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The discreet charm of the plug-in hybrid

Updated: May 5, 2023

While regulators and, to a lesser degree, car buyers rush toward full electric cars, the plug-in hybrid (PHEV) is being lost in a black and white approach to green that suggests a complete break with combustion, at odds with the real driving needs of many people around the US.


So I'm encouraged by a moderate renaissance around plug-in hybrids; I implore every electric car intender to take a look at the available plug-in hybrids to at least model how one might suit their needs.


Daily drives on battery, unusual trips on gas. The perfect blend of clean efficiency and reality. (afdc.energy.gov)

Plug-in hybrid Pros

  • Two cars in one, without range anxiety or the need for a road trip car.

  • Little concern about the roadmap for charging infrastructure.

  • Clean electric driving for the vast majority of your daily needs.

  • Delivers most of a pure EV's giddy torque.

  • Vastly reduced battery materials and recycling footprint.

  • Short charge times.

  • Eligibility for a preferred lane sticker.

  • May qualify for a federal tax incentive.

  • Pricing is reasonable (as much as any car price is today).

Plug-in hybrid Cons

  • A more complicated car, with two drive systems.

  • Typically receives only a partial federal tax incentive.

  • Less fashionability and no favor with absolutists.

Its been clear for years now that charging electric cars - not the cars themselves - is the key to an electric car revolution. Hobnob in the hallways of any future energy investor conference and that becomes clear very quickly, or ask LA Times' Mariel Garza who has written about wanting to retreat from owning a full elecric car, even in EV-loving Los Angeles. Charging at home would seem to neutralize all hassles, except for the vast (and growing) number of people who live in multi-unit dwellings and the inconvenient truth that at-home charging may not be the best idea in the first place.


Perhaps my favorite aspect of the PHEV is that it aligns with a realistic approach to range, not the antiquated approach that most EV buyers use. 300+ mile electric cars chase the odd concept that charge range should approximate fuel tank range. This is absurd, leading to heavier, more expensive electric cars with batteries that are more problematic to produce and recycle, and entering a cycle where more battery capacity is needed just to lug around the weight of the battery, which gets no lighter as it becomes more useless due to discharge.


The new buyer's paradigm should be shorter range and more opportunistic charging. PHEVS in their own way force a (smart) buyer to examine how much electric range they really need, not how much they need 10 days a year. Hint: its probably around 50-75 miles, unless charging is unusually difficult for you. PHEVs take that smart approach for you, while building in a 16-gallon insurance policy.


Yet the plug-in hybrid largely languishes in the shadows of the hype cycle around full battery EVs. This is Tesla's vicennial, on the heels of what was Toyota's, centered around hybrids. To my mind, Toyota continues to have the most grown-up approach to vehicle electrification, with a road map that includes an alphabet soup of BEV, PHEV, HEV, and HFCEV cars. I don't envy the product positioning challenge they face with that array, but it's the right approach.


Why don't I drive a car with a plug? Largely because I'm a value buyer of mature technology, considering only highly-depreciated, clean used cars. I'll be waiting a while as the secondary electric market proliferates. But for the millions who do buy new each year, the plug-in hybrid should be on the list as the easiest way to do good while driving well.

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