Plug-In Hybrids Need Love Too


Good-Bye to Gasoline!

Our new-to-us 2015 Chevy Volt
Image source: Karl Bloss

In November 2018, we said farewell to our trusty 2011 Toyota Sienna minivan.  This was the end of an era for our family, not only because our children were grown to the point of a minivan not making sense any more, but also because it was our last vehicle with a combustion engine.  With our garage then including a Nissan LEAF and a Tesla Model S, I told myself that I would never again buy a vehicle that burned gasoline.

I was wrong.

Daryl Elliott's CleanTechnica article "The PHEV Era Needs to End, Now" makes some compelling arguments that the Plug-In Hybrid Vehicle (PHEV) bridge technology to Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) has run its course and those of us who are in the segment of early adopters should leave this crutch behind.

Farewell to our 2011 Toyota Sienna
Image source: Karl Bloss

...Or Maybe Not

All those arguments are valid except that as of mid-2020, there are very few BEVs that are suitable for cross-country travel by a teenager at a vehicle price of less than $30,000.  My college junior daughter is studying to be a teacher at a college 800 miles from our home and needed a car to travel to her student teaching assignments.  

As recently as February of this year, EV enthusiasts were driving their EVs from all corners of North America to the Fully Charged Live event in Austin, Texas.  Those who were traveling in Teslas generally had an easier time with that road trip than those with, say, Chevy Bolt EVs.  There were quite a few stories of inoperative chargers, and long charge times.  And remember, those are the gung-ho EV enthusiasts, not kids just trying to get from point A to point B.  Tesla is the only long-range EV that has the luxury of a reliable fast charging network, and I wasn't about to put a new driver into a $50,000 Tesla.  

So what are the alternatives since a used 100-mile-range Nissan LEAF wasn't going meet my daughter's needs?

PHEV Overview
Image Source: afdc.energy.gov

What is a PHEV?

A plug-in hybrid vehicle (PHEV), also called a range-extended electric vehicle, is a car that has an electric drive train, a battery, and a small combustion engine that recharges the battery when it has become depleted.  The US Alternative Fuels Data Center has an excellent description and details.  Basically, it means, the car can drive as a pure electric vehicle for 20-50 miles depending on its battery size and driving habits and can be plugged in to recharge the battery.  The difference between this and a BEV is that there is a backup combustion engine that kicks in when the battery is empty and at that point the car acts like a series hybrid and can run on pure gasoline to generate electricity for the electric motor.  There's no need to have range anxiety as long as you have access to the still well-established gas station infrastructure.  

For those who follow the standard short-errand driving pattern, the car can be driven on electricity for most of its trips, thereby saving money on fuel as well as being kinder on the environment.

Used PHEVs to the Rescue

There are ChargePoint stations all over Kansas City
Image source: Karl Bloss
My daughter's typical driving pattern once she reaches her college town is likely to be trips less than 40 miles round trip.  Her university house has utilities included in the rent along with a parking space that can reach a 120V receptacle.  Even with the included 1.4 KW "granny" charger cable, she can easily charge up overnight and have a full battery in the morning without spending an additional dime.  

College kids are also remarkably resourceful, so if I tell her that gas money is coming out of her allowance, she'll be quick to figure out how to use Kansas City utility Evergy's excellent Clean Charge Network including some free chargers around town.  I'm sure she would rather spend her money at Starbucks.

I did some online research, we test drove a few vehicles and pulled the trigger on a ...

The 2015 Chevy Volt hatchback has a ton of space
Image source: Karl Bloss

2015 Chevy Volt

Why the Volt?  Despite the complexity of a PHEV with its dual drive trains, the Volt has a good reputation of being robustly designed and executed.  Although its tech was pretty high end for the early 2010s, the driver is mainly shielded from this complexity.  Just plug it in or, as I learned from the Facebook Chevy Volt groups:  ABC:  "Always be charging".  

The Volt went through a generation refresh in 2016 and it was tempting to buy the newest tech with slightly more range, but the later models of the Generation 1 appear to have the bugs worked out.  When we spotted this well-treated vehcle with less than 50,000 miles and less than $15,000, it was time to pull the trigger.

We've used less than one gallon of gas since we bought the car!
Image source: Karl Bloss

Driving Electric on a Budget

Even as prices of new EVs are starting to come down to more affordable levels, the reality is that new cars are still expensive.  Particularly during the time of COVID-19, there are some great used EV deals, like we discussed in our previous Plug In West Michigan Used EV Podcast.  

Despite gas prices of just over $2 (in some cases even less), driving electric is still cheaper.  If you have a place to charge at your home, it's also more convenient.  No need to visit a gas station wearing a mask and gloves while spending precious dollars on gas, just plug it in each night at home and wake up to a full "tank".  Bonus points if you use cheaper overnight time-of-day reduced power rates or your power is prepaid with your rent.  But those of you who have read to this point already know this.

Since we purchased the Volt earlier this summer and despite driving nearly 1,000 miles, we've only used about 0.62 gallons of gas and the car is still at 7/8 tank.  The lifetime average fuel economy of the car is over 80 MPG!

An imperfect solution may be perfect for you!

Don't Discount PHEVs

There are those including Daryl Elliott that will claim we need to move on from imperfect bridge solutions like plug-in hybrids to pure battery electrics.  However, this doesn't take into account the thousands of drivers that manage to drive the bulk of their PHEV miles on electric power with all of the associated benefits.  Take a look at https://www.voltstats.net/ and be amazed at the millions of electric miles driven by PHEV owners.

While some parts of the US may be littered with public chargers, large parts of the Midwest and other out-of-the-way places just aren't there yet with the public charging infrastructure.  For drivers in those regions wanting to drive electric, a plug-in hybrid may be just the solution.


Happy EV road tripping and keep charging ahead!


Resources:

If you are in the market for a Tesla Model S, Model X, or Model 3, Tesla has reestablished its referral program.  Feel free to use my referral code to get 1,000 miles of free Supercharging (at the time of this publishing) for your Tesla:  http://ts.la/karl5062

Comments

  1. My family of five, living in mid-michigan, is buying a Chrysler Pacifica plugin hybrid this year and have a pre-order for a Ford Mustang Mach-E BEV.

    The PHEV minivan is comfortable and convenient for long trips and works in places without DC Fast charging, like upper Michigan. The all electric range is enough for our daily work commute and we have a free level 2 charger that can be used at our work places.

    The Mach-E, with ~270 mile EPA will be used for the second commuter and for regional trips around lower Michigan. Trips to neighboring metros can be done without extra charging. There is a DC Charger in Cadillac for round trips to Traverse City and the Walker charger for trips to Muskegon/Ludington areas. For Ohio (Cleveland/Cedar Point), the Electricity America turnpike station will work perfect.

    The main dead spot is heading up to the bridge and UP. Hopefully a DC charger will be added on that route soon.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sounds like a great plan! Having traveled in the northern Lower Peninsula as well as the UP with my Zero motorcycle, charging is hard to find, even Level 2. The Consumers Energy PowerMIDrive program has made a difference and we are seeing both DC Quick Charging locations as well as new Level 2s popping up. I encountered a DCQC at Blaine's in Traverse City and I understand Gaylord has one now as well. Stay tuned to www.plugshare.com for the latest.

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    2. Thanks for helping keep PlugShare up to date! Exciting to hear about new stations coming up in Northern lower peninsula.

      What makes me nervous about taking long trips without a hybrid, particularly with young children, is that non-Tesla EV charging options just don’t have enough plugs per location Often only one or two. If a station were to break down or not work, you could end up being stuck without enough charge to reach the next station. Tesla typically has 8 plugs per location, making the odds of a total breakdown very slim. Hoping that improves with non-Tesla networks over time as more people adopt EVs.

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