EV advocates have waited decades for the technology to mature enough for the vehicle to have enough range, power and utility to meet the needs of most drivers—and for EVs to be sold at prices affordable for many buyers .
We’re at or near that point now, but the adoption of electric vehicles is being hampered by a lack of batteries that these cars need. So what is a possible interim solution that delivers as many efficient new vehicles as possible to as many customers as possible? Optimal utilization of the available battery cells through their use in plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), which have gas engines in addition to the battery-electric drive.
Plug-in hybrids were originally viewed as a bridging technology to provide consumers with the range they demand, but today’s battery electric vehicles achieve this largely without the cost and weight of an internal combustion powertrain.
Still, PHEVs can still play a transitional role, but for a different reason: they use fewer valuable battery cells than battery electric cars. Jeep’s parent company, Stellantis, says the Wrangler 4xe is the best-selling PHEV in the country, though they refuse to provide sales figures to back it up. That success comes despite an all-electric range of just 25 miles, according to the EPA, but that’s the same as the Toyota Prius Prime’s all-electric range.
Think of the Range Rover
But the new Land Rover Range Rover Sport plug-in hybrid leads the way for hybrids to optimize battery availability: it features a 38.2-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack made up of cylindrical cells, giving the Range Rover Sport a range of 51 miles lend power alone. That is about a third to half as many cells as a battery-powered device usually needs.
Meanwhile, EV battery packs typically range from 80kWh to 100kWh or more. For example, Rivian says its R1T all-electric pickup carries 7,777 individual cylindrical 2170 cells in its 135-kWh pack.
Alongside the Range Rover Sport, other leading PHEVs include the Polestar 1, which is also estimated to have an EV range of 51 miles, and the Toyota RAV4 Prime, which travels an impressive 42 miles.
PHEVs are also perfect for calming the nerves of drivers who want to drive off the grid but are afraid of breaking down, observes Philipp Kampshoff, Senior Partner, Head of Future Mobility Sector at McKinsey. “When we survey consumers, the biggest concern is still range anxiety and charging infrastructure, which are two sides of the same coin,” he says.
Longer range PHEVs like the Range Rover may be necessary to meet future regulations, he adds. “Governments could require a minimum of 50 miles. Not everyone is able to do that.”
A 141 hp (105 kW) electric motor powers the Range Rover Sport via the same powertrain as the Ingenium’s 3.0-litre inline 6-cylinder internal combustion engine. That means it uses the same ZF 8-speed automatic transmission and intelligent all-wheel-drive system whether it’s powered by gas, electric or both, so there’s no compromise on the driving experience and off-road capability. Together, the engines deliver 434 hp, accelerating the Range Rover Sport to 100 km/h in 5.5 seconds.
While the Range Rover Sport’s EPA rating is 51 miles in all-electric mode, it can go further, boasts chief engineer Peter Bingham in an interview at the Range Rover Sport’s media launch in Madrid, Spain. “People in the UK have managed to drive about 70 miles in the real world,” he says popular science. “The EPA accounts for extremes, temperature swings, etc., but yes, we have people who manage to exceed 50 miles. And we know from our customer journey data that the vast majority of customers will be able to easily do most of their daily journeys with electric vehicles.”
That, of course, is the goal here: provide enough battery capacity to cover most daily trips — which AAA says averaged 52.7 miles in 2021 — without wasting any of that resource on excess range while battery supplies are tight.
The cost of complexity
Unlike battery electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids naturally burn gas. However, the US Environmental Protection Agency says on its website FuelEconomy.gov that plug-in hybrids use about 30 to 60 percent less fuel than conventional vehicles. This means that by rationalizing the use of battery cells, automakers can put more efficient vehicles on the road in the near term while the many battery factories automakers have announced are being built.
Battery electric vehicles average $66,000, according to the Kelley Blue Book, compared to an average of $45,000 for regular non-luxury vehicles. Compared to ICE-only models, plug-in hybrids cost between $4,000 and $8,000 more, according to the EPA, putting the sticker price of PHEVs somewhere between traditional vehicles and pure electric vehicles. Federal EV tax credits can often make up the difference in purchase price, and lower fuel costs put PHEV drivers ahead.
Because while gasoline currently averages $3.65 a gallon, according to the US Energy Information Agency, the same agency says electricity costs 10.59 cents per kilowatt-hour. So, a vehicle charging at home at the average national rate can drive for electricity costs that are about $1 per gallon of gasoline, based on the distance the car travels on $1 electricity compared to can travel a gallon of gasoline.
Fast charging at public DC charging stations costs more and can be on par with petrol. So while it makes sense for battery-electric drivers, plug-in hybrid drivers are better off staying at home or work with the 240-volt AC current SAE Level 2 chargers, which charge a PHEV’s battery for between one and four hours, according to the EPA can charge. Using a simple 120 volt outlet takes twice as long.
Another benefit of buying a car that converts more of its driving time to electric power than traditional short-range hybrids or plug-ins is the fact that the US power grid is continually transitioning to greener fuel sources. Therefore, electric vehicles and cars that use electricity from the grid, such as PHEVs, can become more and more environmentally friendly in the future thanks to cleaner electric energy over their lifetime. Gasoline vehicles, of course, are never powered by anything else.
The University of California Davis Electric Vehicle Explorer website provides consumers with detailed information about the cost of driving an electric vehicle or hybrid vehicle specific to their location and model.
So why haven’t automakers rushed to build more PHEVs? Well, because they are not easy to construct. “Plug-in hybrids are very interesting because you can drive electrically in the city and use the combustion engine on the motorway,” says Mario Carendente, former technical manager at McLaren Automotive.
“The problem is the cost,” he says. “You have to consider whether you have a gas drive and an electric drive and how complex the technology is.”
In fact, Land Rover’s Bingham concedes that was the challenge for the Range Rover Sport PHEV. “The hybrid is the biggest challenge,” he says. “In a hybrid you essentially have two powerhouses right, so you balance fuel tank volume with battery capacity and exhaust paths. I would say this is probably one of the more challenging aspects of the overall platform design.”
However, plug-in hybrids offer a drivability benefit that could make the complexity worthwhile for drivers. That’s because the electric motor in a PHEV is much more powerful than that in a conventional hybrid, and makes a significant difference in the car’s response to the accelerator pedal.
Sure, battery EVs can be electric rocket ships, but PHEVs offer a more powerful, smoother highway driving experience than combustion-only vehicles thanks to the electric motor working in tandem with the combustion engine. That means more effortless acceleration and hill climbing and, as I’ve experienced in the Range Rover Sport, more accurate cruise control, as the electric motor can help maintain desired speed more precisely when climbing hills. In addition, the power regeneration prevents the car from getting faster on descents.
We can’t all afford a $105,000 Range Rover Sport PHEV, but mainstream models like the Toyota RAV4 Prime and Chrysler Pacifica PHEV offer electrified options that give more drivers the ability to run their daily commutes on electric power , rather than hoarding the limited supply of battery cells in electric vehicles that don’t use their full capacity very often.
After that, it will all be pure electric vehicles, says Kampsoff. “We would still say that plug-in hybrid is a bridging technology. If you fast forward to 2030 and beyond, EV is a clear winner.”