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Not Ready for an Electric Car Yet? Try a PHEV — a Plug-In Hybrid

265713 xc90 recharge plug in hybrid inscription in birch light metallic 1640036440


Car manufacturers have an onslaught of electric vehicles coming — but for many buyers, the world around them isn’t ready for an EV just yet. Charging infrastructure is less than ideal, especially if you don’t have a garage that can house a Level 2 charger. There aren’t that many medium-sized, family-friendly EV options on sale today. Even if you find the EV that works for you, it’s likely to be far more expensive than what you’d find in the combustion market. And if you’ve ticked all those boxes, that cross-country road trip may not be feasible.

If you aren’t sold on getting an EV yet, there is another compelling option available: the plug-in hybrid, or PHEV. The acronym (Pee-HEV? P-H-E-V?) isn’t all that intuitive, and you don’t get to feel quite as smug or green moving to a vehicle that still runs on gasoline. But PHEVs can provide many of the benefits of fully electric cars without the often deal-breaking drawbacks.

volvo xc90

Volvo

PHEVs more or less function as EVs on short trips

A while back, Volvo loaned me an XC90 PHEV for the week. It was an early PHEV offering, about 18 miles of EV-only range. That doesn’t sound like much, but in real life, suburban driving that’s a fair bit. I nearly made it the entire week with the car functioning just like an EV. And if you’re driving, say, a Toyota RAV4 Prime, which has 42 miles of EV range, that would be even easier.

I took my kids to school. I performed all of my errands. I took the family on a trip to the Detroit Zoo and out to lunch afterward — all on electric power. I made sure to charge the vehicle on my 110-volt home charger in between trips, and didn’t use any gas running errands; y only fuel consumption came on a highway trip for pleasure.

Sure, you might have a 24-mile commute. But even in that case, using the PHEV’s EV-only range would knock out 75% of the fuel consumption.

jeep wrangler 4xe phev plug in hybrid 2021

Will Sabel Courtney

PHEVs can make some of our favorite cars even better

We’re a long way from an electric Jeep Wrangler. But Jeep now sells the Wrangler 4xe plug-in hybrid. One of the Wrangler’s biggest knocks is efficiency; the 4xe however, is rated for 22 miles of EV range, and ur motoring editor Will Sabel Courtney earned 24.2 miles before the combustion engine kicked in. That range doesn’t turn the Wrangler into a fuel-sipping Toyota Prius, but it does eliminate the Wrangler’s least efficient driving: in-town shuttling.

More important than the efficiency is that the Wrangler 4xe is the best-performing Wrangler short of the bonkers Wrangler Rubicon 392. It delivers 375 horsepower, a 90 hp bump over the V6. And it gets an astounding 470 lb-ft of torque, 28 lb-ft more than the Wrangler EcoDiesel. You can also go off-roading without the engine noise; the soon-to-be-arriving Grand Cherokee 4xe climbed the famous Rubicon Trail on battery power.

bmw x5 phev

WGM

PHEVs can be much more economical

EVs are expensive. The cheapest models are approaching, if not exceeding, $40,000 before the tax credit — and those at that point offer the size and amenities of combustion cars that are $15,000-$20,000 cheaper. PHEVs aren’t cheap. But they often start much cheaper than EVs. And they are eligible for similar tax credits, which can make them effectively more affordable than the combustion model.

The BMW X5 xDrive 45e with 31 miles of range is pricey, starting at $63,700 MSRP. But that’s less than 10% more than the combustion X5, which starts at $59,200 MSRP. And BMW’s new iX, which will essentially be an electric X5, will begin at $83,200. Sure, the iX will get up to $7,500 from the federal tax credit for EVs…but so does the X5 xDrive45e

toyota rav4 prime

Toyota

So everyone is going to go out and buy PHEVs, right? Not exactly

PHEVs are great right now, but it’s very much a transition technology. Many luxury manufacturers will skip PHEVs for electric vehicles — and the costs will come down as battery and component costs come down. So manufacturers like Mercedes at the luxury end won’t need a PHEV option; they will just be selling electric cars.

It will be harder for budget manufacturers to go electric with lower margins. There’s a reason Lexus is pledging to go 100% EV, but Toyota itself is not. Cheaper cars will likely get more efficient using traditional hybrid engines that are cheaper and lighter than PHEV models. If EV costs come down as expected, there may not be much of a gap between the hybrids and electric cars for the middle-ground PHEVs to thrive.

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