Plug-in hybrid cars gain ground in the race with their electric rivals

In late 2010, General Motors sought to build on the high ground of Toyota’s successful hybrid Prius with the Volt plug-in hybrid, a car that could go short distances on electricity alone and fire up a gasoline engine for long trips.

But the Volt and other cars like it had trouble winning over drivers, with many early adopters turning to fully electric cars like the Tesla Model S and Nissan Leaf. GM quietly phased out the Volt in 2019 while targeting all-electric cars.

But a funny thing happened on the road to obsolescence: Plug-in hybrid sales are surging in the United States, in part because of 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, plug-in hybrid sales could top 180,000, analysts said, even as the overall market for new cars falls to 14.4 million from 15.3 million a year earlier, according to Cox Automotive.

Fully electric cars have taken over about 5 percent of the new car market, and most analysts and industry executives expect them to eventually overtake hybrids as automakers commit to zero emissions. of the tailpipe, a major contributor to climate change. But hybrids, led by a growing selection of add-ons, still account for about 7 percent of sales, and that number could grow for at least a few years.

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

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

“I think some automakers, including GM, have been too quick to ditch PHEVs in the face of fully electric vehicles,” said Karl Brauer, executive director of research at iSeeCars.com, an auto research firm. “And I wonder if they regret that decision, given the supply chain issues and price increases we’re experiencing now.”

Mr. Bauer and others also point out that many car buyers aren’t 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 overnight at home is an inconvenience many drivers are unwilling to tolerate.

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

Now, when gas fill-ups can cost $100 or more, some people are giving these cars a second look. It helps that buyers of some of the leading models, like 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.

The Wrangler 4xe has become a surprise hit and America’s most popular plug-in hybrid, nearly doubling sales to more than 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 one, said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst at Cox Automotive.

Starting at $41,515, the RAV4 Prime officially travels 42 miles on electricity alone. Keep going and Prime drives like a Toyota family hybrid, with more oomph: Prime is the fastest and most powerful RAV4, with three electric motors and 302 horsepower. In gas-electric hybrid mode, it burns fuel at 38 miles per gallon. With a total range of around 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 Prime can easily handle on electricity alone. During a week of daily charges (the Prime’s battery can be recharged in about two and a half hours using a home charger), the car can cover more than 280 miles without using a thimbleful of gas, with the equivalent of 94 mpg in the new car. typical gets 27 miles per gallon

Some owners of plug-in hybrids like the Chrysler Pacifica minivan, which has been around since 2017, say they have 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 numbers and calculations are based on the assumption that the people who own them will plug them in regularly, taking full advantage of the environmental benefits of their electric motors and batteries. Some plug-in hybrid owners 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 fully electric mode 45 percent to 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 go only about 20 miles on electric power before having to start the gas engine. Skeptical engineers and analysts see unnecessary complexity in marrying two forms of propulsion in one 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 have no tailpipe emissions. GM has said its goal is 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.

“Electric vehicles are just better,” Grewe said. “Battery technology has gotten to the point where you don’t need the range extension motor.”

European countries, which are further along in switching to electric cars than the United States, are also encouraging people to go all-electric. Partly as a result, sales of plug-in hybrid vehicles in Europe in the second quarter fell 12.5 percent from a year earlier, while purchases of fully electric cars rose 11.1 percent.

However, many car manufacturers, such as Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and Jaguar Land Rover, continue to introduce new plug-in hybrids. These companies argue 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 variety of plug-in hybrids to bridge the gap as they develop fully electric cars. These cars, executives argue, will lure more buyers into the electric age by being almost as convenient to use as gasoline models while being more fun and powerful.

The $104,900 Range Rover plug-in exudes London boutique 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 jolts to the goose’s acceleration when pressed, similar to the nitrous oxide injections 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 way to squeeze the last Dionysian drops out of internal combustion engines. Ferrari has said that 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 ever produced.

Those flashy models aside, plug-in hybrids have an important role to play, some analysts said, in getting more people into electric cars sooner than would be the case if the industry relied solely on fully 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 purely electric vehicle, even part-time, and as a hybrid it still uses 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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