Let’s get this out of the way: pure-electric vehicles do not appeal to everyone. Yes, there’s the lure of tailpipe-free emissions. Even the most advanced electric cars on the market today drive distances of over 620 kilometres between charges.
However, for many Canadian drivers, a plug-in gas-electric hybrid electric vehicle, or PHEV, strikes an ideal balance between eco-friendly motoring and go-anywhere flexibility. Most commuters can drive to and from work on electric power alone, while the gas engine stands in reserve waiting for longer road trips.
How Plug-In Hybrids and Electric Cars Differ
Think of a PHEV as a vehicle that splits the difference between a conventional gasoline car and a fully electric vehicle. A PHEV can handle drives typically between 40 and 80 kilometres using electric power alone. A gasoline engine fires up and works in concert with the electric motor and battery pack to provide relatively low fuel consumption.
Though most PHEVs allow drivers to decide when they want to tap that electric power reserve, the transition to gasoline power is nearly seamless. You may notice an additional under hood thrum from the gas engine, but that’s about it. And even if your commute is closer to 80 or 100 kilometres, fear not: PHEV cars can typically charge up within a few hours.
PHEVs essentially start as gas-fueled cars. Pop the hood, and you’ll find a gasoline engine with an electric motor typically nestled next to it. Hidden under the back seat or somewhere in the trunk/cargo area, you’ll find a battery pack that’s larger than the shoebox-size one under the hood but not nearly as big as what powers a fully electric car.
Most of today’s PHEVs look just like their conventional gas-fueled counterparts. Outside, you’ll find two small doors: one for fuel and one for electric charging. By contrast, an all-electric vehicle discards the gasoline engine entirely.
All-electric vehicles can take a long time to charge on the Level 2 chargers most owners will install at home; refilling a nearly-depleted EV battery can take all day or night.
Level 3 chargers — like those rows of Tesla SuperChargers — provide far more juice. However, Level 3 chargers do not get used in the typical residential installation because of the high cost. Also, they’re far less common than gas stations.
Advantages of Plug-in Hybrids
For Canadians who may need to drive longer distances, the most significant advantage of a PHEV is the ability to go anywhere with no need to stop for time-consuming charges. Once the battery depletes, a PHEV drives much like a conventional hybrid car. The PHEV's electric motor provides some assistance to the gas engine, saving fuel compared to a gas-only vehicle. Additionally, certain driving situations can provide charge to the battery, though not enough to add more than a mile or so of electric driving at a time.
One other nice thing about a PHEV is that only the most discerning eyes will notice a difference between a PHEV and an equivalent gas or hybrid vehicle. A PHEV is perfect for eco-friendly drivers who don't necessarily want to make a significant environmental or political statement.
Brands that Offer Plug-in Hybrids
PHEV offerings fall into two major categories, at least currently: luxury and mainstream. What works best for you may come down to how much you want to spend. Luxury automakers such as Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo offer PHEV versions of several models. If you don’t want to spend luxury brand prices on a new PHEV, don’t despair. Mainstream automakers offer a variety of options.
Toyota calls its PHEVs Prime, and the automaker currently offers Prime versions of its $44,990 CDN 2021 RAV4 compact SUV (68-kilometre range) and its $33,350 CDN 2021 Prius Prime mid-size hatchback (40-km range).
There’s the $33,649 CDN 2021 Hyundai Ioniq PHEV (47-km range) compact hatchback, and its $35,995 CDN 2021 Kia Niro PHEV platform-mate (42-km range), as well as the $44,505 CDN 2021 Honda Clarity PHEV mid-size sedan (76-km range).
If you need to haul many people, the $53,995 CDN 2021 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan can be driven 51 kilometres on electric power alone. Adventurous types can look to the $54,995 CDN 2021 Jeep Wrangler 4xe, which boasts 34 kilometres of electric range plus tremendous off-road capability.
Of course, these prices don’t take into account any Canadian government PHEV purchase rebates. And there will be more mainstream PHEVs coming in the future. If you’re wondering how much you can afford, check our KBB.ca price affordability calculator and find out.
Plug-in Hybrid FAQs
Which One is Better, a Hybrid or a Plug-in Hybrid?
This answer depends on how you’ll use it and what you want to spend.
PHEVs command a price premium over standard hybrids. The cars may take a while for any fuel savings to payout. But if you’re committed to reducing your tailpipe emissions, a PHEV is an ideal way to do this.
What is a Plug-in Hybrid?
A PHEV is a car that pairs a gasoline engine with an electric motor fed by a battery pack. That battery pack achieves a full charge when plugging into anything from a standard wall outlet (for a slow charging time) to Level 2 chargers standard in households and Level 3 chargers in commercial settings (for increasingly faster charger times).
These vehicles can drive on electric power alone, while they have gas engines for unlimited distances without the need to spend time charging up a battery.
How Does a Plug-in Hybrid Work?
With a full charge, a PHEV’s battery pack powers an electric motor. Once that battery pack depletes, a gas engine kicks on seamlessly, and the car alternates between gasoline and electric power depending on how much is needed.
The car’s regenerative braking system captures otherwise lost energy when coasting or slowing down and feeds it to the battery, further reducing its reliance on its gas engine.
Why Isn’t There a Plug-in Hybrid with a 160-kilometre Range?
Be patient! There will be one someday. Battery technology is moving at a rapid rate. Power-dense batteries that take up less space are under development. A few years ago, drivers considered that a good PHEV drove 20 kilometres. Today, it’s almost double that.