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Electric Vehicles

I Was Wrong About Plug-in Hybrids

Maybe the PHEV really is the starter EV America needs.

A gas nozzle and electricity.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

When my sister’s long-lived Scion met a sudden, destructive end last month, she was ready to take the leap into electric. She tried one plug-in hybrid she could find in Topeka, Kansas — an old Chevy Volt — before rejecting it in favor of a gently used Nissan Leaf.

Across town, my parents had been car-shopping, too. And while they thought about a plug-in hybrid as a way to dip their toes into electrification, they found only one on the nearby lots — a used car the dealer tried to sell above MSRP because, well, they could. Mom and dad wound up with a traditional hybrid Hyundai crossover instead.

Such struggles are no surprise. The PHEV has become an uncommon sight as most automakers have introduced fully electrified vehicles and, increasingly, left the plug-in hybrid behind. However, as full EVs have run into headwinds, the PHEV might be due for a comeback. Five years after giving up on plug-in hybrids to go all-electric, General Motors now says it will start making them again.

This is good news for a country that, frankly, needs a starter EV.

I admit it: Five years ago, when GM ditched hybrids to go fully electric, I was glad. Yes, the Chevy Volt had shifted lots of people to electrified driving. But the plug-in hybrid is a paragon of “jack of all trades, master of none.”

With electric car components jammed in alongside its traditional hoses and belts, a PHEV is never going to be a great gasoline car. And because it must contain all the parts for petroleum propulsion, a plug-in hybrid can fit only a small battery with a limited range. The new Toyota Prius Prime PHEV can deliver up to 44 miles of electric driving, and that meager figure is a major leap from the around 25 miles of the previous model. The soon-to-be-axed Subaru Crosstrek PHEV delivers only 17 all-electric miles, and costs thousands more than a normal gas version.

From a climate perspective, PHEVs also looked like an easy way out for carmakers who should have been fully electrifying their lineups instead — a way for brands like Toyota to call their cars “electrified” without actually building battery EVs. It was a half-measure, a “stepping stone,” in a world that needs to completely turn over its car fleet.

For drivers, though, the core argument for the PHEV has always been a compelling one. Its battery range is limited, yes, but the electric miles are probably enough to accomplish a commute or local errands. Local electric driving drastically cuts one’s gasoline budget. On longer trips, there’s no need for the range anxiety that comes with a true EV since the gas engine has your back.

Yet PHEVs struggled to catch on fully during their first wave. A decade ago, when precious few mainstream EVs were on sale, plug-in hybrids accounted for about half of electrified U.S. car sales. About five years ago, when mass-market EVs like the Tesla Model 3 and Y arrived — and the Chevy Volt departed the scene — things changed. By 2023, PHEVs made up only 20 percent, meaning Americans bought four times as many pure EVs as plug-in hybrids.

Perhaps the America of five years ago simply was not yet familiar enough with electric driving to understand the benefits a plug-in hybrid could deliver. Buyers who were truly bullish on electric, like me, jumped right past the hybrid and bought a full EV. The fact that plug-in hybrids cost a lot more while delivering a pittance of electric miles didn’t help.

But that was then. In 2024, the legacy car companies sound far less enthusiastic about their plans to electrify completely. While EV demand is not cratering, as some apocalyptic headlines would suggest, it is possible that electric cars are entering a holding pattern, or at least a gap year or two. Drivers willing to buy a pricey new EV have mostly done so. Millions more are biding their time, waiting for better charging infrastructure where they live, a wave of truly affordable EVs, or some other factor to push them toward pure electric.

These people need a starter EV — something to get their feet wet in electrified driving that isn’t a $40,000 new car. Now that a handful of decent electrics have been on the market for several years, a used full EV could fill that role. That’s especially true for families that have a combustion vehicle or hybrid as their other car, and can drive a used Chevy Bolt or Nissan Leaf around town without having to worry so much about its diminishing battery.

Still, most Americans want their car to do everything, including a long road trip if necessary. They should consider the PHEV. In parts of the country without a lot of charging infrastructure, the plug-in hybrid would make an ideal beginner EV, given the security of the gas engine to ease one’s range anxiety.

But with the automakers having gone full electric in the past few years, plug-in hybrids are few and far between. Toyota, which has been dragging its feet about pure EVs, makes plug-in hybrid versions of the RAV4 and the Prius. The Wrangler 4xe plug-in hybrid is Jeep’s signature electrified effort so far. BMW, Kia, Hyundai, and others offer PHEV variants of some of their vehicles (though that’s no guarantee you’ll find the one you want at your local dealership, given their niche status.) PHEV sales lag behind both ordinary hybrids and full electric vehicles.

With General Motors ready to revive its plug-in hybrid line, perhaps the technology is due to catch its second wind just as weary buyers look for a more comfortable way to start driving on electrons. As with full battery EVs, it comes down to price and range. If Chevy can cook up a Volt 2.0 that impresses on both fronts, then the PHEV may finally find its footing in the U.S.

Green

Andrew Moseman

Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles. Read More

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