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Economy

Why Hybrid Cars Still Matter

Electric vehicles are the future. But what if you can’t buy one now?

A car and power lines.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

As unpredictable as world events have been recently, very few people would’ve put money on the humble Toyota Prius getting a stunning makeover for 2023. Somehow, that’s exactly what happened. Now the all-new, fifth-generation Prius hybrid boasts sleek, almost sports-car-like looks to go with its impressive 57 miles per gallon.

The Prius will need every advantage it can muster. Its sales have been down for years, and hybrid cars also feel almost anachronistic compared to the new crop of high-range, high-performance electric vehicles hitting the market. Why go hybrid when you’re about to have more options than ever when it comes to breaking up with gasoline entirely?

Even the Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act seems to be reinforcing this idea. While the act modernized how EV and plug-in hybrid tax credits work, regular hybrids without plugs have been left out in the cold. In other words, if you want an American-made EV like a Ford F-150 Lightning, you now qualify for a $7,500 tax break; but if you want a hybrid F-150 or Maverick pickup truck, you’re out of luck because those don’t have plugs.

Furthermore, the hybrid — long the standard-bearer for eco-friendly driving — seems to have a target on its back. “Hybrid cars are still incredibly popular, but are they good for the environment?,” NPR wondered in February, probably much to the chagrin of listeners, many of whom have enjoyed “All Things Considered" while commuting in their own hybrids.

This is all deeply unfortunate, especially given how quickly we need to reduce emissions to avoid the worst outcomes of climate change. Whether there's a plug or not is also the wrong way to think about hybrids.

There’s still a strong case to be made for hybrids today. But let’s be clear about what that case isn’t: an argument for extending the internal combustion era or to slow-walk EV adoption. Rather, hybrids can and should be seen as an essential tool for reducing vehicle emissions right now, and as cars that still have tremendous advantages EVs don’t have yet.

The auto industry’s move toward zero-emission vehicles is now basically inevitable. But there’s still a long way to go. In the interim, cars that pair electricity and gasoline can play a vital role in making the air cleaner and serving as a gateway drug for widespread EV adoption.

Exhibit A. Reducing Emissions Now

For a long time, the primary appeal of a hybrid car was that it would help you save money on gas. But they do much more than that. The science is clear: Hybrid vehicles generate fewer tailpipe emissions than their all-gasoline counterparts, and obviously none when running only on electricity. In fact, 2021 data from the U.S. Department of Energy indicates hybrids produce about half the carbon dioxide on average that fully internal-combustion cars do. The numbers are even better for plug-in hybrids.

Of course, battery EVs fare the best; the only emissions they’re tied to are related to vehicle and battery production and charging. If your goal with your next car purchase is to cut down on CO2, this is a superb way to do so.

As for plug-in hybrids, those have gotten a bad rap in recent years with various studies (especially out of Europe) claiming they pollute much more than automakers advertise. Certainly, that wouldn’t be the car industry’s first rodeo when it comes to greasing emissions — remember Dieselgate?

One thing that hasn’t made headlines is the fact that in Europe, many corporations took advantage of government subsidies to buy PHEVs for their corporate fleets, but company car owners often didn’t charge them. The result is a heavier car, thanks to its additional batteries, that isn’t being used as intended.

The moral of this story: If you drive a PHEV, make sure to plug it in so that it can be driven in all-electric mode properly. The average PHEV gets between 20 and 40 miles of electric range, and given that most Americans drive around 40 miles a day on average, you may be surprised how much gasoline you don’t end up using.

Exhibit B. EVs Are Better Than Ever, But Have Plenty of Challenges — For Now

You have more options than ever before when it comes to EVs, and things will get even better in the years to come. Just about every automaker is planning an aggressive EV rollout across multiple categories — trucks, vans, even convertibles — and multiple price points. Electric range is getting better, and thanks to the IRA, EVs built in North America will come with enticing tax credits. Starting next year, those credits will even be applied at the point of sale at the dealership, so you won’t even need to wait on a tax return to reap the benefits.

But there’s still a lot of daylight between where the EV market is now and where it will go next. America’s public charging network is woefully inadequate and many providers offer an infamously subpar experience. Few good charging solutions exist for city dwellers and those who live in apartments. (In fact, I’ve been seeing more and more EVs here in New York charged by 100-foot extension cords running out of windows, which is suboptimal for countless reasons.) Whether you’re into road trips or not, long distances remain a challenge for many EVs too, thanks to these network issues.

Tesla still has objectively the best charging network and it’s opening up to other EVs, but that’s a ways off. So is the network expansion that will be driven by the IRA’s incentives.

Then there's the fact the best EVs are comparatively hard to buy. Many of the really in-demand new EVs — the Mustang Mach-E, the Hyundai Ioniq 5, and the Kia EV6 — are tough to find and still impacted by supply chain issues. If you want a car with great range, a beautiful interior, and excellent range, get in line. Now, to be fair, supply remains super weird across the whole automotive industry, but the most desirable electric cars still seem to have among the longest lines.

EVs remain expensive as well, even by modern standards; by late last year, the average EV was priced around $65,000, around $20,000 more than a typical new vehicle's price tag. That too should change as batteries get cheaper and more options come to market, but for now, going electric could mean sticker shock, too — especially if your EV does not qualify for the new tax breaks.

In other words, it should get much easier to be an EV owner in the next few years. Until then, if these barriers to entry are too onerous, consider a hybrid instead.

There’s also the unfortunate matter of how “green” our electricity really is. Recently, Polestar and Rivian — two companies with every incentive to get you to buy their EVs — jointly commissioned a study that urged a dramatic increase in renewable energy powering both the automotive supply chain and electricity sources in order for these vehicles to be maximally effective at deterring climate change.

EVs alone will not be enough to reduce the harmful effects of the transportation sector. While it’s hard to say “be patient” when we directly experience climate change, we must realize that making changes that should’ve happened decades ago will be a process.

Until then, there’s great value in doing whatever can be done to reduce CO2 emissions, and driving hybrids — to say nothing of walking, biking, and taking public transit — can be crucial to that too.

Exhibit C. Automakers Haven’t Given Up On Hybrids

Are hybrid cars essentially a stopgap to full EV adoption? At this point, it feels like the definitive answer is yes. Car companies like General Motors, Ford, Volvo, and Volkswagen all say they plan to phase out internal combustion entirely by the middle of the next decade, and even if they try to renege on their promises, governments from Brussels to California are banning the sale of new gasoline cars around the same time.

Between regulations and market forces — especially China’s aggressive EV push — the writing is on the wall for gasoline cars. Reducing emissions will be the single most crucial guiding force for the auto industry over the next few decades. In the meantime, and for that very reason, more and more hybrid options are coming to market.

Sure, the Prius’ sales figures don’t look great, but the venerable Toyota Tacoma truck is heavily expected to offer a hybrid option soon. The Toyota Sienna minivan is now only offered as a hybrid, as is the quirky new Toyota Crown sedan. Honda brought back the Accord Hybrid for 2023 and the all-new CR-V Hybrid looks promising as well. Mazda is finally dipping its toes into that market with the new CX-90 plug-in hybrid. Even the beloved Mazda Miata, the gold standard for affordable sports cars, is heavily rumored to have some kind of electrification when an all-new one arrives in the next few years. And as of this year, every new Volvo you can buy is a hybrid if it’s not a full EV.

The point is, while EVs are getting the splashy headlines, car companies aren’t yet done with hybrids. Not by a long shot. In fact, electrification is likely to become even more common as we start to approach the end of the internal combustion era, particularly as battery costs start to go down.

Think of it this way: If the Chevy Corvette can go hybrid, so can you.

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Patrick George

Patrick is a writer and editor in New York. The former Editor-in-Chief of Jalopnik and Editorial Director of The Drive, he covers the future of transportation. Read More

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