buying: Is a Plug-In Hybrid Vehicle Right for You?

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PHEVs blend some of the benefits of an EV with the familiarity of a traditional gas car. But they also have some drawbacks you should consider.

  Is a Plug-In Hybrid Vehicle Right for You? © Provided by Consumer Reports

By Keith Barry

Are you interested in buying an electric car, but you don’t want to give up the ease of taking a road trip without worrying about where to charge? A plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle (PHEV) might be right for you.

As their name suggests, PHEVs combine a gas engine, an electric motor, and a battery. Unlike a conventional hybrid, their batteries are larger and can be plugged in to add range.

There are currently 46 PHEVs on sale in the U.S., ranging from small hatchbacks to luxurious SUVs. There are even a couple of plug-in supercars, from Bentley, Ferrari, and McLaren. And a few PHEVs are likely to qualify for a new federal tax credit of up to $7,500.

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Read our full reviews of these two PHEVs: Toyota Prius Prime and Toyota RAV4 Prime.

“PHEVs can benefit from most of the fuel savings of a pure EV at a lower purchase price, and without the range anxiety,” says Chris Harto, senior energy policy analyst at Consumer Reports. For example, a PHEV can commute to work or school on electric power just like an EV, but it can also fill up at gas stations on a long road trip just like a gas-only car. PHEVs can even plug into a regular household outlet, so you don’t even need to worry about having a special charger installed.”

But PHEVs aren’t right for all drivers, and some PHEVs are much more efficient than others. We’ll help you decide whether a PHEV might work for your needs, and let you know what to watch out for.

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  Is a Plug-In Hybrid Vehicle Right for You? © Provided by Consumer Reports

Photo: Ford

Do You Have a Short, Regular Commute?

A PHEV might be right for you.

Unlike pure EVs or conventional hybrids, PHEVs have electric ranges that are usually between 20 and 40 miles per charge, and then revert to regular hybrid operation. Considering that the average American drives less than 40 miles per day, that means that some drivers will be able to do most of their daily travel on electric power, as long as they plug in first, while reserving the gas engine for longer trips.

If that sounds like how you drive, there’s one drawback you should be aware of: cost. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a plug-in hybrid can cost roughly $4,000 to $8,000 more up front than a comparable non-plug-in hybrid before any eligible tax credits. But those who tend to travel short distances and plug in whenever they get the chance will save money in the long run because it costs a lot less to drive on electricity than on gasoline. A CR study found that a Prius Prime driver who plugs in regularly would save $3,000 over a regular—and already highly efficient—Prius during a typical six-year ownership period. Plus, plugging in at home can be a great, time-saving convenience over periodic gas fill-ups.

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These are the PHEVs with the longest electric-only ranges:

2022 Toyota RAV4 Prime: 42 miles

2022 Volvo S60 & V60 T8 AWD Recharge extended range: 40 miles*

2022 Volvo S90 T8 AWD Recharge extended range: 38 miles

2022 Ford Escape FWD PHEV: 37 miles *

2022 Lexus NX 450h Plus AWD: 37 miles

2022 Volvo XC60 T8 AWD Recharge extended range: 36 miles

2022 Volvo XC90 T8 AWD Recharge extended range: 36 miles

2023 Kia Sportage Plug-in Hybrid: 34 miles

2022 Hyundai Tucson Plug-in Hybrid: 33 miles

2022 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid: 32 miles*

2022 Kia Sorento Plug-in Hybrid: 32 miles

2022 BMW X5 xDrive45e: 31 miles*

2022 Hyundai Santa Fe Plug-in Hybrid: 31 miles

(All numbers are based on EPA ratings. Vehicles that may be eligible for a federal tax credit are marked with an asterisk.)

  Is a Plug-In Hybrid Vehicle Right for You? © Provided by Consumer Reports

Photo: BMW

Do You Drive Long Distances Often?

A regular hybrid might be a better choice. That’s because the longer you drive and the less you plug in, the less benefit you get from a PHEV.

Don’t get too excited about the MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) rating that’s printed on a PHEV’s window sticker and touted in advertisements. Chances are, your mileage may vary—a lot.

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“The fuel consumption of PHEVs in real-world usage is, on average, more than twice as high as EPA estimates,” says Georg Bieker, a researcher with the International Council on Clean Transportation Europe who studies PHEVs. That difference is largely because most PHEV drivers don’t charge frequently enough to maximize driving time on electricity and thus rely too much on the gas engine. Bieker says that, unsurprisingly, drivers who choose PHEVs with higher electric-only ranges tend to get higher real-world mileage.

The EPA also includes a “gas only” mileage estimate for PHEVs. That’s the fuel economy you’ll get from a PHEV when your initial electric charge runs out, and it’s a lot lower than that MPGe rating. Consider the Jeep Wrangler 4xe, which is rated at 49 MPGe. Once its 22-mile electric range is through, drivers will get only 20 mpg.

A PHEV has two modes: charge-depleting (when it runs on electric power) and charge-sustaining (when it runs on hybrid mode). If you charge daily and have a short commute, you’d consume hardly any fuel. In all other situations your fuel consumption would be slightly higher than the regular hybrid counterpart.

“The key to getting the most out of a PHEV is remembering to plug it in every day,” Harto says. “If you don’t plug it in, or if you tend to drive long distances, you’re better off buying a regular hybrid, which will usually be cheaper and get slightly better gas mileage when run on gasoline only.”

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Drivers who don’t need a long-range vehicle and who are concerned most about efficiency and emissions might want to consider a pure EV. That’s because PHEVs will still engage their gas engines in cold weather or under heavy acceleration, even when there’s plenty of electric range left. “Even for users that only operate their vehicle for short distances, purely battery electric vehicles are a better choice for climate, air pollution, and the wallet,” Bieker says.

PHEVs with the shortest electric-only ranges:

2022 Porsche Cayenne Turbo S/Coupe E-Hybrid 4.0 L: 15 miles

2022 BMW 745e xDrive: 17 miles

2022 Porsche Cayenne/Coupe E-Hybrid 3.0 L: 17 miles

2022 Porsche Panamera Turbo S E-Hybrid 4.0 L: 17 miles

2022 Mini Cooper SE Countryman All4: 18 miles

2022 Volvo XC90 T8 AWD Recharge: 17 miles

2022 BMW 530e xDrive: 19 miles

2022 Land Rover Range Rover Sport PHEV: 19 miles

2022 Porsche Panamera 4 and 4S E-Hybrid: 19 miles

2022 Volvo XC60 T8 AWD Recharge: 19 miles

2022 BMW 330e xDrive: 20 miles *

(All numbers are based on EPA ratings. Vehicles that may be eligible for a federal tax credit are marked with an asterisk.)

Some PHEVs Get Worse Mileage Than a Conventional Car If You Don’t Plug Them In

When the electric range is depleted, most PHEVs get a few miles per gallon less than a comparable hybrid, and a few more than a comparable gas-only vehicle. But in some cases, a purely gas-powered car beats a PHEV’s gas-only fuel economy.

For example, if you don’t plug them in, BMW’s PHEVs get worse fuel economy than their nonhybrid counterparts. Once the 330e xDrive sedan’s 20-mile electric range is exhausted, it only gets 25 mpg—3 mpg less than the conventional 330i xDrive’s EPA rating of 28 mpg. (CR has not formally tested the 330e, but we got 29 mpg overall from our 330i.)

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And that “hybrid” badge doesn’t always mean a car is a mileage miser: The Porsche Panamera Turbo S E-Hybrid, Land Rover Range Rover Sport PHEV, and Porsche Cayenne Turbo S E-Hybrid all get overall fuel economy only in the teens after their short electric-only ranges are exhausted.

PHEVs with the best non-electric gas mileage:

2022 Toyota Prius Prime: 54 mpg

2022 Hyundai Ioniq Plug-in Hybrid: 52 mpg

2022 Kia Niro Plug-in Hybrid: 46 mpg

2022 Ford Escape FWD PHEV: 40 mpg*

2022 Toyota RAV4 Prime 4WD: 38 mpg

2022 Kia Sorento Plug-in Hybrid: 34 mpg

2022 Hyundai Tucson Plug-in Hybrid: 35 mpg

2022 Lexus NX 450h Plus AWD: 36 mpg

2022 Lincoln Corsair AWD PHEV: 33 mpg*

2022 Hyundai Santa Fe Plug-in Hybrid: 33 mpg

(All numbers are based on EPA ratings. Vehicles that may be eligible for a federal tax credit are marked with an asterisk.)

Bottom line: Plug-in hybrids are a great bridge technology, spanning regular gasoline cars to electric vehicles. They are ideal for some drivers, but not all.

If you need further insights into choosing the right powertrain for your needs, see “How to Decide If a Hybrid, Plug-In Hybrid, or Fully Electric Car Is Right for You.”

Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2022, Consumer Reports, Inc.

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