With so many new all-electric vehicles, what is the future of the plug-in hybrid?
03.12.2019 - by John U'Ren
With so many new all-electric vehicles, what is the future of the plug-in hybrid?

A quick look at the electric cars hitting dealerships this year reveals an interesting trend: they are long-range all-electrics. The number of upcoming plug-in hybrid electric models is dwarfed by this wave of all-electric long-range cars and SUVs. While many of them are high-performance luxury models, even affordable makes like Kia, Hyundai, and Nissan are turning to all-electric cars as the way forward. It looks as though all-electrics might be the future of the EV, and it might come down to cost and profitability.

This shift towards all-electrics seems a bit counter-intuitive; on the surface, plug-in hybrids seem to bring the best of both worlds to cautious EV buyers. They have enough electric range to satisfy most or all daily driving needs, while also having a gasoline backup for longer range trips. Plug-in hybrids are the no-compromise EV; there’s no range anxiety and they don’t need to be charged in order to work. In short, it’s the perfect first EV for most Americans because it requires virtually no behavior modification on the part of the owner. Plug-in hybrids also seemed to offer a way to reduce the cost of building an electric car, as they require smaller batteries. So why are almost all of the new EVs long-range electrics?

“All the smart money was on plug-in hybrid success and a fail. I’ll bet if you look back you’ll find automotive ‘experts’ expecting most sales to be plug-in hybrids,” says Marc Geller, a longtime EV advocate and vice president of Plug In America. “The automakers have used plug-in hybrids as an easy way to do something plug-in, but I suspect they’ve come to realize consumers are smart enough to understand there hasn’t been much value in a 20-mile-range plug-in hybrid.”

Note that most plug-in hybrids are based upon existing vehicles rather than completely new vehicle designs. This new wave of all-electrics are, by and large, completely new vehicles built from the ground up to be electrics. And they’re not small cars; in fact, a good chunk of them are crossover SUVs with impressive electric ranges all in excess of 200 miles per charge, with some over 300 miles. This is in line with most assessments that 300 miles per charge is the sweet spot for electric vehicle range; once an all-electric can travel 300 miles on a single charge, the range of the vehicle ceases to be an impediment to consumer adoption.

There could be another factor at play here: cost. As the cost-per-kilowatt-hour of an electric car’s battery pack continues to fall, it might have finally passed the point where it’s cheaper to design and build a long-range all-electric than a comparable plug-in hybrid. All-electrics are mechanically pretty simple—there’s a battery that stores the energy, electric motors that power the drive wheels, and a motor controller that is the brains of the drivetrain. Plug-in hybrids are much more mechanically complex, having to integrate two parallel powertrains together in a seamless operation. The cost of designing and building this combined powertrain may be more expensive than just building an all-electric car. This especially matters if the automakers launching these long range all-electrics intend to turn a healthy profit on these vehicles; thus far, electric cars have not provided the profit margins that mainstream automakers are accustomed to. This appears to be changing fast.

This rollout of long-range all-electric vehicles is a good thing—the technology is advancing, so with 200-300 miles of all-electric range, having a gas backup isn’t really necessary. And the more miles Americans drive on electricity versus gasoline, the better!

With all this in mind, where are plug-in hybrids going? It’s possible they are the jack of all trades, master of none; they don’t get nearly as many electric miles as a long-range all-electric, yet they’re a bit more expensive than a comparable gas car. But plug-in hybrids do fill an important market niche, in that they allow EV-curious drivers to have an EV experience without going fully electric. Perhaps the true future of plug-in hybrids is the extended-range electric vehicle (EREV), a plug-in hybrid that is able to drive exclusively on electric when in electric mode, unlike most plug-in hybrids that require the gas engine to turn on for maximum power. Currently the only EREVs on the market are the BMW i3 REX and the Chevrolet Volt, and the Volt has just been discontinued. What is certain is that if plug-in hybrids are going to continue to be a viable electric offering, the electric range must be significantly more than most current models. There are at least 20 plug-in hybrid models on the market today that get well under 30 miles of electric range; electric ranges below 30 miles just don’t cut it anymore.

25 comments on “With so many new all-electric vehicles, what is the future of the plug-in hybrid?”
  1. Dennis McLerran says:

    I have both a full ev and a plug-in hybrid and they both fill our needs well. The Tesla Model 3 is great and the SuperCharger network is fantastic to have for longer road trips. However, my Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid is what we need for camping and biking and carrying kayaks to areas where there are few chargers and still much too sketchy charging network reliability. I love having a near zero carbon footprint with the Tesla with Seattle’s GHG free electricity, but I am getting almost 70 mpg lifetime for the Chrysler which is a big improvement over an SUV or other van. I don’t think it helps to talk down plug in hybrids as they are a way for many to reduce their overall carbon footprint and fill a niche that ev’s don’t always fill as yet. Even the BMW 330e I had before the Tesla got 78 mpg lifetime for me and it only had 14 miles of electric range. It’s all about how you use them. Eventually we will electrify everything but let’s recognize that more choices that reduce carbon are a step forward to reduce environmental impact.

  2. Greener says:

    Around 30% of Americans live in multi dwelling homes such as apartments and condos. That number has been still going up as more and more families continue to lose their single family homes to the banks. Although job numbers look good, salaries have remained stagnant and jobs are not well paying as in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. PHEVs and EVs are basically useless for large numbers Americans as they cannot charge at home. Widespread and affordable public charging is still a dream. The only electrified transportation alternative for this large demographic are high efficiency hybrid vehicles such as 2018+ Hyundai Ioniq, 2016+ Toyota Prius, or the 2019+ Honda Insight. Only California and Colorado have laws that allow multi dwelling residents to be able to charge their EVs at home.

  3. Mark says:

    I drive a PHEV Honda Clarity 2019 and it’s the perfect solution with 50mi EV range and 300+ HE range. After state + federal tax incentives these vehicles are costing around 20-25K so it’s a slam dunk for any commuter. You barely use gas, until you take a long trip and in that scenario have easy refill options.

  4. Roger Lambert says:

    “let’s not forget Honda engineered it, and originally invested heavily into manufacturing it, as a hydrogen fuel cell EV. When the fuel cell version didn’t move they modified it into a plug-in hybrid EV. So even Honda wasn’t sold on hybrids but they’ve already sunk a lot into the Clarity’s R&D.”

    Actually, the Clarity came out as three versions, released simultaneously – pure EV, PheV, and fuel cell. As a “world” car, ie, designed for release globally.

  5. Jan Wagner, AutoMatters & More syndicated columnist says:

    This article seems to have somewhat of a bias towards all-electric versus plug-in hybrid vehicles. For those of us who only have one primary vehicle, and need to use it to make road trips on occasion, an all-electric vehicle just does not make sense. Recharge time is too long and range, even at 300 miles, is not enough. The fact is that at some point you’re going to have to recharge it on your trip and either you will have a long wait once you plug it in and start charging, or you may not even be able to start charging right away because other cars are ahead of yours (or worse yet, plugged in and left unattended after their charge is complete). That’s a big problem.
    Plug-in hybrids, if they have decent, driver-selectable, all-electric range, offer a more reliable, complete, driving alternative. I have been waiting to replace my 2012 Prius Plug-in Hybrid (with its pathetic 8-mile real-world all-electric range) with a relatively small yet tall SUV that offers at least 30 miles of driver-selectable, all-electric range (sufficient for most of my around-town driving), decent gas fuel economy, room for all the stuff that I sometimes need to transport, and the most technologically, advanced driver assistance features: including stop/start cruise control, lane keeping assist that will steer the car, emergency automatic braking, self-parking and so forth.
    Yesterday, at long last, one major auto manufacturer announced one such vehicle, hopefully for sale within a few months. That vehicle is the all-new, plug-in hybrid version of the 2020 Ford Escape — and as a bonus, it has great styling too. If that vehicle delivers on its promises, Ford will have a winner.

  6. jason jungreis says:

    While I appreciate the concern that I “forgot” or “hadn’t heard of” or “didn’t do [my] research to stumble across” the Honda Clarity, I am in fact aware of it. (I don’t believe anything I wrote demonstrated a lack of such awareness.) Its existence is neither here nor there regarding what I wrote — inclusion of all possible related facts weighs down readability and muddies a point.

    I am glad that you all enjoy your Claritys — which, given Honda’s lateness to the electrified party, seems to be well-executed and indeed have benefited from the opportunity to study the work of others. (One could now go on to identify all the PHEVs on the market, but of course that is already this site’s purpose.)

  7. LF says:

    Note that most plug-in hybrids are based upon existing vehicles rather than completely new vehicle designs.

    Currently the only EREVs on the market are the BMW i3 REX and the Chevrolet Volt,

    DO YOU IIVE IN A CAVE? YOU WRITE ABOUT PHEVS BUT DON’T KNOW ABOUT THE HONDA CLARITY THAT GETS 50 EV MILES AND WAS DESIGNED FROM THE GROUND UP.

  8. Texas22Step says:

    Clearly the writer and publisher of this article must be intentionally ignoring the new Honda Clarity, which in the wake of the discontinuance of the Chevrolet Volt, is now the largest selling PHEV in the country. With almost 50 miles of pure EV range (EPA rating) and well over 300 miles of combined ICE and EV range, it is much more than a “gap” vehicle since it allows owners to drive all-electric for most commuting and other local driving, while eliminating range / charger anxiety on longer trips. The PHEV may in fact turn out to be THE future of electric vehicles, since it takes advantage of the existing refueling infrastructure AND the slowly emerging EV recharging infrastructure that Plug-In America and others are building.

  9. Rob Marlowe says:

    PHEVs are the gateway drugs of electrification. I drove my son’s Prius Plug-in, with its miserable 10 mile pure EV range for three years while he was deployed overseas. Because my typical drive is only a few miles a day, I discovered that I often went days without the engine kicking in. My experience with it was enough to make me comfortable buying a used 2011 Leaf when the time came to give him back his car. My wife takes frequent long trips to visit her folks. Until 200-300 mile range electrics start showing up in quantity around here, a PHEV may be in the cards for her next car. The next few years are going to be very exciting.

  10. Roman says:

    Interesting to see all these comments about the Honda Clarity. I’m sure it’s a nice plug-in hybrid, but let’s not forget Honda engineered it, and originally invested heavily into manufacturing it, as a hydrogen fuel cell EV. When the fuel cell version didn’t move they modified it into a plug-in hybrid EV. So even Honda wasn’t sold on hybrids but they’ve already sunk a lot into the Clarity’s R&D.

  11. Rob Mack says:

    I think the point people are missing is the logic of the situation:

    We purchased a GM Bolt EV because it does not ever need petrol, gasoline. Why have a vehicle that needs to burn liquid fuel to charge a battery to drive an electric motor? You have not achieved anything except maybe a bit less fuel consumed. Zero emissions and NO petrol is what we need. We don’t want to stop at those petrol bowsers any more.

    400 Km in summer and 260 in winter is fine, and we do long range trips without long delays to refuel. Most hotels now have destination chargers.

  12. Alex C. says:

    I love my 2018 Honda Clarity PHEV. It’s a family car with nearly a 50 mile range. Granted the Clarity has only been around for a two model years but if you are writing about PHEVs it should be mentioned. Honda is a mayor car company and a major player in the PHEV and full electric space. With the discontinuation of the Chevrolet Volt that leaves the Honda Clarity as the longest range PHEV sold in the USA.

  13. insightman says:

    The article says: “consumers are smart enough to understand there hasn’t been much value in a 20-mile-range plug-in hybrid.”

    Perhaps that’s why Honda gave their luxurious Clarity PHEV 47 miles of EV range. I drove my Clarity 10 months without visiting a gas station. Then, when I needed to dash a few states away at the last minute, there were no long waits at an EVSE because I had the ICE for just such an occasion. On the way home I had to spend a whole 5 minutes at a gas pump to fill the 7-gallon tank.

  14. G says:

    “there hasn’t been much value in a 20-mile-range plug-in hybrid”

    Which is why I like my Clarity that gets 40 in Texas winter and near 60 in Texas summer.

  15. RickSE says:

    I guess your first three posts beat me to the punch. Got my Honda Clarity 6 months ago and have gone >6k miles on 21 gallons of gas. The rest was all electric because the 47 mile ev range is longer then my daily round trip commute. Car seats 5 and you can actually put luggage in the trunk. Great handling in the winter and very comfortable to drive. Sorry you missed the Clarity in your article. It’s the best selling phev in the market, so perhaps you missed it sitting at the top of the list! I’d love. A full ev, but they take way too long to charge on a road trip. Plus they are expensive. My car is 1/2 the cost of most evs. The market is getting full of evs but they are priced way more then PHEVs. The future is probably evs but in the present the Clarity works just fine.

  16. PC says:

    Mr. U’Ren, FYI, I drivve what you may call an EREV that is NOT the Volt nor the i3Rex. It’s called HONDA CLARITY. It’s pure electric range is comparable to that on the Volt, plus being WAY more comfortable. IMHO, even though you get electrics with 300 mile range, PHEVs are not going anywhere while there are not as many L3 chargers as gas stations and they are able to get you going in at least 10 minutes, Give me that and I’ll give away my Clarity.

  17. Robert Alcantaro says:

    Give us a SUV with 75 to 100 miles battery pack then go into gas for long trips at 45 mpg. But better yet build a generator under the rear wheels that is built as the wind generator thats gear driven slow turns big output, put 20KWH Battery pack electric motor as the electric motor turns the back wheels with the generator that has gears slow turns big output to charge battery and run electric motor. Here is way you can do it I have a 2018 Volt that you can charge up, put the charge in hold drive on gas anywhere you want to and hold the charge then turn back on the run on battery only till it runs out. when it runs on gas you are running the electric motor to run the car. they have the gas generator set to only put out to run electric motor not to recharge the battery.Its because of gas companys and electric companys, if who ever made the wind generators made a generator small for under the back wheels of electric cars with gears in the generator slow turns big electric output to run the electric motor and charge the battery up all the time, you would not need the electric company to charge car our gas company. If the volt can hold the battery charge and run the car on gas generator to run the electric motor in the Volt. it can be done

  18. Jorgie393 says:

    Nice article, but you missed one combination that I think is a perfect bridge Until EVs charge faster and have better range/charging options.

    If a plug-in hybrid has a big enough battery to go 40-50 miles, it can run in battery-only for the majority of most people‘s commutes. Then run the engine to go another 300 miles for longer trips. And be refuelable.

    I am in such a car-it’s a Honda clarity. I never use the engine unless I want to, or for super-fast acceleration (batteries fine with me). Why pay for 300 mile battery when I rarely need it? Why do without an engine when it’s nice to have one as a back up?

  19. Robert_Alabama says:

    You really should have done more research before writing this. Most owners of either the Honda Clarity or the Chevrolet Volt rarely use gasoline on a day to day basis and both of these cars were designed from the drawing board as PHEVs. Only on longer trips (usually weekend travel) is gasoline used, and they get good gas mileage so that that amount of gasoline use is minimized. And no need to worry about recharge points for those trips. I own both a Clarity and a Volt and generally about 80% of the miles on each have been pure electric. Also, both cars generally run in all electric mode 100% of the time during the week for commuting. Also both cars have electric range well above 30 miles you state as if it is the norm to end your article. True the Volt has been discontinued, but I am hopeful that PHEVs with ranges of 50 miles or more will continue to be built until the charging infrastructure and recharging time gets to be something that is more bearable for pure EV users. They make a whole lot of sense to a lot of consumers and can seriously cut gasoline use without having to wait for charging infrastructure and reduced charging times.

    1. John U'Ren says:

      Hi Robert,
      I’m a Volt owner as well! We are of a similar mind. The Volt is an excellent EREV (I’ve had three), and it’s sad to see it be discontinued. I too think there is a huge potential for longer range PHEVs, and I’m hopeful that more will enter the marketplace. It’s a much easier transition for new EV drivers than a full electric – it’s an electric vehicle with no compromises. Hopefully we’ll see more 40+ mile PHEVs in more vehicle classes such as SUVs and pickups. But it’s interesting that the vast majority of EVs hitting the market are all-electrics; I would have expected more PHEVs.

  20. TimBlood says:

    I had a Leaf and now drive a Bolt. If the manufacturers want widespread adoption of EVs, they MUST standardize the high speed charging plug. Here in Eugene Oregon, I could drive the Leaf to the Oregon coast and they were three high-speed charging stations along the route to our final destination. With the Bolt, there are zero. Until Manufacturers standardize the high-speed charging plug, I cannot recommend an EV except as a second car for short to medium distances.

  21. rodeknyt says:

    It is too bad you didn’t do your research enough to stumble across the highest-selling PHEV in the US…the Honda Clarity. Its EV range is right there with the Volt, and with the gas engine it makes for a nice, big, comfy and quiet car for extended road trips.

    It’s not the range per charge that is going to get people excited about BEVs. It is the range coupled with an adequate charging infrastructure AND getting charge times down to something that’s actually reasonable. Rated ranges drop dramatically when doing 70+ mph on the Interstate. Without better and more accessible charging technology, BEVs won’t be suitable for extended road trips.

    Until that happens, the PHEV, particularly the Clarity, can provide what folks really need.

  22. John says:

    I think PHEV is a stop gap solution, but then so is the Prius. One day pure EV will achieve recharge times in the same time it takes to fill a gas tank, but we’re not there yet. For now a PHEV, with a decent EV range is best for my family. I consider a decent range to be closer to 50 miles than 30.

    With out Honda Clarity we drive 100% EV around town for weeks at a time. We drive in EV so much I think of the car as electric. But on 500 – 1,100 mile round trips a few times a year we don’t have to stop for long charge times.

  23. KentuckyKen says:

    Good points but you forgot, or perhaps haven’t heard, that the Honda Clarity PHEV is in its second year and is an all new design with a 47 mile EPA EV range. Honda hasn’t advertised it much and has only sold about 25K/yr, but it’s a full size 4 door that’s wider than the Accord, has room for 3 adults in the rear seat, and has a large 15.5 cf trunk. The gas mode EPA rating is 42 mpg combined city/hwy and the total range is 340 miles. I’m getting up to 140 MPGe (EPA rating is 110 MPGe) in warm weather and down to 115 MPGe in. the winter. So far I’ve driven almost 9,000 miles on less than 15 gal of gas and all my local driving is EV. And on long trips I get 48 mpg (EPA is 44) and wave as I go by to my Tesla and Leaf friends who have to stop and charge. You also get the full $7,500 Federal tax credit so it’s very affordable at an MRSP of around 32K.
    It’s true my that best of both worlds: all EV in town and no range anxiety on long trips or hunting for EVSEs.

  24. jason jungreis says:

    I would like to see a mandate that all vehicles use electric propulsion architecture with, say, 20KWH of battery energy capacity which will ensure adequate power for all driving needs. The consumer can then choose whether to increase the battery pack — say, add another 50KWH of battery energy capacity — or alternatively choose an efficient range extender engine. I have a Volt, it works great, and I’m disappointed (but not entirely surprised) that GM does not appreciate how beneficial its Voltec architecture is.

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