The demise and return of PHEVs

The number of new electric cars being introduced provides us with many good options to reduce our gas consumption, but they all suffer from one major disadvantage, range anxiety. Until the number of chargers becomes as common as gas stations, and until charging times can be reduced from an hour to mere minutes, EV (electric vehicle) cars will always have that one major disadvantage over gasoline powered cars.

That’s why I find PHEVs (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles) to be today’s best option for those that do any long distance driving.  These vehicles use both batteries to power an electric motor and gasoline to power an internal combustion engine. You drive on electric until the batteries are depleted and then run on gas. PHEV batteries can be charged at home using a wall outlet in about four hours or using public chargers.

The ideal PHEV has enough battery range for your daily round trip commute and errands, typically from 35 to 60 miles. If you don’t exceed that each day and charge each night, you never need to buy gas. It’s essentially an EV. On those occasions when you’re traveling longer distances, after the battery depletes, you run on gas, never needing to stop to recharge your battery. Depending on your mix of driving, you can average over 150 mpg.

I have several friends that own Teslas who all love them and tried to convince me to buy one. Their typical range is rated at 250 – 300 miles, but the company advises not to charge the batteries to more than 80%, so the range is more like 200 to 240 miles. That’s barely enough to do a round trip from San Diego to LA or a four hour road trip. My friends explain how they now love to take a rest at one of the Tesla Super Charging stations along their route and chat with other Tesla owners. For me that would get old very quickly. It adds at least 30-40 minutes to their trip, assuming Tesla fast chargers are available and working. And once they reach their destination, they need to search for a local charger. For many like myself these requirements create uncertainty and anxiety. It’s also one of the best arguments for a PHEV, at least until the availability of chargers becomes ubiquitous, and that will take at least another four or five years.

When the first PHEV, the Chevy Volt, came out in 2011, GM loaned me one for a week to review for my newspaper column. I immediately loved the concept – it seemed to make so much sense.  The following year I traded in a BMW for my own 2013 Volt. It was perfect for my use with its range of about 35 miles per charge. Driving around town most days, and taking a few long distant trips each month, my gas consumption dropped to about a quarter of what I had been using, averaging about 130 mpg.

When I traveled from San Diego travel to Santa Monica once each month, a 250 mile round trip, I’d return home with 1/3 tank of gas.  Last year I bought my 3rd Volt, just before they were going out of production, at about 40% off list. Not because of the low cost, but because how suitable the car was for my needs. Before I did so, I looked at other options, but there was nothing like it. There were a number of PHEV cars with smaller batteries and just a 10 or 20 mile range, including a BMW and Volvo, but none comparable  to my current 2019 Volt with a range of 55 miles per charge.

I’ve  always been puzzled why PHEVs were not more popular that eventually led GM to discontinuing the Volt. Was it the difficulty people had in understanding what it was? Was it the advent of the all electric car? Or was it too costly for GM to produce?

According to industry reports, many potential buyers had trouble understanding what they were and how they differed from conventional hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius, that also ran on batteries and gas. In the case of the Prius, the use of batteries and gas was quite different: It had no all-electric mode, it always used gas and got slightly better mileage with an assist from the battery.

Some of the press blamed it on GM’s inability to properly market and explain the concept.  The Volt, reportedly, never made  money, but did allow GM lot ower its average MPG of its entire fleet, helping it to meet its average mileage requirements.

But just when I assumed the concept was dead, Toyota recently introduced its 2021 RAV4 Prime SUV. Prime is the name for their plug-in hybrids that work much like the Volt. The SUV gets only about 40 miles on a charge, and like the Volt, switches to its gasoline engine after 40 miles. The model has become a huge hit in Japan and the US and is back ordered several months. Owners rave about it because it solves their range anxiety of electric cars. It’s priced at about $45K-$50K and is only available at about $5K over sticker price. It wasn’t Toyota’s first Prime model, but so far the most successful. They’ve offered a Prius Prime, but it gets only 25 miles per charge.

After all these years the PHEV has caught on, and it took Toyota to do it. GM recently announced that it’s now committed to going fully electric by 2035, with no plans to bring out another PHEV. They’ve replaced the Volt with the Bolt, an affordable all electric car that’s offers similar range as a Tesla for less cost. I’ve test driven one for a week and it’s an enjoyable, fun to drive car, and ideal if you never plan to use it for long trips. But it will never offer the benefits of the Volt, the highest range PHEV car ever built.


David writes:

  1. There’s also the curious BMW i3 with “range extender” – a curious bastard of a machine and a creature of legislative limitation.  In theory this seemed to be the best possible approach to range extension/anxiety.
  2. The Tesla default charge level is 90%.  Occasional charging to 100% is perfectly fine, and there is the 8 yr/120k mile warranty on the battery pack (promising it won’t drop below 70% of original range/charge capabilities).
  3. Longest range Teslas now go just over 400 miles.  That’s a very easy roundtrip to Los Angeles, plus more besides!
  4. Range anxiety is an interesting thing.  Most people with an EV have an ICE vehicle too, giving them an instant solution for longer distance road trips.
  5. I agree with your comments about the Volt and am similarly puzzled by its withdrawal (and the failure to effectively market the vehicle by GM, including the failure to get its dealership network involved and committed to the vehicle’s success).
  6. I agree with your advocacy of PHEVs in general.  But the absolutists seem keen to stamp out any hint of an ICE, or make it unappealingly useless (the i3 REx).


by Phil Baker