After falling out of favor with electric cars, plug-in hybrids are gaining ground

In late 2010, General Motors sought to take over Toyota’s successful Prius hybrid with the Volt plug-in hybrid – a car capable of traveling short distances on electricity alone and firing up a gasoline engine for longer trips. .

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 Nissan Leaf. GM quietly phased out the Volt in 2019 as it took aim at all-electric cars.

But a funny thing has happened along the way to obsolescence: sales of plug-in hybrids are soaring in the United States, in part due to the recent spike in gas prices. Automakers sold a record 176,000 such cars last year, according to Wards Intelligence, up from 69,000 in 2020. This year, sales of plug-in hybrids could hit 180,000, analysts say, even as the overall market for new cars fell to 14.4 million from 15.3 million a year earlier, according to Cox Automotive.

All-electric cars have cornered around 5% of the new-car market, and most analysts and industry executives expect them to eventually overtake hybrids as automakers pledge to phase out exhaust emissions, a major contributor to climate change. But hybrids – led by a growing selection of plug-ins – still account for around 7% of sales, and that number could rise for at least a few years.

Automakers are struggling to ramp up production of electric vehicles because battery supply isn’t growing fast enough. Partly because of this, the average cost of a new electric car is now $66,000. This provides an opening for plug-in hybrids.

Unlike conventional hybrids, which can only be refueled with gasoline and are dependent on engines, plug-in varieties can run entirely on battery power. And because these cars have smaller batteries than all-electric vehicles, they can be more affordable. Cars are also attractive because they don’t need to be plugged in for many hours to be fully charged. On road trips, they can be refueled, eliminating the range anxiety that keeps many people from buying electric cars.

“I think some automakers, including GM, have been far too quick to dismiss PHEVs in the face of 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 issues and price hikes that we are currently experiencing.”

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 main reasons people give 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 around 30 to 60 minutes – a typical rate even for the fastest chargers – or overnight at home is an inconvenience that many drivers are unwilling to tolerate.

Plug-in hybrids were designed as a transitional technology that introduced people to the benefits of electric driving while alleviating their concerns about technology. But when gas was around $3 a gallon, the savings these cars made didn’t always add up.

Now, while full gas cans can cost $100 or more, some people are giving these cars a second look. This allows buyers of some of the major models, like the Toyota RAV4 Prime, Jeep Wrangler 4xe, BMW 330e and Hyundai Santa Fe plug-in, to qualify for a federal tax credit of up to $7,500.

The Wrangler 4xe became a surprise hit and America’s most popular plug-in hybrid, nearly doubling its sales to more than 19,000 in the first half 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 one, said Cox Automotive executive analyst Michelle Krebs.

Starting at $41,515, the RAV4 Prime officially travels 42 miles on electric alone. Go on 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 sips fuel at 38 miles per gallon. With a total range of around 600 miles, it can cover twice as many EVs before needing to refuel.

The average American drives 29 miles a day, which the Prime can easily manage on electric alone. Over a week of daily charges – the Prime’s battery can be recharged in around two and a half hours on a home charger – the car can go over 280 miles without using a thimble of petrol, at the equivalent of 94 mpg Typical new car gets 27 mpg

Some owners of plug-in hybrids like the Chrysler Pacifica minivan, which has been around since 2017, say they’ve gone many weeks without visiting a gas station. According to the Department of Energy, charging a RAV4 Prime costs about $1.07 for 25 miles of driving.

But critics of plug-in hybrids argue that these figures and calculations are based on the assumption that people who own them will plug them in regularly, reaping the full environmental benefits of their electric motors and batteries. Some owners of plug-in hybrids may never or rarely charge their cars, using them as they would a gas-powered vehicle. Plug-in hybrids used in this way tend to achieve average fuel economy and do little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In Europe, plug-in hybrid cars are driven in all-electric mode between 45 and 49 percent of the time, according to a study published in June by the International Council on Clean Transportation, a nonprofit research organization.

Some plug-in hybrids can only go about 20 miles on electricity before having to turn on the gas engine. Skeptical engineers and analysts see unnecessary complexity in marrying two forms of propulsion into a single vehicle for such paltry gains.

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 announced its intention to sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2035.

Tim Grewe, GM’s director of electrification, said that as electric vehicles improve and charging infrastructure develops, plug-in hybrids will become obsolete.

“Electric vehicles are simply better,” Grewe said. “Battery technology has gotten to the point where you don’t need the range extender engine anymore.”

European countries, which are more advanced in the transition to electric cars than the United States, are also encouraging people to go all-electric. Partly for this reason, sales of plug-in hybrid vehicles in Europe in the second quarter fell 12.5% ​​from a year earlier, while purchases of all-electric cars jumped 11.1%.

Yet many automakers, like Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and Jaguar Land Rover, continue to introduce new plug-in hybrids. These companies say it could be a decade or more before electric cars are affordable and practical enough for most people.

Some luxury car companies say they have developed an improved breed of plug-in hybrids to fill the gap as they develop fully electric cars. Executives say these cars will lure more buyers into the electric age by being nearly as convenient to use as gas-powered models while being more fun and more powerful.

The $104,900 Range Rover plug-in oozes luxury from the London boutique and packs 443 horsepower. It can travel 48 miles on electricity alone. The BMW 330e sedan has a button called Xtraboost, which sends 40-horsepower electric jolts at goose throttle when pushed, similar to shots of nitrous oxide in the “Fast and Furious” movies. The 330e costs $43,495, on par with standard versions of the same car, even before tax credits.

Even supercar makers like Ferrari and McLaren have embraced plug-in hybrids as a means of extracting the last Dionysian straws from internal combustion engines. Ferrari said its 818-hp 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.

Those flashy models aside, plug-in hybrids have an important role to play, some analysts say, in enabling more people to use electrified cars sooner than would be the case if the industry relied solely on all-electric vehicles. Mr. Brauer of iSeeCars.com points out that nine out of 10 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 a hybrid still consumes less fuel than a traditional vehicle,” he said, “that’s still a huge CO2 reduction. , at a cost that makes them more viable for consumers.”

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