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Gas prices are spiking. It’s time for another look at plug-in hybrids

<i>Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images</i><br/>As America shifts towards electric cars
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
As America shifts towards electric cars

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNN Business

As America shifts towards electric cars, plug-in hybrids are often forgotten. Their potential benefits are lost on many consumers who are either attracted to the high-tech allure of fully electric cars or afraid of the complication of needing to plug in a car.

Some people are fully ready to commit to zero-emission driving and willing to put up with the occasional hassle of having to find chargers for long distance drives. For them, fully electric cars are a great choice. Others want to burn less gas but don’t want to deal with plugging in to charge. Regular hybrids that charge through braking and from the vehicle’s own engine are great for them.

Plug-in hybrids are for those who want the benefits — for themselves and for the environment — of fuel-free driving but don’t want to deal with the hassle of having to find public chargers when they’re away from home. They can just rely on America’s tried and trusted network of gas stations. Still, though, they can cut fuel consumption by half or more.

They are are a blend of an electric vehicle and a traditional hybrid — and they can work like both. They’re a compromise and, as with all compromises, they are better than the alternatives in some ways but not as good in other ways.

But plug-in hybrids remain a relatively niche market. Americans buy half as many plug-in hybrids as they do fully electric cars, according to data from Wards Automotive, and far fewer than they do widely available regular hybrids.

Especially given today’s high car prices the cost of buying a new vehicle will likely wipe out the potential fuel savings. But for those who already need a new vehicle, it could be worth considering plug-in hybrids.

Plug-in hybrids are a blend of an electric vehicle and a traditional hybrid — and they can work like both. They’re a compromise and, as with all compromises, they are better than the alternatives in some ways but not as good in other ways.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, or PHEVs, have powerful batteries and electric motors. With a fully charged battery, they can drive on electricity alone for miles. Usually it’s not terribly far. For instance a BMW 3-series PHEV can drive 23 miles on electricity alone with a full battery. That’s fairly typical. The Toyota Rav4 Prime can drive 42 miles on electricity alone, which is enough that most people can probably get through a typical day’s driving without burning any gasoline.

But a driver isn’t stranded after that. Once the car’s batteries are too depleted to power the car on their own, a plug-in hybrid drives like a regular self-charging hybrid car. It will use its gas engine most of the time but the electric motor still helps out. It can propel the car at low speeds and provide additional boost during hard acceleration.

To get the the most benefit, PHEV owners have to plug the vehicle in every night, said Ivan Drury, an industry analyst with the automotive web site That’s different from pure electric cars, which often have 200 miles or more of battery range that allows many owners to go days without recharging.

“Nobody wants to do something every single day,” he said. “So, I think that minor level of inconvenience actually does turn off a lot of consumers.”

Electricity costs much less per mile than gasoline, especially when gas prices are skyrocketing. like now. At current prices it would cost about 12.5 cents a mile to drive a gas-powered Hyundai Kona while the fully electric version costs just 3.5 cents a mile, according to the EPA website. Used properly, PHEVs can save drivers a lot of money in fuel while costing less to purchase than fully electric cars with their big expensive battery packs. Also, they do away with worries about “range anxiety” since long trips can be fueled with gasoline.

According to an online calculator hosted by the Environmental Protection Agency, a typical BMW 330e plug-in hybrid owner would spend about $510 a year less in gas than a driver of a purely gas-powered version. Jeep Wrangler 4Xe owners can save save about $580 a year in gas compared to the V6 “mild hybrid” Wrangler. Of course, these figures, which assume 50% of driving done on electricity, depend on individual driving and charging routines.

PHEVs also cost less to maintain, said Chris Harto, senior policy analyst for transportation and energy at Consumer Reports. Because they can drive so much of the time using only electric power, a PHEV with 100,000 on its odometer might have only 50,000 miles or less on the engine. And, like other hybrid and electric vehicles, PHEVs rely a lot on “regenerative braking,” which uses the electric motor to slow the car meaning brake pads and rotors don’t get as much wear.

They cost more than comparable gas-only cars but, generally, not as much as fully electric cars. And they are eligible for the same $7,500 federal tax credit as electric vehicles.

Unlike purely electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids don’t necessarily require the installation of a special charging device at home, said Harto. Because of their smaller battery packs, they can charge up overnight using an ordinary outlet of the sort that might be used to run power tools. Owners can install a special EV charger if they want to charge faster or more frequently.

In addition to saving money on gas, some automakers, like Porsche, tout the performance gains. PHEVs use more powerful batteries than regular self-charging hybrids, so, in addition to providing more electric range, they can provide significant horsepower. The most powerful version of the Porsche Cayenne SUV, for instance, is the 670 horsepower Cayenne Turbo SE Hybrid which gains 134 horsepower from its electric motor.

Jeep’s first plug-in hybrid is a version of the Wrangler, a hard-core off-roader, because Wrangler customers want the off-road performance benefits of an electric motor’s responsiveness, said Jim Morrison, Stellantis’s head of Jeep for North America. The Wrangler 4Xe was the best-selling PHEV in America last year with 29,000 sold.

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