In late 2010, General Motors tried to take the high ground of Toyota’s successful Prius hybrid with the Volt plug-in hybrid – a car that could travel short distances on electricity alone and start a gasoline engine for long journeys.
But the Volt and other similar cars struggled to win over drivers, as many early adopters opted for all-electric cars like Tesla’s Model S and the Nissan Leaf. GM quietly parted ways with the Volt in 2019, as it set its sights on all-electric cars.
But on the road to obsolescence, something funny happened: Sales of plug-in hybrids are rising in the United States, partly because of the recent rise in gasoline prices. According to Wards Intelligence, automakers sold a record 176,000 such cars last year, up from 69,000 in 2020. 15.3 million a year earlier, according to Cox Automotive.
All-electric cars have taken up about 5 percent of the new car market, and most analysts and industry executives expect them to eventually surpass hybrids as automakers commit to eliminating tailpipe emissions, a major contributor to climate change. But hybrids — led by a growing selection of plug-ins — still make up about 7 percent of sales, and that number could certainly grow for a few more years.
Automakers are struggling to ramp up production of electric vehicles because the supply of batteries is not growing fast enough. Partly as a result of this, the average cost of a new electric car is now a steep $66,000. That offers an opening for plug-in hybrids.
Unlike conventional hybrids, which can only be refueled with petrol and rely on engines, plug-in variants can run entirely on battery power. And because these cars have smaller batteries than all-electric vehicles, they can be more affordable. The cars are also attractive because they do not have to be plugged in for many hours to fully charge. On road trips, they can be refueled with gasoline, allaying the range fear that keeps many people from buying electric cars.
“I think some automakers, including GM, have been too quick to ditch PHEVs for all-electric vehicles,” said Karl Brauer, executive director of research at iSeeCars.com, an automotive research firm. “And I wonder if they regret that decision, given the supply chain problems and price hikes we’re experiencing right now.”
Mr. Bauer and others also note that many car buyers are not ready to buy electric vehicles. A JD Power survey found that one of the biggest reasons people cite for not buying one is that there aren’t enough public charging stations in the United States. And charging an electric car at public stations for about 30 to 60 minutes — a typical rate for even the fastest chargers — or at home overnight is an inconvenience many drivers don’t want to tolerate.
Plug-in hybrids were designed as a transitional technology that introduced people to the benefits of electric driving while allaying their concerns about the technology. But when gasoline cost about $3 a gallon, the savings these cars made didn’t always add up.
Now, when filling up with gasoline can cost $100 or more, some people are giving these cars a second look. It helps that buyers of some of the leading models, such as the Toyota RAV4 Prime, Jeep Wrangler 4xe, BMW 330e and Hyundai Santa Fe plug-in, can claim a federal income tax credit of up to $7,500.
Read more about oil and gas prices
The Wrangler 4xe has become a surprise hit and America’s most popular plug-in hybrid, with sales nearly doubling to over 19,000 in the first half of the year from a year earlier. The RAV4 Prime is so popular that dealers can’t keep it in stock and buyers have to wait months for it, said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Cox Automotive.
Starting at $41,515, the RAV4 Prime officially travels 42 miles on electricity alone. Keep going and the Prime drives like a familiar Toyota hybrid, with more punch: the Prime is the fastest and most powerful RAV4, with three electric motors and 302 horsepower. In gas-electric hybrid mode, it drinks fuel at a rate of 38 miles per gallon. With a total range of approximately 600 miles, it can travel twice as far as many electric vehicles before needing to refuel.
The average American drives 29 miles a day, which the Prime can easily handle on electricity alone. More than a week of daily charges – the Prime’s battery can be topped up in about two and a half hours with a home charger – the car can cover more than 280 miles without using a thimble of petrol, with the equivalent of 94 mpg The typical new car gets 27 mpg
Some owners of plug-in hybrids, such as the Chrysler Pacifica minivan, which has been around since 2017, claim they went many weeks without visiting a gas station. According to the Energy Department, charging a RAV4 Prime costs about $1.07 for a 25-mile ride.
But critics of plug-in hybrids argue that these numbers and calculations are based on the assumption that the people who own them will plug them in regularly and make the most of the environmental benefits of their electric motors and batteries. Some plug-in hybrid owners may never or rarely charge their cars and use them just like a petrol car. Plug-in hybrids used in this way typically achieve average fuel economy and do little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
According to a study published in June by the International Council on Clean Transportation, a nonprofit research organization, plug-in hybrid cars in Europe drive fully electric between 45 and 49 percent of the time.
Some plug-in hybrids can only run about 20 miles on electric power before needing to start the gas engine. Skeptical engineers and analysts see unnecessary complexity in combining two forms of propulsion in one vehicle for such meager profits.
Some auto executives, including at GM, have argued that plug-in hybrids aren’t worth investing in because it’s imperative to work on cars that don’t have tailpipe emissions. GM has said it aims to sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2035.
Tim Grewe, GM’s director of electrification, said that as electric vehicles improved and charging infrastructure expanded, plug-in hybrids would become obsolete.
“EVs are just better,” said Mr Grewe. “Battery technology has come so far that you don’t need the range extender motor.”
European countries, which are further along in the transition to electric cars than the United States, are also encouraging people to drive fully electric. Partly as a result, sales of plug-in hybrid vehicles in Europe fell by 12.5 percent in the second quarter compared to a year earlier, while purchases of all-electric cars rose by 11.1 percent.
Yet many car manufacturers, such as Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Jaguar Land Rover, continue to introduce new plug-in hybrids. These companies claim that it could be a decade or more before electric cars are affordable and convenient enough for most people.
Some luxury car companies say they have come up with an improved breed of plug-in hybrids to bridge the gap in the development of all-electric cars. According to executives, these cars will attract more buyers to the electric age because they are almost as easy to use as petrol models, while being more fun and powerful.
The $104,900 Range Rover plug-in is dripping with London luxury and 443 horsepower. It can travel 48 miles on electricity alone. The BMW 330e sedan has a button called Xtraboost, which sends 40 horsepower electric shocks to accelerate when pressed, similar to shots of nitrous oxide in “Fast and Furious” movies. The 330e costs $43,495, which is comparable to standard versions of the same car, even before tax credits.
Even supercar makers like Ferrari and McLaren have embraced plug-in hybrids as a way to squeeze the last Dionysian drops from combustion engines. Ferrari has said its 818-horsepower 296 GTB plug-in hybrid, which starts at $323,000, is faster on its benchmark test track than any V-8 model it has produced.
Beyond those flashy models, plug-in hybrids are playing an important role, some analysts said, getting more people into electric cars faster than it would if the industry relied solely on all-electric vehicles. Mr. Brauer of iSeeCars.com points out that nine out of ten car buyers in the United States still buy a conventional car.
“If a PHEV can serve as a pure electric vehicle, even part-time, and as a hybrid still consume less fuel than a traditional vehicle,” he said, “that’s still a huge reduction in CO2 at a price that makes them more viable.” cares about consumers.”