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Autotrader: The pros and cons of plug-in hybrids and your guide to buying one


A lesser-known electric car option — the plug-in hybrid — combines the best of gas and EVs. PHEVs act like electric cars around town and gasoline-powered vehicles on road trips.

America’s transition from gasoline-powered cars to electric cars makes shoppers and first-time buyers wonder which type of electric car to buy. How about both? After all, they function suitably well without regular access to chargers.

This guide will explore the basics of PHEVs. We’ll cover the pros and cons, the best way to charge your plug-in hybrid, and everything you need to know to decide whether one is right for you.

Plug-in hybrid basics

Before introducing a plug-in hybrid, we first need to tell you about hybrid cars.

Hybrids hit the American market when the quirky first-generation Honda

Insight first rolled its covered wheels onto dealership lots in 1999. The Toyota

Prius followed in 2000. Most Americans have a good grasp of what hybrids offer.

Traditional hybrids use a gasoline engine and a small electric motor fed by a small battery. They can run on their electric motor at neighborhood speeds. But once a car accelerates past about 30 mph, its gasoline engine kicks into drive.

Hybrids recharge their batteries by capturing some energy from their brakes. The process, called regenerative braking, gives them excellent gas mileage.

The Hyundai

Elantra compact car, for instance, gets 33 mpg in the city and 43 mpg on the highway in its traditional fuel form. But the Elantra Hybrid manages a more impressive 53 mpg in the city and 56 mpg on the highway.

PHEVs work differently. A PHEV also uses a gasoline engine, an electric motor, and a battery. But its electric motor is more powerful. A plug-in hybrid battery is much larger — closer to one found in a pure electric vehicle (EV) like a Tesla

Learn more: What is EV, BEV, HEV, PHEV? Here’s your guide to types of electric cars

A PHEV can accelerate up to its top speed under electric power alone. A plug-in’s gasoline engine turns on once its battery gets close to empty. The exact distance they can travel on electric power alone differs by vehicle, weather, and driving conditions. But most manufacturers advertise an electric-only range between 25 and 35 miles. Most drivers, in practice, get a slightly lower but similar figure.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, most Americans drive less than 25 miles a day. So, owning a PHEV works a bit like owning an electric car from day to day. Your results may vary, but many of us could commute to work, take the kids to school, and run our daily errands in a PHEV without using a drop of gasoline.

But PHEV owners don’t need to worry about range limitations as EV owners do. You can take a weekend getaway or road trip without complications in your PHEV. You’ll just feel the gasoline engine switch on somewhere around mile 27.

PHEVs can’t get all the electricity they need from regenerative braking. They recharge using an outlet as EVs do.

What kind of PHEV should I buy?

In 2022, you can find plug-in hybrids available in most vehicle classes, from compact to luxury SUVs.

Are you looking for a family sedan? The Toyota Prius Prime or Hyundai Ioniq PHEV will probably do the trick.

Need a compact crossover? How about a Toyota RAV4 Prime (Kelley Blue Book’s Best Buy Award winner among PHEVs) or the all-new Hyundai Tucson PHEV? If buying domestic matters to you, the Ford Escape PHEV boasts a battery-only range of 37 miles.

If it’s a larger SUV you need, the Lincoln Aviator Grand Touring comes with a PHEV drivetrain and can tow up to 6,700 pounds.

The Chrysler Pacifica PHEV covers minivan buyers.

Going off-road? The Jeep Wrangler 4xe (Jeep says it’s called “4-by-E”) offers an electric-only range of 22 miles, and off-roading in the near-silence of electric propulsion brings an almost mystical experience. You can hear the streams you cross. The sound of your motor does not scare away wildlife.

BMW and Audi make PHEV versions of many of their cars and SUVs among luxury automakers. Even super-luxury makers build PHEVs. The Bentley Bentayga PHEV gets the equivalent of 46 mpg — better than the 18 mpg in the standard Bentayga.

PHEVs can be as inexpensive as the Ioniq’s $26,700 starting price or as spendy as the if-you-have-to-ask-you-can’t-afford-it Ferrari

SF90 Stradale (986 horsepower and a whopping 8-mile electric-only range).

A plug-in hybrid pickup truck or cargo van has yet to hit the U.S. market, but a persistent rumor circulating within the auto industry says Ford

will introduce a Ranger PHEV pickup in a year or two.

Do PHEVs get electric car tax breaks?

When considering the price, remember that many PHEVs can get a federal tax rebate of up to $7,500.

The incentive starts to sunset after an automaker sells 200,000 eligible cars, so not every PHEV on the market qualifies for the total amount. Still, most do.

State and local rebates and other incentives designed to encourage you to buy a more fuel-efficient car can also help defray costs. Even some electric companies offer incentives to PHEV buyers — after all, they’d love you to buy more electricity and less gasoline.

Do I need an EV charger?

PHEVs come with chargers, and you will want one. They can charge from a standard wall outlet, but they’ll do it slowly.

Because they come with many different battery sizes, it’s impossible to give a simple estimate of how long the average PHEV takes to charge and under variable conditions. Most manufacturers only reveal how long it takes to charge the battery at a commercial Level 3 fast charger if they publish a charging time. Those use direct current, and it’s not feasible to get one installed at your house.

ChargePoint, an electric-car-charging network built for commercial businesses, performed testing on a 2018 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. Its results say that the Mitsubishi charged fully from a standard home wall outlet, or Level 1 charger, in about eight hours. Using a Level 2 charger, or an outlet similar to the type you would use for a clothes dryer, the Mitsubishi

charged fully in under four hours. Hooked up to a Level 3 commercial charger like those you see outside malls and other retail and grocery stores, the EV charged 80% of its batteries in 25 minutes.

You might be satisfied recharging your PHEV overnight with a standard wall outlet. But, if you want the ability to recharge quickly, you’ll need to get a Level 2 charger installed. Most car dealers can arrange for that as part of the sale and build the cost into the purchase price.

Apartment dwellers could ask their management company to install one if the building does not already provide them. Some building owners may be happy to offer it as an amenity, and programs offered by electric companies can significantly lower the cost to them.

PHEV pros

1. Cost of driving

Electricity costs less than gasoline. Driving a PHEV will let you use the cheapest available driving fuel for most of your daily needs.

2. Reduce your carbon footprint

Many car shoppers choose an EV because they like reducing their daily emissions. Every little bit helps.

3. Gets you ready for the EV transition

Most automakers plan to transition to an all or mostly EV lineup over the next decade. But America’s charging infrastructure needs to catch up. Choosing a PHEV as your next car means you can drive easily in today’s gas-station-heavy infrastructure but still be ready for a decade from now when chargers may be more commonplace than gas pumps.

4. Survive blackouts and gas shortages

EV owners worry about losing transportation during an extended blackout. Gas-powered car owners worry about surging gas prices, which will be with us on and off for the rest of our lives. PHEV owners can use either fuel source based on which is cheapest and available at the time.

5. Get that hefty tax break

Most new PHEVs for sale remain eligible for a federal tax rebate of up to $7,500. When you file your taxes, you get some money back, and the credit helps defer the higher price of PHEVs.

See: Toyota will soon max out its electric vehicle tax credits

PHEV cons

1. Up-front cost

The plug-in hybrid version of a car can cost thousands more than a comparable gas-powered vehicle. The Lincoln Aviator, with a 3.0-liter V6 engine, starts at $51,780 (plus a $1,195 destination fee). The Aviator Grand Touring PHEV pricing begins at $68,680. Price differences that large aren’t unusual.

2. Complexity

More parts mean more can break. Electric motors and batteries offer very low failure rates, but fixing a 2-part drivetrain could cost more than repairing a simple gasoline drivetrain as your car ages.

3. You may want to install a fast charger

PHEVs can charge from a standard wall outlet. But not quickly enough for many drivers. You may need to factor in the extra cost and hassle of installing a fast charger at home or working with your landlord or building manager to get access to one.

4. The unknowns about PHEV resale value

PHEVs are a new technology that they’re not yet common on the used market, so it’s hard to predict their resale value. However, we should note that skeptics raised this concern in the early days of hybrid technology, and hybrids have proven to hold their resale value at almost normal levels.

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