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Plug-In Hybrids Bridging the Gap to Electric Vehicles

By Ross Kenneth Urken    04/20/16

The plug-in hybrid is to hybrid and electric cars what downloads were to CDs and streaming — an awkward transition.

As we mentioned in relation to the new Toyota Prius, the novelty of the hybrid is already on the wane. Low gas prices that are just now creeping over the $2 mark have brought U.S. drivers back to their old, nefarious partner in crime — the SUV.

Those who haven’t gone running back to the gas guzzlers are openly embracing electric. Tesla has long targeted Toyota Prius drivers and will finally get into its price range when the $35,000 Model 3 makes its debut in late 2017. With $7,500 in federal electric vehicle incentives, the Model 3’s price is closer to $27,500 and less than half the cost of Tesla’s Model S at upwards of $70,000. Drivers began reserving them on March 31, but won’t be able to actually drive them until production begins next year.

General Motors, meanwhile, is racing to get to the low-cost, long-range electric vehicle first. Its all-electric Bolt is slated for 2017 and would offer 200 miles of electric range for $30,000, after incentives. That’s actually 65 miles less than the Tesla Model S, but it’s also considerably less expensive. It’s also more than double the range of the current fleet of non-Tesla electric vehicles, which is led by Toyota’s Rav 4 EV crossover and its nearly $50,000 price tag.

However, if the hybrid was a stopgap technology between strictly fossil-fuel vehicles and electrics, then the plug-in hybrid is the stopgap for the stopgap. Considering that the revived Mitsubishi Mirage gets 44 miles per gallon on the highway and combined 40.5 miles per gallon from a combustion engine alone, both hybrids and plug-in hybrids now exist solely to bring down auto industry mileage numbers.

The Environmental Protection Agency says vehicle fuel efficiency standards have to reach a combined 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 for entire corporate fleets. However, the average fuel economy (window-sticker value) of new vehicles sold in 2015 was 25.3 mpg, according to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. That’s still less than halfway to the EPA and Department of Transportation’s goal that they set back in 2012, though it beats the roughly 19 miles per gallon that the Department of Transportation measured for the same pool of vehicles in 1995. It’s also closing in on double the average mileage of the light-duty vehicles on U.S. roads in 1980.

As it stands, there are more than 35 new vehicles in the U.S. achieving more than 40 miles per gallon in combined mileage. However, plug-in hybrid vehicles making up just three of them, according to the EPA. There are actually two new ones in the mix for 2016, but it’s a net gain of only one after Honda dropped its plug-in Accord hybrid.


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