly weak, and there are studies out there that say charging rates on PHEVs are too low — studies like this one from the International Council On Clean Transportation. But even that study says it could benefit from additional data.

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So the data is murky, but that doesn’t matter because not every owner has to plug in all the time for PHEVs to make sense. If only a third of truck drivers plug in daily and drive 95 percent of their miles in EV mode instead of spewing emissions from a 21 MPG (or lower) truck, that’s going to be a significant win for the environment. And to be honest, I bet the figure would be above a third for pickup trucks, since driving them on gas leads to such a significant added cost for the driver.

What’s more, it’s not a given that all PHEVs have to be less efficient than equivalent gas cars when they’re not charged. A range-extended EV running on its gas engine could, in theory, be more efficient than an equivalent ICE vehicle since the engine is able to run at a steady RPM to act as a generator.

And that leads me to a significant issue with these anti-PHEV assertions: They assume that all PHEVs must be like the ones currently available. Just because modern PHEVs aren’t good enough (as I wrote in a previous story) doesn’t mean future PHEVs can’t be different.

PHEVs Can Be So Much Better Than The Current Ones Out There Now

Phev Volvo S60 Recharge 3

I mentioned a few paragraphs up that you should remember that line in the Detroit Free Press article about PHEVs’ electric ranges being too low to encourage charging. Here’s more from that piece:

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“Longer-range PHEVs get plugged in very, very regularly,” said coalition co-chair and Colorado State University engineering professor Tom Bradley. “Even PHEVs that are only charged at work or every other day are still effective” at reducing emissions.

The International Coalition On Clean Transportation says the same thing in its study, but adds a few other notes on how PHEVs can be improved:

There are many potential policy tools available to increase the electric drive share of PHEVs. EPA could consider the following measures:

» Adjust the regulatory charge-depleting drive share (utility factor) downwards for PHEVs to reflect current real-world performance.

» Require in-use data reporting for specific PHEV models to receive a higher utility factor reflective of said in-use data.

» Adopt minimum electric driving range requirements, similar to California’s range requirements for zero-emission vehicle crediting in its Advanced Clean Cars II regulation.

» Adopt other vehicle model-level technical requirements such as minimum all electric power, maximum fuel tank size, fast-charging capability, and minimum cold weather performance.

» Establish a higher utility factor corresponding to demonstrated purchase of PHEV by drivers with home chargers or proof of manufacturer-provided charging access assistance. Meanwhile, manufacturers could incentivize regular charging by assisting in home charger installation and by actively reporting cost of driving to users. Tax administrators can incentivize PHEV purchases by offering purchase or tax credits for PHEVs whose in-use data show high utility factor.

This all aligns with my aforementioned article about how modern PHEVs just aren’t good enough. Here’s a quote from my piece:

 let’s have a look at the pure-EV range figures of some of America’s most popular plug-in hybrids:

  • Jeep Wrangler 4xe: 22 miles
  • Ford Escape plug-in: 37 miles
  • Chrysler Pacifica PHEV: 32 miles
  • Jeep Grand Cherokee 4xe: 26 miles
  • Hyundai Tucson PHEV: 33 miles
  • Hyundai Santa Fe PHEV: 31 miles
  • BMW X5 xDrive45e: 31 miles
  • BMW 330e: 23 miles
  • Toyota Prius Prime: 44 miles
  • Lexus RX450H+: 37 miles

These numbers are pathetic.

Many of these cars don’t even have enough range to get the average American to work and back without recharging, and even if you can plug in these low-range PHEVs at work, plenty of Americans will still not be able to do a full home-work-home commute.

[…]

Seriously, if the government’s goal is what they say it is — to get folks driving electric — then we need higher-range PHEVs, ideally relatively-simple, range-extended models that are clearly EVs first, gas cars second. If we can get reasonably-priced, 70-ish-mile PHEVs out there, I bet we’d see a lot more folks driving electric sooner than we think.

Today, we have far too many low-range, half-baked PHEVs out there, and far too few high-range range-extended EVs (which count as PHEVs). Plus, we have zero plug-in hybrid pickup trucks — vehicles that, more than most, would incentivize charging given how much gas they’d use when the ICE was on. If we had a larger variety of range-extended PHEVs with decent, 70+ mile EV-only range, there’s no question that they’d get plugged in far more than the current crop of PHEVs, especially if we adopt “vehicle model-level technical requirements” that the ICCT mentions above like maximum fuel tank size and minimum electric power.

We need the PHEVs to feel like EVs first, and gas cars second. Modern PHEVs feel like the opposite.

Let’s Stop With The Anti-PHEV Slander, Because The Value Of PHEVs Is Irrefutable

Ford Expands Global Truck Family With First Ever Ranger Plug In

What exactly has led Lieberman and so many other car journalists to write these anti-PHEV articles? I think maybe they’re getting caught up a bit in all the EV excitement, but more than anything, I think their view of PHEVs does not span beyond the current crop of offerings. Modern PHEVs kinda suck, especially relative to what they could be, and if you drive a vehicle with only a 30-mile EV range, and listen to the engine cut on before you make it home from work, you’re naturally going to think what Lieberman thought:

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A charged Prius Prime is smooth and silent and torquey; it does indeed offer most of the inherent good benefits of EV driving. Until the battery runs dry. Then the weak, coarse 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle inline-four fires up and routes its power through a continuously variable transmission. Not exactly my idea of a good time. The whole driving experience gets worse. I kept thinking, Man, why not just plop a larger battery into the Prime and turn it into a damn fine EV?

I’m going to respond to that rhetorical question at the end of that quote: Because not everyone wants an EV, and what’s more, an automaker can make two or three PHEVs using the battery resources from a single BEV. If the Prius Lieberman was driving offered a decent EV range of, say, 75 or 80 miles, he’d rarely ever hear that anemic gas motor cut on, he’d be driving a car more palatable to the masses, and he’d possibly be driving a car even better for the environment than a full-EV since the battery is much smaller (depending upon how often he uses the range extender).

Before I conclude, allow me to address a few specific quotes in the Motor Trend piece:

A dead PHEV battery means you’re needlessly dragging a heavy EV drivetrain around town with you…With a PHEV, you get added tire wear to go along with all that.

Um, with an EV, you’re carrying around 1000 pounds of extra weight every day as you commute to and from work. The weight of a gas engine and cooling system doesn’t even compare.

But let’s say you dutifully charge your PHEV before you drive it. You’re being trained to use an EV in the worst way. Fully charging a battery to 100 percent and then running it down to zero is terrible for the long-term health of any battery.

This assumes PHEVs only have just enough range for an average commute. Current ones do, so I’ll give you that. But some PHEVs, like my 2021 BMW i3S, offer 130 miles of range, so I have to recharge once every four days, and I don’t have to top it up to 100%. So that charging assumption isn’t fair, though yes, you’d have to charge it more than you’d charge an EV. (Note: I owned a small-battery PHEV that needed its battery replaced, but that was an early battery on BMW’s earliest EV; later updated models have batteries that last extremely long, rendering the point about battery degradation moot).

I’m aware pro-PHEV individuals will argue the local infrastructure where they live doesn’t support owning a fully electric vehicle. My counter: If you’re charging your PHEV at home, why not charge an EV at home?

I don’t get it? Why not just keep the PHEV and charge it at home? Why is charging an EV at home better than charging a PHEV at home? I’m a bit lost on this point. Especially if you only use it as a short-range commuter, why would you want a humongous battery that you never use?

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Another pro-PHEV argument is that on average, they’re cheaper to buy. Also a fair point, for now. Lower-priced EVs are coming, but in the meantime, have you checked out how little used EVs cost?

Sure, but if I’m buying new, those crazy EV depreciation rates would scare me off a bit. (To be sure: PHEV depreciation is a bit lower based on what I’ve read, but it’s not great).

Why have two propulsion systems when one works just fine? It’s a dead technology, anyway, as several countries and 12 U.S. states will be banning the sale of new internal combustion vehicles in coming years.

Why have two? Because 1. You can build 2-3 PHEVs with the battery resources from one EV. 2. PHEVs are cheaper than EVs 3. PHEVs are lighter than EVs 4. PHEVs can be better for the environment than EVs 5. EV skepticism is real 6. Infrastructure concerns

And I could go on and on. (Though technically it’s not two propulsion systems, since a range-extended EV just charges the battery, which drives the car via the electric motor. Added maintenance is minimal; change the oil every couple of years, maybe swap an air filter, that’s about it). The reality is that the automaker with the biggest decrease in carbon emissions last year was Toyota, and the company did that not by offering EVs, but by offering hybrids. Additionally, the ICCT — the organization that wrote the study criticizing PHEV charging rates — states emphatically that PHEVs can be major players in reducing climate change:

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) have the potential to reduce emissions from light-duty vehicles and help ease the transition to fully electric, zero tailpipe-emission vehicles. Though PHEVs store less energy in their battery packs than fully electric vehicles, PHEVs can be designed with enough energy storage to cover most daily trips in the United States. As long as such vehicles begin with a full, or nearly full charge every day, they have the capacity to significantly reduce fossil fuel consumption.

PHEVs value to the environment is irrefutable.

I’m not saying that the U.S. shouldn’t still push EVs, because people who absolutely need charging infrastructure to get around will help push that infrastructure to improve more than folks who have a gas range extender backup onboard — pain points yield growth. Nor am I saying there aren’t major issues with PHEVs. They don’t have enough range, for one, and their emissions output isn’t easily predictable.

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This latter point is worth reiterating, because it should not be understated how important accountability is to overall emissions reduction, and thus climate change mitigation. And that’s a challenge right now, because automakers are awarded by the EPA when they sell clean cars, and they’re punished when they sell dirty cars. If the EPA is rewarding automakers for selling PHEVs under the assumption that those PHEVs get charged the vast majority of the time, and those cars rarely get charged, then the automaker is reaping rewards without actually benefiting the environment. This is an important challenge for us to tackle, but it’s 2024, and this can be solved easily, and things are happening on that front. The ICCT breaks it down:

The upshot is that EPA had been giving automakers too much credit for greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions from the PHEVs they sold. EPA counts electric vehicles as zero-carbon in its vehicle regulations, and PHEVs as partially-zero carbon, based on their assumed electric drive share. In effect, EPA was undercounting the GHG emissions from the higher-than-expected gas guzzling of PHEVs.

EPA is addressing that problem now by lowering their assumed PHEV electric drive share. The figure below shows EPA’s previously assumed drive share in blue and their proposed revision to that curve in red. EPA’s proposed new curve is almost exactly the same as the one in our 2022 study, shown in green, which we derived from user-reported data in the Fuelly app. As a result, EPA’s estimates have moved closer to real-world usage. For example, a PHEV with a 35-mile electric range will be labeled as 45% zero-carbon instead of 57%.

The  ICCT recommends the EPA drop that electric drive share further, and it even suggests in the previously-mentioned study that the EPA “Require in-use data reporting for specific PHEV models to receive a higher utility factor reflective of said in-use data.”

So yes, the GHG credits side of things still needs work, but it’s something that can be solved, and it certainly does not detract from the (once again) irrefutable fact that offering PHEVs is good for the climate. It’s not up for debate anymore. Please, stop writing articles about how EVs are so good and not all PHEV drivers plug in, so therefore PHEVs should go away. Those points are weak.

You can get more people driving EV daily by offering PHEVs, which are cheaper, lighter, more palatable to EV skeptics, not as resource-intensive to build, and immune to infrastructure issues. And as the infrastructure improves, PHEV buyers will just plug in more frequently.

Let’s move on.

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Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
17 days ago

THANK YOU!!!!! Been waiting for this! Motortrend is pretty useless these days.

K. R. V.
K. R. V.
17 days ago

Ok even when I look at this ICE/EV/HYBRID thingy, there’s one argument that stand above the rest that’s not being addressed, that’s when an EV owner had solar panels and wall battery involved with overnight charging, or by sun in the day. That’s ok IF you’re never gonna have to travel outside your bubble? That is a requirement for a second vehicle if you must do so on a regular basis. Or at the least have a plug in Hybrid for the best of both worlds. Now that I have a great solar system, that gives me a set price of electricity for life, never to get higher than my the lowest bill cut by half! Even with a plugged in vehicle! So to get my local driving done after a charge, my only concern will be the extra cost of buying ethanol free gar, so it won’t go bad in the tank, if I don’t use it quick enough. But my choice of plug in right now is limited to the 30% price increase and the fact the manufacturers require you buy the highest trim level possible for the ability!

K. R. V.
K. R. V.
17 days ago
Reply to  K. R. V.

Ok I just watched the video comparing the Cybertruck to a Ram 2500 Cummins. That over the same measly distance as the Cybertruck maxed out towing at 85 miles LOL, the Ram used an equivalent of diesel fuel that was a laughable $10.00 LESS than the cyberpunk cost to recharge over 1hr 30 min!!

Scott McAfee
Scott McAfee
17 days ago

This discussion has descended into nothing but the wailing of zealots unwilling to acknowledge anything outside of their narrow band of beliefs. There are solid use cases for EV’s, PHEV’s and ICE vehicles and ignoring the existence of someone else’s reality is childish and absurd. If I lived in an urban environment I would absolutely want an EV. If I needed to haul or trailer loads for a living I would want an ICE. Quite frankly, if you feel strongly one way or the other, then you don’t belong here on an automobile enthusiast forum.

Dest
Dest
17 days ago

Your points are valid, but for me if I’m giving up my stick and engine noise, I’m doing it completely.

Kerry VanEtten
Kerry VanEtten
18 days ago

Finally, a breath of common sense to the EV/PHEV/ICE argument. The all or nothing EV attitudes so often heard are going to prevent meaningful change from occuring with any sense of urgency. Well written, and very hard to argue with. Nice work!

AceRimmer
AceRimmer
18 days ago

Man, Motor Trend has gone downhill over the past 2 decades. It’s written like a child’s book and they frequently have bad takes.

James E
James E
19 days ago

The idea that phevs don’t have a use case and that people should just buy a bev is short sighted and more to the point likely a politically motivated thing for people to say. For those of us that live in colder climates (Michigan here) and that occasionally go on 200+ mile roadtrips or tow etc the fact is bevs are not even in the ballpark of managing this yet. It really grates me when people jump on the bandwagon and claim that there is no excuse for people to buy anything other than bevs. I could go on but I won’t. Thanks David for actually calling out this nonsense. I will say that I think the f150 hybrid getting 24mpg combined is actually really great gas mileage. I drive a 2014 DS ram 1500 with 4×4 hemi, and the 8 speed and I get around 17 combined. I have also owned an early hybrid fwd Toyota highlighter and that was getting 24-25mpg combined.

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