I’m the first in my close friends-and-family network to purchase a full battery-electric vehicle. Several friends have plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles though. Before we pulled the trigger on our new car, a few of these expressed reservations about our going full electric.
They had a point. We’re happy with our decision and believe that the answer to the title question as written is “no,” but it’s true that a full electric vehicle is not the best choice for everyone. Not yet, at least.
What is a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) vs. battery-electric vehicle (BEV)?
Before we get into the question of whether we should have bought a PHEV instead of a BEV, let’s define our terms.
What is a PHEV?
A plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle (PHEV) has an internal combustion engine (ICE) and an electric motor.
As in traditional ICE vehicles, an onboard fuel tank supplies gasoline to the ICE. You can fill the fuel tank at any old gas station.
Every PHEV also has a rechargeable battery that powers the electric motor. You can charge the battery through the vehicle’s plug port. PHEVs also use regenerative braking technology to recharge the battery during normal driving.
PHEVs run on electric power whenever possible, but “possible” does a lot of work here.
In some PHEVs, the ICE is a true backup that kicks in only when the battery is nearly out of juice. Once engaged, the ICE powers the drivetrain and may recharge the battery as well.
In other PHEVs, the ICE kicks in more frequently. Depending on the vehicle, battery charge, weather conditions, and possibly other factors, the ICE may run on its own or in tandem with the electric motor.
A PHEV’s combustion engine is more likely to engage:
- When battery charge is low
- At highway speeds
- During aggressive driving maneuvers (i.e., you hit the gas hard)
- In cold weather
- When the vehicle’s heat or air conditioning is running
Depending on the vehicle and ambient conditions, a PHEV might run in electric-only mode for anywhere from a few miles to a few dozen miles. In extremely cold weather, the ICE may run for a while after the vehicle starts, even if the battery has plenty of charge.
Check out the Department of Energy’s handy diagram and glossary showing how PHEVs work (also above).
This Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV forum thread is a good read if you’re interested in how ICEs and electric motors play in different PHEV vehicles. It features input from owners of at least three PHEV makes/models: Chevy Volt (sedan), Mitsubishi Outlander (compact SUV), and Chrysler Pacifica (minivan).
What is a BEV?
A battery-electric vehicle (BEV) runs entirely on electric power. It has a comparatively large battery pack and no fuel tank or ICE. You recharge the battery pack through the plug port.
Because they have only one propulsion system, BEVs have fewer moving parts than PHEVs or traditional hybrids. They have fewer moving parts than gas-only vehicles too. That makes them about 40% cheaper to maintain than gas-only cars, according to Drive Electric Tennessee (crunching Argonne National Laboratory data).
However, BEVs generally don’t travel as far on a full charge than ICE cars (including most PHEVs) do on a full tank of gas. And because public charging infrastructure remains less reliable than liquid fueling infrastructure, especially for non-Tesla BEVs (for now), BEV drivers justifiably worry about getting from Point A to Point B.
That’s range anxiety in a nutshell. It’s the most common holdup for drivers thinking about buying a full EV.
PHEVs and range anxiety: when it makes sense to compromise
I’m on the record saying that a BEV — specifically a leased BEV for cost-of-ownership reasons I’d like to explore more fully in another post — is a no-brainer in a two-car household with room for an off-street charger.
But many households have only one car and do not have room for an off-street charger. What then?
A BEV could still make sense, though the case for a PHEV certainly gets stronger.
If you’re an electric-curious driver in the market for a new car, here’s how to think through the plug-in hybrid vs. full electric question based on your circumstances.
When a PHEV could make more sense
Broadly speaking, PHEVs still (circa late 2023) make more sense when one or more of these circumstances applies:
- You don’t want a Tesla. Love ’em or hate ’em, Tesla has much better fast charging infrastructure than any other electric make. This is because Tesla uses a different charging standard (the North American Charging Standard) and has spent years (and billions of dollars) building out its proprietary Supercharger fast charging network. Tesla has opened up some Superchargers, and many of its competitors will adopt NACS in cars built from 2025 onward, but that doesn’t help non-Tesla buyers today.
- You live in an area without reliable fast charging infrastructure. Non-Tesla fast charging infrastructure remains spotty at best. Networks like Electrify America operate hundreds of fast chargers across the Interstate highway system, but coverage elsewhere — including in many big metro areas — is surprisingly thin. This isn’t a problem if you can charge overnight at home or don’t drive very much, but it’s a big deal if you drive a lot off the Interstate.
- You live in a multi-unit building without dedicated charging. This is a big hurdle for millions of apartment- and condo-dwellers who’d otherwise be inclined to buy a full EV. Over time, multifamily developers and owners should feel market pressure to install ample Level 2 charging capacity, but right now it’s a significant expense that many feel isn’t justified.
- You regularly drive 200+ miles per day in your personal EV. Maybe you’re an extreme commuter without Level 2 charging at your workplace, or your job requires multiple daily site visits across a far-flung area, or your kids have absolutely wild extracurricular calendars. Rest assured, you’re a member of a small minority of super-drivers, but that’s cold comfort for your EV ambitions.
- You routinely travel to or through places without reliable fast charging infrastructure or overnight Level 2 charging. If you often travel routes with sparse fast charging infrastructure — say, rural trunk highways — your stranding risk is unacceptably high with a full EV.
Bear in mind that these issues are artifacts of the present transition from a mostly ICE personal vehicle fleet to a mostly electric vehicle fleet. As long as the transition remains on track, all will work themselves out eventually — some sooner than later.
When a BEV is (likely) your best bet
Increasingly, BEVs are best for the median American driver, even if they don’t know it yet. These scenarios aren’t mutually exclusive, by the way. You don’t have to be cool with a Tesla for a BEV to make the most sense; it just helps.
- You’re cool with a Tesla. This is important for drivers who expect to need to use Level 3 charging infrastructure on the road. If you plan to do most of your charging at home, it’s not as big a deal.
- You live in a single-family home with off-street parking. Even many high-mileage EV owners do most of their charging at home. For the next few years, at least, it’ll be important to have access to overnight charging at or near where you sleep.
- You live in a rental or condo with dedicated charging (or you can get the building owner to install it). In places with relatively high rates of BEV adoption, it’s now possible to limit an apartment or condo search to communities with onsite Level 2 charging infrastructure without compromising on location, finishes, or shared amenities. And if you’re otherwise happy in a charger-less community, it doesn’t hurt to ask the property manager to do you a solid.
- You don’t drive hundreds of miles per day. Again, most folks don’t.
- You mostly travel in areas with reliable fast charging infrastructure or you have a backup ICE/hybrid/PHEV for road trips. If you live in a two-car household and none of the deal-breakers we’ve discussed apply, it’s hard to conceive of a scenario where it doesn’t make sense to add a BEV as your second (or primary) vehicle.
This list isn’t all-encompassing. For example, there’s no “You’re okay with waiting 30 minutes for a fast charge” bullet here because I don’t personally think that’s a deal-breaker for a lot of folks. On a longer trip, it’s nice to stop and smell the roses (and eat, use the bathroom, walk around) every 250 miles or so.
Anyway, next-generation EVs will likely have longer ranges. Which gets at an important disconnect in anti/pro-EV discourse today: many “anti” arguments rest on a risky-at-best presumption of technological stasis.
We’re satisfied with our full-EV purchase but recognize that it’s not the right choice for everyone right at this moment.
If you live in a multifamily building without off-street overnight charging or you regularly travel long distances in areas without reliable fast charging infrastructure, a PHEV could make more sense today.
Will that be the case in five years? Hopefully not. Many folks a lot smarter and more knowledgeable than me believe full-electric is the future of personal transportation. I’m not in a position to disagree.
More on the PHEV vs. BEV question
- Forbes Wheels: PHEV Vs. All-Electric: Which Plug-In Is Better For You? (Ron Cogan)
- Reddit: Are Plug-in Hybrids Better Than EVs? (multiple users)
- Motor Trend: Should You Buy an Electric Car or a Plug-in Hybrid? (Doug Demuro)
- Consumer Reports: How to Decide If a Hybrid, Plug-In Hybrid, or Fully Electric Car Is Right for You (Mike Monticello)