Why It's OK That Plug-In Hybrids Have the Edge over Battery Electrics

By · October 01, 2012

Volvo V60 Plug-In Hybrid

Volvo has pre-sold the first 1,000 of its diesel V60 plug-in hybrid and says the order books are "filling up." (Volvo graphic)

In the first months of electric vehicle deployment, the public appeared evenly split between battery electrics and plug-in hybrids. The Chevy Volt and Nissan LEAFs were in a real race for higher monthly sales. But that was then: Now there’s no contest, and EV buyers are clearly showing they’d rather go with EV lite—a plug-in hybrid that offers electric range, but also the equivalent of comfort food in that back-up gas motor.

Even if you’re a diehard battery advocate who hates the idea of an onboard gasoline engine, you shouldn’t despair of this situation. The plug-in hybrid is like an electric car on training wheels: It gets people used to the concept, while introducing them to the whole world of driving electric. The plug-in hybrid was envisioned as, and is, a transitional vehicle. I don’t expect to see many of them on the road in 10 years, because I think batteries will be able to go it alone by then.

A Good Month...For the Volt

General Motors sold 2,831 Volts in August (its best month ever), compared to 685 LEAFs. That’s a quarter as many, and it was before Nissan started reporting hot weather problems with the LEAF in Phoenix. That revelation goes along with the news that cars that have 100 miles of range on paper get 70 to 80 in the real world.

Want more evidence of the plug-in hybrid's appeal? Volvo has managed to sell all 1,000 of its first V60 diesel plug-in hybrids, and the company says "the order books for next year's cars are already filling up." And that's before the PHEV is even on sale. The company is looking to move 5,000 of them for model year 2014.

The diesel engine probably helps sell the car in Europe, which is the only place you can get these Volvos right now. They sell for the equivalent of $80,000, so the sales are impressive. The U.S. version may come later, and maybe a gasoline S60 instead of a diesel. Here's an atmospheric video of the car in action:

The Volkswagen Group is also bullish on plug-in hybrids. At the Paris Auto Show, CEO Martin Winterkorn opined, "The new powertrain taking shape as very promising is the best of electric and engine power: the plug-in hybrid." He said the group will produce gas/electric versions of the Audi A3, A5, A6 and Q7, the Porsche Cayenne, and Volkswagen Golf and Passat.

Success Obscured by Clouds

People aren’t nuts. The Volt may be a bit more expensive than the LEAF, but it’s offering more perceived value right now, and consumers are recognizing that. The emerging success of the plug-in hybrid has been obscured by some other factors, including the fact that not many have been on the market. The Fisker Karma is for sale, of course, but it has some hurdles to overcome, including now a nasty review in Consumer Reports. It’s unclear how many Karmas have been sold, but the problems have nothing to do with the car’s pretty good range.

Plug-In Hybrid Prius

Toyota has sold more than 6,000 of Plug-in Priuses through August, many of them in California. (Toyota graphic)

The Toyota Plug-In Hybrid is also a comer. It’s still offered in only 15 states, but goes national next year. Toyota wants to sell 15,000 a year. It’s not there yet—sales through August were 6,061. In Japan, they moved 8,400 in the same period. There’s a big reason to buy it in California: You get the same HOV access as battery electrics, as well as rebates.

And I also predict a good reception for the Honda Accord Plug-In Hybrid, which I drove in New York. It’s a very sophisticated package, with three drive modes and up to 15 miles of electric range. The car will be on the market early next year.

The Big Takeoff

Once people get used to the still somewhat alien concept, I expect plug-in hybrids to really take off. The battery car surge will come later, probably when costs are reduced considerably, the national charging network is in place and range is at least 120 real-world miles.

That’s coming, and Tesla Motors deserves much of the credit. The Tesla-massaged RAV4 EV manages to deliver more than 120 real miles on a charge, and the Model S with the 85-kilowatt-hour battery can yield 250 or so miles on a regular basis, and something at least close to the stated 300-mile figure if driven with extreme caution. Elon Musk claims 400 miles is possible, but that's a stretch.

Tesla is having cash-flow problems right now, but nobody’s seriously questioning that the Model S offers cutting-edge engineering—no wonder both Daimler and Toyota bought into the company. Other automakers are quite likely to catch up, and it will help if companies such as Envia Systems really deliver—and soon—on their big claims for lower-cost, higher-range batteries.

Automakers are still committed to electrification—battery electrics on the market will likely double next year, to 20, reports Brian Wynne of the Electric Drive Transportation Association. But in that same period hybrid models will grow from 42 to 73. Like I said, plug-in hybrids do have the edge right now, but don’t expect it to last forever.

New to EVs? Start here

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