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Buying a Car: Why Aren't There More Plug-In Hybrids?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro June 2014

If you're interested in buying a car with a focus on the environment, you've probably added a few plug-in hybrid models to your shopping list. Cars such as the Chevrolet Volt and Ford Fusion Energi offer an excellent alternative for shoppers who can't fit their lifestyles into an electric vehicle's (EV) range but still want to save fuel with an electric motor. The only problem: There aren't many plug-in hybrids to choose from. Ever wondered why that is? We have the answer.

Plug-In Hybrid vs. EV vs. Hybrid

Before we explain the general lack of plug-in hybrids available today, we first should explain exactly what a plug-in hybrid is and how it differs from an electric vehicle and a traditional hybrid.

With an electric vehicle, you plug your car into a charger, which recharges the battery. Since this is the car's sole power supply, an EV can then drive until the battery runs out of juice. At that point, you plug it in again and repeat the process.

A hybrid, meanwhile, is powered by gasoline, though it includes the help of batteries and an electric motor. You fill up a traditional hybrid at the gas station, just like a normal car, but hybrids get better mileage than most normal cars because they use energy captured from braking to help power the electric motor. That motor is then used to power the car, or at least to power accessories such as air conditioning and the radio.

With a plug-in hybrid, you seemingly have the best of both worlds. You charge a plug-in hybrid with a charger, just like an EV, and then you can drive for a certain amount of time on electric-only power, just like an EV. But when the electric motor runs out of juice, there's no range anxiety, because there's a backup range-extending gasoline engine there to power the car until your next recharge.

But if it's such a good compromise, why are there so few plug-in hybrid cars on the market?

Few Want Compromise

One of the biggest problems with plug-in hybrid popularity is that few drivers actually want compromise. It turns out that many car shoppers prefer one system or the other. For example, drivers who really want to help the environment prefer a car with no gas engine at all, even if a plug-in hybrid is more practical due to its longer range. Meanwhile, shoppers who buy hybrids don't seem to want the hassle of plugging in their car every night, preferring instead to carry on using only gas stations like they're used to.

The result is that plug-in hybrid models are stuck in an unusual gray area between hybrid and electric, and with many shoppers choosing one or the other when buying a car with a green personality, there isn't much room left over for plug-in hybrids.

They're Pricey, Too

Another problem is that plug-in hybrid cars tend to be expensive. In many cases, they're even more expensive than traditional EV or hybrid models. For example, the Chevrolet Volt starts around $35,000 with shipping, which is about $5,000 more than the fully electric Nissan Leaf, a close competitor. The Honda Accord Plug-In Hybrid comes in at around $41,000 with shipping, which is roughly $10,000 more than a standard Accord Hybrid. Even the reasonably priced Ford Fusion Energi, which starts around $35,000, is about $8,000 more expensive than a Fusion Hybrid, which returns an admirable 47 miles per gallon. With price differences like that, many shoppers likely wonder why they should spend the extra money for a plug-in hybrid.

EV Advancements

Plug-in hybrids are also struggling to gain traction because electric vehicles keep getting better. While early EVs had short ranges and long charge times, newer models are pushing those boundaries. Some EVs are now flirting with 100-mile ranges, for example, while the Tesla Model S can travel 200-plus miles between charges.

Additionally, charge times are shorter, as many EVs can now be recharged fully in five hours or less, which is a big change from the 8-plus hours of earlier models. As EVs get better and better, we suspect fewer shoppers will want plug-in hybrids, and that may be why automakers are spending money to develop EVs rather than rolling out plug-in hybrids.

More Plug-In Hybrids?

So will there be any more plug-in hybrids? We think a few more models might make their way on to the market, but we suspect the majority of upcoming green cars will be either traditional hybrids or EVs.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
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Buying a Car: Why Aren't There More Plug-In Hybrids? - Autotrader