All vehicles deriving power from electricity simply aren’t the same. Using the 2018 Toyota Prius Prime as a baseline, we will take a look at how plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) compare to pure, fully electric vehicles (EVs). There’s more to consider than simply mileage.
Our choice of the Prius Prime isn’t because of some preference of our own, but because Toyota has sold more units of the Prius (in the U.S.) in its varied forms than any other hybrid or EV by any other carmaker. We chose it purely on name recognition. We also thought it appropriate to use the plug-in version of Prius to compare and contrast with pure EVs.
In a nutshell, the 2018 Toyota Prius Prime is based on the Prius, using the same Toyota New Global Architecture platform and sharing other bits and pieces. Beyond exterior styling, the major difference is that the Prius Prime charges its hybrid battery by plugging into an electrical outlet, while the non-Prime Prius siphons electricity from the motor and regenerative brakes to charge its hybrid battery. Because of this difference, the Prius Prime delivers up to a government-estimated 25 miles on battery power only. The additional bulk this PHEV system brings to Prius Prime also cannibalizes a fair amount of the cargo room offered by the regular Prius. Once that 25-mile range is used up, the Prius Prime begins working more like a typical Toyota Prius that you never have to plug in.
Range vs. Price
A fair portion of consumer resistance to EVs is what is often characterized as "range anxiety." That is, people’s fear of an exhausted battery stranding them somewhere. Only recently have more affordable EVs like the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Bolt posted ranges in excess of 100 miles. Of course, if you had $70,000 to spend, you could’ve purchased a 215-mile-range Tesla S, but that’s out of the reach of the average EV shopper. If you want that kind of luxury in a pure EV, more choices are on the way. Most notably, the Jaguar I-Pace and the Audi E-Tron.
For less than $30,000, you can buy a Leaf with an estimated range of about 150 miles. For less than $37,000, you can choose the Chevrolet Bolt with its estimated range of 240 miles. Neither of these EVs allow you to drive across the country without lengthy stops to recharge, but the average consumer could leave home for a commute or a day’s worth of errand runs with a fully charged battery and not give a second thought to the battery running out of charge before returning home.
Although a PHEV like Prius Prime only offers 25-or-so miles of range on electric power alone, it does offer the advantage of its gasoline engine kicking in once the battery is depleted. According to government estimates, once that electric-mode range of 25 miles has exhausted the battery, the gasoline engine can travel up to 615 more miles. That’s a total range of up to 640 mi. Once the gas tank runs low, it can be refilled, and the Prius Prime is good to go another 600-plus miles. In other words, range is really not a factor at all with a PHEV. Charge the Prius Prime every day and you’ll get spectacular fuel economy. The editors at Autotrader did just that and got 235 miles per gallon, running on one tank of gas for about four months.
With a base price less than either the Leaf or Bolt, the $27,300 Prius Prime has the capability to run on electric or gasoline. True, 25 miles isn’t much range, but with many businesses and parking lots offering charging stations, in many situations your PHEV or EV can charge while you’re at your job, transacting business or enjoying a movie at a local theater. When you’re able to keep the battery charged, the Prius Prime functions as a full-blown EV. If you don’t feel like charging, or simply can’t, the Prime works like a typical hybrid, and you can just use gasoline while still getting 54 miles per gallon.
What something is worth is what someone is willing to pay for it. In the world of EVs, range is almost always a factor of price. Today, range is a little like horsepower from years ago. The greater the range, the more the EV costs — those batteries that make the extended range possible are expensive. Shoppers must make the choice of how much range they are willing buy. Typically, the goal of EV owners is to never buy another drop of gasoline. They’re willing to pay a premium and sacrifice making longer trips to achieve that goal. PHEVs are a compromise. On one hand, a PHEV owner can operate on electric power alone for at least 25 miles (or more) per charge. But on the other hand, they can drive long distances in the same car. All, of course, for a car that costs less than most EVs to drive off the dealer lot.
The Shape of Things
Unlike the earlier EVs and hybrids, today’s crop of electric cars look fairly normal and offer a wide range of amenities and technology. Creature comforts weren’t an afterthought. Even here, however, there are choices to make and nuances to weigh.
We’ve established that range costs money. But for many car owners, there is more to evaluating a car than judging its performance. Many of us spend hours every week in our vehicle. Comfort and convenience are considerations when car shopping.
Chevrolet takes a more minimalist approach with the cabin in its Bolt. Product planners apparently decided EV owners like the idea of the styling of their vehicle to reflect its forward-looking mission. The exterior, while not looking like something the Jetsons would drive, is unique among Chevy cars. It looks like a little electric car. Inside, it is clean and a bit futuristic. In some sort of blind interior test, we don’t think anyone would be surprised to learn that Bolt’s interior belongs in an EV. We expect a bit more from a $37,000 car, but there’s that range/cost thing again.
Nissan took a different tack when redesigning the latest edition of the Leaf. Inside and out, it blends into the Nissan landscape. Whether glancing at it from the curb or from the front seat, it appears fairly normal. Offering an interior that would be right at home in any $30,000 car, it all but screams, "NORMAL." Other than the unique button-shaped shift selector, this looks like the cabin from the top grade of any higher-end small car.
The Honda Clarity is a good choice, too, offering a mature yet unique look and many of the Prius Prime’s best features with a more inviting cabin.
The Prius Prime, to some degree, splits the difference between the Bolt and the Leaf. Although its exterior is highly stylized, it looks like part of the Toyota family when sitting between a C-HR and a Camry. It, too, has an odd shift selector protruding out from the center stack. A bit gimmicky, the center stack and instrument panel styling is a little busy, leaning toward futuristic. But overall, it’s upscale, if not entirely Toyota-like.
Help Me Buy It
To encourage consumers to pony up the premium that PHEVs and EVs cost over similarly equipped gasoline-only vehicles, the government (federal and some states) offer tax credits and incentives. Calculating the actual tax credit amount is an involved formula, but the actual federal-tax savings is somewhere between $2,500 and $7,500. The catch is that these credits begin phasing out once a manufacturer has sold 200,000 qualifying vehicles.
For PHEV and EV buyers, however, these credits combined with similar tax breaks issued by several states can really add up. When cross-shopping EVs and PHEVs, you don’t really know what they cost until fully researching state and federal tax credits. EVs usually qualify for larger tax credits than PHEVs. For our baseline Prius Prime, those for model years 2017 and 2018 qualify for a $4,502 credit. Those from model years 2012-2015 qualify for the minimum $2,500 tax break.
Looking at the Bolt and the Leaf, 2017–2019 Bolts and 2011–2018 Leafs qualify for the maximum $7,500 federal credit.
Many states don’t offer breaks for plug-ins, but several do. Although there are some qualifications, Maryland offers an excise-tax credit of up to $3,000 for plug-ins. Massachusetts has what it calls the "Drive Green" program, offering discounts on plug-ins through a dealer incentive-like program. It varies from dealer to dealer, but can be as much as a $5,000 savings. Connecticut has reduced registration fees for plug-ins, while California and other states have several programs discounting home electricity costs for PHEV and EV households.
What it means to you: If you decide to make the commitment to plugging in, there is a lot to think about. Price, range, comfort and styling all influence the decision-making. There are also advantages and disadvantages to consider when choosing between a PHEV and an EV. Around town, commuters will be happy with a pure-EV, but those with a very long commute or who do frequent road trips will be better served by a plug-in hybrid.