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Why you should consider a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle

Photo by Naypong Studio/stock.adobe.com

It was momentous news: California will ban the sale of new cars powered by internal combustion engines (ICEs) starting in 2035. And because many other states have adopted California’s emissions regulations, the ban could affect 40% of the American market.

Several automakers had imposed their own deadlines to move exclusively or largely to electric vehicles (EVs). For instance, General Motors said it plans to sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2035. “Climate change is real, and we want to be part of the solution,” GM CEO Mary Barra said in a company statement in 2020.

Yet the auto industry faces massive potholes on the road to electrification. Among the largest: the lack of public and shared private charging ports.

There’s also the inconvenience of long charging times, typically 30 to 60 minutes on the fastest chargers. And there’s the matter of EV price tags: New EVs cost an average of around $67,000 in 2022, compared with an average cost of about $48,000 for new cars generally, the difference partly due to costly EV battery packs.

Ultimately, the obstacles to EVs may be overcome. Meanwhile, there’s a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too solution: the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). New PHEVs can still be sold under California’s 2035 ban.

Hybrids vs. PHEVs

Regular hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius, combine electric motors with a relatively small ICE and battery pack to decrease fuel use and emissions. Unlike a hybrid, a PHEV has a larger battery pack that’s rechargeable from house current or a fast charger, allowing the car to run solely on electricity—or occasionally on a combination of electricity and gasoline—until the battery pack is depleted and the vehicle operates as a hybrid.

The average American motorist drives about 35 miles a day, a distance many PHEVs can manage on electricity alone. And because electricity is generally cheaper than gasoline, PHEVs can save their owners money on fuel.

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Advantages of a PHEV over an EV:

  • An owner’s range anxiety is eliminated on long trips because a PHEV can be refueled with gasoline, avoiding the need for public chargers.
  • PHEV battery packs are smaller than EV batteries and can recharge faster. Regular 120-volt house current might be enough, avoiding the need to purchase a 240-volt home charger ($750–$1,000, including installation but not including possible incentives).
  • Because their battery packs are smaller, PHEVs often cost less than comparable EVs. Ford, Hyundai, Kia, Mitsubishi, Subaru, and Toyota offer PHEVs with base retail prices under $40,000, not including tax credits.

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PHEV disadvantages

Still, PHEVs aren’t a perfect solution to the woes of climate change and costly gasoline.

  • Like EVs, PHEVs are impractical unless they can be recharged at home, usually in a garage, which leaves many apartment and condo dwellers out of luck.
  • Unlike EVs, PHEVs need oil changes and other maintenance items typical of conventional ICE-powered cars.
  • PHEVs cost $4,000 to $8,000 more than hybrids, according to the EPA.

Under the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, some new and used PHEVs are eligible for federal tax credits up to $7,500 and $4,000, respectively. Certain states and municipalities offer incentives, as well.

Could a PHEV be right for you? To help you decide, the U.S. Department of Energy has a nifty My Plug-in Hybrid Calculator to estimate fuel use based on your circumstances, as well as a calculator showing emission reductions you can expect with a PHEV. The Department of Energy also lists PHEVs eligible for federal tax credits.

Veteran automotive journalist Peter Bohr has been writing about cars for more than 4 decades. 

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