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Are Plug-In Hybrids Actually the Best Path to Our Electric Future?

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Are Plug-In Hybrid Cars the Real Key to Our Electric Future?

Are PHEVs the cars that buyers really want … or just a flash in the pan?


After years of breathless enthusiasm, electric vehicle demand has begun showing signs of tapering off. As a result, car manufacturers such as Mercedes are already pulling back on what had been ambitious EV commitments. And plug-in hybrids — once derided as dead-end transition-phase technology that only served as a stopgap on the way to a gas-free future — are returning to the forefront at companies like GM that had planned to jump straight to EVs.

Could plug-in hybrids be the way forward instead of EVs while we slow-roll our transition off fossil fuels? Or are they just the latest automotive fashion trend? Like the plug-in hybrid powertrain itself, the answer is complicated.

Plug-in hybrids can deliver the best of both worlds … on paper

Technically, PHEVs can give you most of what you want from an electric car without subjecting you to the lack of functional charging infrastructure. Run your short errands, modest commutes and school runs on the battery. Plug in when you get home. With many modern PHEVs delivering 30-ish miles of range on the battery alone, many buyers can make a tank of gas last almost indefinitely.

And on the flipside, having that combustion engine still leaves you the flexibility to lean on it for longer journeys. Plus, you don’t even need to add a Level 2 EV charger at home; many PHEVs can fully charge overnight on a conventional 110-volt outlet.

Plug-in hybrids are easier for manufacturers to build than EVs

By and large, PHEVs are just alternate versions of regular internal combustion cars. Building an all-electric Jeep Wrangler will be a huge pain in the ass for Stellantis, requiring years of costly, painstaking development. A Wrangler plug-in hybrid? Jeep already popped some batteries into the standard Wrangler back in 2021 with the Wrangler 4xe.

The Wrangler 4xe isn’t perfect; the batteries make the Wrangler dramatically heavier (it weighs north of 5,000 pounds), and its off-road performance will be compromised if you’re in the one percent scraping the edges of Wrangler Rubicon capability. But it also has way more power and torque than the V6 and can do the grocery run on the battery alone.

The Jeep Wrangler 4xe is basically a standard four-cylinder Wrangler with benefits.Jeep

And plug-in hybrids tend to be cheaper than EVs

A major factor driving up EV price tags is the cost of batteries, but PHEVs pack smaller battery packs than EVs. So, even if they cost more than ICE or conventional hybrid vehicles (a Toyota RAV4 Prime drives the cost of a RAV4 into the mid-$40,000s), PHEVs still cost less than comparable EVs.

Our favorite PHEV crossover is the BMW X5 xDrive50e. It starts at $72,500, which is $7,300 more than the base BMW X5 — but alternatively, it’s $14,600 less than the all-electric BMW iX xDrive50. You’ll still have to gas up the X5 xDrive50e sometimes, but ~40 miles of range can go a (proverbial) long way.

EVs (at least a few of them) can qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit. But under current rules, so can plug-in hybrids … and more are likely to do so as manufacturers transition to North American sourcing and production.

But plug-in hybrids can also be the worst of both worlds in practice

The purported advantage of going PHEV over EV is not worrying about charging. But when you own a PHEV in everyday life, all you worry about is charging.

Getting the most from that small battery requires meticulous calculation every time you use the car. Plus, you must remember to plug in every time you arrive home (if you can do so at your home at all, which may not be true for apartment dwellers or folks without convenient outdoor outlets).

Planning your life around charging your PHEV’s tiny battery gets annoying quickly. And in some cases — like taking a Volvo XC90 Recharge on a road trip — it’s impossible. It’s unsurprising that studies show PHEV owners charge their batteries far less often than they could.

Volvo’s “Recharge” branding for its plug-in hybrids is apt as it’s what you spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about while driving one.Volvo

And many plug-in hybrids aren’t that great to drive

PHEVs sound like they are going to be a riot on paper. The aforementioned Volvo XC90 Recharge, for example, packs 455 horsepower and 523 lb-ft of torque. They are seldom a riot on the road.

A PHEV has to be three cars in one: an EV, a hybrid that uses both battery and electric power and a gas vehicle. It’s hard for manufacturers to make a vehicle operating in three phases feel cohesive and engaging. BMW did a great job making the X5 xDrive50e feel consistent from drive mode to drive mode, but the plug-in hybrid XM crossover feels disjointed. Mazda — usually the masters of driving dynamics — also struggled with their first effort at PHEV power, the CX-90 plug-in hybrid.

The next-generation of plug-in hybrids could make things better

The trick to making plug-in hybrids more than a transition technology may be changing tack. Instead of using electric power to supplement the gas engine, the solution may be using the gas engine to supplement electric motors.

EVs have issues, but everyday driving isn’t one of them. EVs are quicker and quieter than their internal combustion equivalents; they also often have better weight distribution, particularly with trucks. Filter out the charging headaches, and an EV is what most buyers would prefer in an everyday commuter vehicle.

Ram is trying this with the new 1500 Ramcharger. Ram won’t call it a PHEV; it’s a range-extended electric truck. It offers 145 miles of battery range, and will serve as an EV almost all the time; electric motors are the only thing to drive the wheels. But it will also pack a 3.6-liter V6 gasoline engine to charge the battery when needed. We may see a similar setup offered in an eventual electric Wrangler.

Dropping a V6 into an electric truck is an inelegant solution (and one hard to package in smaller vehicles). However, using electric motors only to power the wheels should provide a consistent and pleasant driving experience. And it could, theoretically, be cheaper than the all-electric Ram 1500 REV (though Ram has not confirmed pricing yet).

The Ram 1500 Ramcharger could be a new type of hybrid … or “electric truck” if you work for Stellantis.Ram

But plug-in hybrids are probably still a bridge to the future, rather than the future itself

The transition to electric vehicles being all exponential growth, popped champagne and boardroom high-fives always felt optimistic. The reality is that converting mainstream buyers to EVs will require cheaper and more versatile electric vehicles. That’s not impossible, but it will require huge investments and improvements in battery technology (which isn’t a sexy sell to shareholders).

PHEVs should emerge over the next few years to fill a need: potentially fuel-efficient vehicles that manufacturers can sell for a profit. But the recent furor for them may be more wish-casting from people who don’t like EVs than cogent analysis.

Internal combustion will linger in some niches, just as horse transportation did well into the 1940s. But technology will improve. And battery-powered vehicles will take over eventually … even if eventually may be further away than we thought last year.