Plug-in Hybrids, Driven: Fuel-Saving Winners, Overpriced Losers

  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
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Remember the great promise of the plug-in hybrid? These cars seemed to be a shoo-in for buyers looking to save money and gasoline, but without taking a daunting leap into the electric unknown. On paper, the technology found a versatile middle ground between gasoline and electricity: Buyers could have the convenience and long-range security of a traditional car, with the frugal mileage and zero tailpipe emissions of a full EV.

Instead, plug-in hybrids have mostly fizzled. Teslas and other EVs get all the love. Scan the list of every cord-sprouting hybrid ever offered in America, and you won’t find a genuine sales hit, a gotta-have car. Now, some duds, like the Ford C-Max Energi or Cadillac CT6 hybrid, seemed so DOA that the world’s largest defibrillator couldn’t revive them.

But the list of disappointments also includes some very worthwhile cars. The latest Chevrolet Volt easily tops 50 miles on pure electricity alone; and then another 350-plus miles when it switches, oh-so-discreetly, to gas-electric hybrid mode. Chevrolet’s reward? That second-generation Volt’s sales have tumbled every year since its 2016 debut, to a piddling 18,000 units last year. Which led Chevrolet to, well, pull the plug on the Volt that it had launched with such high hopes.

Ford line workers assemble a plug-in hybrid. (Photo: Getty Images)

It’s not hard to surmise why plug-in hybrids have struggled. Giveaway gasoline prices have allowed many Americans to not give a damn about improved fuel economy. A second problem flows from the first: Most plug-in hybrids cost thousands of dollars more than comparable, gas-only models. If you already don’t miss the money you’re spending at the pump, why would you shoulder a noticeably higher monthly payment to further reduce those fuel bills? Logic says you might as well spend that extra money to drive a nicer car — or for today’s shoppers, a bigger, more-luxurious SUV or pickup.

A final problem is tangled up with the others: Many plug-in hybrids actually will offset their additional cost via fuel savings, even if that takes several years. But the day-to-day mileage gains often aren’t dramatic enough to impress people; especially people who aren’t big on doing the math, or plugging in daily to take full advantage of the cars’ electric-only commuting range.

The tepid consumer reception isn’t stopping automakers from rolling out a new army of plug-ins, with an eye to ever-stricter C02 and pollution rules around the world. This week, Audi fleshed out plans for a Q5 SUV, A7 sedan and A8 L flagship sedan, all with plug-in powertrains, all bound for America. As it happens, I’ve tested a number of plug-in models in recent weeks and months. Some, I’d defend to the death, including the Honda Clarity and Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid. Others, I’d send to their death, including the embarrassment known as the Volvo S60 T8. Clearly, there’s a right way, and a wrong way, to design a plug-in hybrid. If any automakers are listening, here’s a rundown:

Plug-In Hybrids, Done Right

Honda Clarity

(Photo: Honda)

$34,330 / EV-only range: 37 miles / 110 mpge / 42 mpg EPA city/hwy combined

Close your eyes to the fact that the Clarity found just 6,700 buyers last year. Close your eyes to the Honda’s aerodynamic-yet-frumpy styling. Now, open those eyes to a spectacularly efficient sedan. Honda’s plugger can travel 47 miles on electrons alone, nearly matching the dearly departed Volt, and almost double the EV range of the smaller Prius Prime. In contrast to so many underachieving cars, the Clarity easily exceeded its 42-mpg EPA combined rating, delivering 46-to-50 mpg once its all-electric miles were depleted. The robust combo of a 1.5-liter four-cylinder, dual electric motors and a 17 kilowatt-hour battery pack generates 212 horsepower, for a reasonable 7.5-second surge to 60 mph. The Clarity is as spacious as an Accord, and a real smoothie on the road, including near-silent operation when its gas engine decouples for full electric propulsion. Safety is top-notch. This is Honda engineering at its best.

BMW 530e i Performance

(Photo: BMW)

$54,895 / EV-only range: 16 miles / 74 mpge / 29 mpg EPA city/hwy combined

Plug-in technology usually doesn’t come cheap. But what if an automaker gave it to you for free, along with the gasoline and electricity to run it? A sweet deal, right? BMW’s 530e doesn’t cost a penny more than the conventional, 530i version with its 248-hp turbo four. Yet it’s just as luxurious and quick — including a brisk 5.8-second dash from 0-60 mph — and showed me an impressive 36 mpg on the highway, even at a 70-mph cruise. Throw in a nearly $4,700 federal tax credit, and forget about calculating the usual “payback period” of a pricey hybrid: Since the 530e and 530i cost the same, you’re now playing with $4,700 in house money, enough to pay for about 3.5-years worth of gasoline and home electricity. The Bimmer’s one bummer is a scanty 16 miles of all-electric range. But if you plug in every night and commute, say, 35 miles round-trip, you’ll still see the equivalent of 50 mpg, outstanding efficiency for this roomy, sporty luxury sedan.

Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid

(Photo: FCA North America)

$41,740 / EV-only range: 32 miles / 84 mpge / 32 mpg EPA city/hwy combined

Surprisingly, the Pacifica is the only hybrid minivan ever sold in America. And it’s a dandy, with 32 miles of all-electric range, family-friendly luxury and tech — including optional, fully automated parking and a rear theater system — and no compromises in seven-passenger minivan practicality. Once those generous electric miles are spent, the Pacifica’s 32 mpg is a nearly 50-percent jump over the conventional model’s 22 mpg.  A 3.6-liter V-6 links to an ingenious twin-electric motor design, with a Michigan-made, 16 kilowatt-hour battery pack that packages below the floor, where Chrysler’s Stow ‘n Go seats fold away in the non-hybrid version. Right now, between an available $7,500 federal tax credit and a $2,500 factory cash incentive, the Pacifica can save families a mammoth $10,000 off its retail price — enough to buy a whole lot of kiddie toys.

Plug-in Hybrids, Done Wrong

Volvo S60 T8 Twin Engine

(Photo: Volvo)

$55,395  / EV-only range: 21 miles / 72 mpge / 31 mpg EPA city/hwy combined

The conventional S60 sedan is a winner: Safe, comfy and Scandinavian, including interiors that recall a mod Stockholm cafe. But avoid the hybrid version at all costs — literally, since the T8 costs $14,000 more than the most-affordable, gas-only S60 with AWD. The S60 T8 is inarguably powerful, with a combined peak of up to 415 horsepower and a 4.4-second sprint to 60 mph. Yet the Volvo often gets caught flat-footed in traffic, as its dithering systems figure out where to send power: Front wheels are driven exclusively by gasoline, the rears by electricity. The Volvo’s by-wire regenerative brakes are noisy and maddening, seemingly incapable of effecting a smooth stop in traffic. Fuel economy is the definition of hybrid bait-and-switch: I had to work to top 30 mpg on the highway, and ended up at a piddling 25 mpg overall. That’s 6 mpg below the Volvo’s official rating, and no better than non-hybrid S60 examples.

Subaru CrossTrek Hybrid

(Photo: Subaru)

$35,970/ EV-only range: 17 miles / 90 mpge / 35 mpg EPA city/hwy combined

Subaru’s first plug-in hybrid has some charming points, including a trusty AWD system and off-road capability that are rare among affordable hybrids. But you’ll pay dearly for the privilege. The $35,970 price is a $7,800 leap above the standard, top-shelf CrossTrek Limited, though a $4,700 tax credit helps soften the blow. If only something could soften the obtrusive moan and whine of the Subie’s electrified powertrain, including a two-motor, power-split transmission. The 8.8 kilowatt-hour battery pack also robs 25 percent of cargo space from the standard version. The 17-mile EV range is “meh”. And while the EPA credits the Subaru with 35 mpg in hybrid operation, I saw a disappointing 31 mpg.

Karma Revero

(Photo: Karma)

$135,000 / EV-only range: 37 miles / 60 mpge / 20 mpg EPA city/hwy combined

Not to kick a company when they’re down, but the Revero has to be the most ill-conceived electrified car in America. Formed from the ashes of the bankrupt Fisker, the Revero is no Phoenix:  This archaic sedan is low-tech, clunky-handling and poorly packaged. Once its EV range is depleted, the Karma slurps fuel at 20 mpg, while passengers enjoy the headachy soundtrack of a GM four-cylinder engine. It’s the only plug-in in America that consumes more gasoline than the average, conventional new car. That’s a joke, right? But the real punch line is a $135,000 base price, nearly double that of the lowest-price Tesla Model S.


About the Author

  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
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